Intro from Jay Allison: As Americans we like to believe we are good. Others do not share that belief. Is this a problem of communication? We are in a time of failed communication across borders, a time when stories and news and propaganda are mingled, and therefore dangerous. Can we trust how others appear to us? Can we know how we appear to others?
This month on Transom, we welcome those who once were our enemies, or so we thought, in another time when stories were lost in propaganda, theirs and ours. Julia Barton and Alexander Kleimenov tell us of communicating by radio in the former Soviet Union, and the possible kinship between radio there and here. We are also inviting Russian radio workers to join us in conversation on the Internet. As Julia writes, "There are other kinds of isolation than just geographical, and the kind the United States is suffering now may be the worst. Discussion with and knowledge of our colleagues abroad is one small way to counter that."
From Julia Barton
I tried to download a map of the former Soviet Union to show you the locations of the 15 radio stations I visited during five months on a Knight International Press Fellowship last summer and fall. But there’s a problem with such maps: they’re too big. You can’t print them out on one page and can’t fit them on a computer screen without making the place-names too small to read.
So I’ll have to draw you this picture instead. At the end of October, we were standing on the shore of the Baltic Sea near Kaliningrad, a detached piece of Russia that will soon be imbedded in the expanded European Union. A week later we were looking at the Sea of Japan, 6,500 miles away. We had just flown from the longitude of Stockholm across that of Central Europe and Turkey (with a stopover in Moscow), then across the length of the Middle East, the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the angry border of India and Pakistan, not to mention all of the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, China, and divided Korea. Yet we were still in the same country. Imagine nine time-zones worth of jet lag, but still waking up to the same language and the same ads on network TV. Even the “Chinese” restaurants, despite our new proximity to their namesake, served the same scary lumps of unidentifiable matter braised in diesel oil.
The radio station director in Vladivostok (Russia’s Pacific port) was pretty blasé about our epic journey. “We were just in Kaliningrad looking at the Baltic!” we exclaimed. “Oh yeah, how is it?” he asked. He’d grown up there.
We visited radio stations that seemed surprisingly connected to the world, despite being in places that most of the world would think of as nowhere. We also visited stations whose reporters seemed frozen in a modern-day gulag with a mini-disc recorder. We worked with a lot of kids who’d been thrown on the air barely a clue as to what to do, but we also met respected announcers whose listeners brought them flowers and thanked them for years of good advice.
One thing is for sure: commercial radio in Russia is a lot more varied and interesting than in the United States. Sometimes we heard things that were discouraging, especially ads disguised (and not very well) as news stories, and silly DJ prattle that made us want to throw the radio out the window – except we were usually in the radio station at the time. Still, I have to give the stations credit. At least they HAVE news, and at least they HAVE DJs that are in the same town as the station, not pre-recorded into some computer in Florida. In fact, Russia’s under-staffed, inexperienced, overworked radio newsrooms reminded me of nothing so much as… your average local public radio station.
The connections between public radio and Russian commercial radio are stronger than just happenstance. The stations invited me through the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting (known by the Russian acronym FNR), a Moscow-based non-profit that tries to keep some semblance of ethical reporting and social programming alive in that country. FNR works mostly with commercial stations in the regions, which in Russia means everywhere not Moscow. A couple of years ago, FNR’s director and editor-in-chief visited the Third Coast Audio Festival in Chicago. That inspired them to organize a series of regional audio festivals around Russia. They got funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute with the help of none other than Bill Siemering.
I got to go to the first of these audio festivals in Khabarovsk, near the border with China (hence the rush from Kaliningrad to the opposite Russian shore). You could tell that the staffers of these isolated, Far Eastern towns were excited to have the chance to talk about their work and meet their colleagues. Although during Soviet times people moved around a lot – sometimes against their wills – it seems today that Russians in the regions are becoming more and more cut off, not only from the world, but from the rest of their vast country. It costs money to travel, and almost no one has that anymore.
As far as radio goes, more has been lost in the upheavals of the last 11 years. When we’d start talking about a technique like natural sound, which is almost never used on commercial radio in Russia, sometimes an old-timer would pipe up: “That’s how we used to do things in Soviet times.” Soviet radio, I got the sense, paid a lot more attention to the craft of audio, even if the content was in service of the state. Radio workers had training and standards they had to meet. Except for the efforts of training outfits like FNR, much of that knowledge has been lost to commercial radio today. But then again, there was no commercial radio in Communist times, so the transition was bound to be abrupt.
