BBG Watch Commentary

A New Plan for New Radio Liberty

by Lev Roitman, RFE/RL Senior Commentator (1974-2004)

We don’t know where we go to but will come there first.

True to that German saying, Masha Gessen, recently appointed as the Russian Service Director of  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, known in Russia as Radio Svoboda, has brought to the RFE/RL office in Moscow her own team of magazine writers who still have to be couched in all things news, radio and multimedia in order to produce at some future date an unprecedented program in accordance with a new plan developed by Gessen herself.

Unfortunately, Gessen’s conceptual triad – to connect different social strata by information, bring depth to discussions, and overcome “Russian provincial isolationism” – is not a professional road map but empty jabber.

However, that pompous nonsense has