But almost everyone I met was eager to learn these new-again broadcasting tricks. No one likes to go on the air without a clue, and we witnessed many great discussions and revelations during our seminars. I have to give a lot of credit to the person who traveled with me, Alex Kleimenov. He acted as my interpreter, because my Russian is fine for ordering a beer but not for explaining how to write into an actuality. As a stringer for NPR and other public radio programs in Ukraine, Alex is also a great teacher of radio himself. And he had a credibility that I couldn’t have. Alex survived the Red Pioneer and Komsomol Youth camps, he knows all the references to old Soviet movies that I’ve never seen – he is, in short, one of “ours,” a word that has resonance in the former Soviet Union in a way that it never could in the United States. I think no one should try to teach in that part of the world without someone like Alex.
So here he is. And after his thoughts, I hope we can have a discussion that includes some of the people we met in Russia. Alex has offered to translate for them.
There are other kinds of isolation than just geographical, and the kind the United States is suffering now may be the worst. Discussion with and knowledge of our colleagues abroad is one small way to counter that.
From Alexander Kleimenov
When right before New Year’s Eve in 1991 I watched on TV the Soviet flag come down over the Kremlin, I couldn’t possibly foresee all the changes about to come for the countries that I was used to seeing as one. But I felt for sure that my childhood dream of traveling to Vladivostok, a city some 5,000 miles away from Kiev where I live, would now probably never come true. But last fall, Vladivostok happened to be on Julia Barton’s workshop itinerary, so when she suggested I could join in, I knew this was my only chance for a Great Russian adventure, radio-style.
“And now it’s time for our regular program,” a DJ says in a rush, “which is called We and the Music where we let you know about the latest music trends and the coolest music bands and the music we all like to hear so much, especially on our station, because that’s the way our radio station is, and it’s not in vain that we are even called that way ‘AllMusicStation’ because we tell you important information about music and we play that music for you and you like us for that, don’t you?” This is a very typical excerpt from DJ banter on a Russian FM station. Although FM-radio has entered its 2nd decade in Russia, apart from Moscow – which is a world where rating science rules – many radio stations are still trying to figure out what they are on the air for. This puts their on-air talent face-to-face with a real problem: what to say and how?
Right away, I want to do justice to all people who work on Russian airwaves: they’re in for a tough job in a country whose freedom of speech status Reporters without Borders rated 121st in the world just a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t mean that a censor is assigned to every newsroom, but certain topics become taboo, especially at stations that feel financial insecurity. Once, when we suggested covering a story about draft-dodgers, the side opposing the authorities on this issue, a news director told us the authorities were listening and could make troubles for the station for such a report. We couldn’t tell if such fear was substantiated, but a station called Radio Lemma we visited in Vladivostok did come under armed siege a few years ago when local authorities decided the station was getting in their way. We could hardly improve the freedom of speech situation during our 4-day training sessions, but we thought we could give the on-air talent some ideas on how to make their shows relevant for the listeners.
Most of the stations we visited were music stations with news – not a typical setup for Russian FM stations, most of which take news from their network, read them from the Internet or, as the ultimate money- and headache-saver, do no news at all. Managers of the stations that invited us had decided that local news would give them a leading edge over competitors. The problem we sensed was this: how to draw a line between music and news? One news director told us he wanted his listeners to think a newscast was just another musical number that was supposed to keep them listening. At many stations, newscasts do sound like that: read over a techno beat in a tempo that slams all the sentences into one, they might produce an effect of something happening… but remembering the news you just heard – forget about it! When we asked why a music bed was necessary, the answer we heard most often was, “That’s our format.”
Ten years ago, there was no format on Russian airwaves. Nowadays, station managers freely juggle with abbreviations like AC or CHR. One morning, we even heard the news of Russian Gay Radio being launched on the Internet. Later that evening we checked it out, still in our “effective radio communication” mode. As most of the Russian Internet users, we could only get a dial-up connection preceded by many busy signals. On the gay radio’s site we saw a news update saying the gay radio’s e-mail accounts were locked, allegedly by government-connected forces, and the web site that came up after many delays could be shut down anytime. But when a jammed RealAudio connection kicked in, all we got to hear was the same repertoire that blasts from any taxi or a pirate CD kiosk in Russia: Phil Collins and Celine Dion. If they were the reason behind repressions against gay radio, the Russian government must have too refined of a taste, we thought.
A format for many Russian stations is more of an excuse for what the station does on the air than a research-based tool for the station’s correct positioning on the market. One station we visited claimed to be the #1 in its city and bragged about having no format at all: its DJ’s just played any music they liked and on Saturday nights, they reenacted on the air “a sex act.”
Commercial stations, especially the non-network ones, have few resources to research their audience and thus often make decisions by licking their thumb and sticking it in the air.
“Why do you air your longest newscast at 8 in the evening?” we asked journalists at one station.
“Because we decided so,” the journalists said. (Russian TV-channels have their main newscasts in the evening, stripping radio stations of their news-craving audience.)
“Why do you air a weather forecast only once an hour in the morning?” we asked at another station.
“How many times do you think we should do it?” we were asked back.
Managers do their best to make their stations stand out in cities where the FM dial is getting packed. They come up with special events and games, and encourage DJs and journalists to pitch all sorts of ideas to attract more listeners. One game we were told about suggested city bus drivers rush to an announced intersection on their route where a beer crate was waiting for the first driver to make it. Most games we heard aired in the morning and encouraged people to call in and engage in lengthy conversations with a DJ.
We suggested the on-air talent to listen to their own work from a standpoint of their listeners. Some of them were very surprised to find out their shows became more interesting when they lost some of the sound-effects glitter and gained on usefulness of the content. One DJ happily discovered his show about musicians grabbed more attention when he used music from the actual musician instead of some generic beat. For some reason, radio people in the former Soviet Union have a special admiration for the artificial. Long, incomprehensible sentences and abundant sound effects on the air must be an equivalent of high heels we saw Russian women wear at negative Fahrenheit temperatures.
These temperatures, on the other hand, must be a legitimate reason why journalists rarely venture outside their newsrooms, often located far away from city centers where you’d need to commute for an hour in a crowded bus.
We saw stations with superb equipment and stations that couldn’t do any live programming (even their newscasts were pre-recorded) because they didn’t have mixing boards. We met journalists who were quietly happy with their routine and journalists who openly argued with their bosses and dreamt about moving to Moscow with hopes of self-realization. We encouraged them all to stay in touch, and some of them keep sending us their stories and ask advice. We hope they will get more chances to broaden their professional horizons and will have more exposure to radio work from outside Russia. That’s what we tried to do at least in some small way.
“I learned more in four days with you than in a year at my journalism school,” one journalist told us in Vladivostok. It’s worth making a childhood dream of crossing Russia coast to coast come true to hear something like that, I thought.
Russian Radio Clips
Baltic Plus: Our Style
This is an excerpt from Julia and Alex’s appearance on the Kaliningrad weekly radio show “Our Style,” which airs on the station we visited there, Baltic Plus. In this bit, host Tatiana Ponomarenko asks Julia to confirm or deny certain Russian stereotypes about American women: one, that they don’t wear make-up, and two, that they don’t “torture themselves” with diets. Other topics covered: what kind of shoes we wear, who cooks breakfast, and how we juggle children and careers.
This is part of a newscast from Avtoradio in Novosibirsk. The Avtoradio format is aimed at car drivers–not as common a class of person as in the United States. Each newscast item is preceded by a male voice who swoops in to say what the story will be about, as in, “About money!” “About people!” and Julia’s personal favorite, “About that!” which is a euphemism for “about sex.” These buttons come pre-recorded from the Avtoradio network in Moscow, and the Novosibirsk engineers keep them in alphabetized sound files for sprinkling in during the hourly newscasts. Kind of a headache, but Avtoradio staff think they add excitement.
Alex on The World‘s Geo Quiz
As for weird stories to emerge from Ukraine of late, Alex laid one to rest on The World’s Geo-Quiz segment a couple of years ago. But he did bring up another mystery, a mayonnaise-drenched salad that people there love to eat.
Creative Radio from Russia
This is the first half of a 12-minute documentary called “Our People” produced by Elena Uporova of the Foundation for Independent Radio. The series is about national minorities in Russia, focusing on native tribes in the Far East. The first 25 seconds is a series intro, then we hear an old Nanai tribesman sing and explain (in Russian) a song he made up about the Amur River. Then Elena introduces him, and he remembers his Russian teachers. Although his grandson doesn’t speak Nanai, he’s philosophical about it. Elena then talks about how Russian names for the tribal peoples and their own names for themselves differ. The tribal names come up as “errors” on the Russian Microsoft spell-check program. In the last part, she goes out on the street with a list of the tribal names to see if any Russians know what they mean. In a great montage, they make wild guesses–maybe they’re words from English, or Japanese, or some kind of anagrams–before someone dismissively guesses that perhaps they’re names of small nationalities.
Learning by Imitation
One of our students, Stas Berm at AvtoRadio Novosibirsk, got so inspired by hearing “Our People” that he immediately applied Elena Uporova’s keyboard sound effects to a little story of his own, about looking up the Guinness Book of World Records online to find Russian world records.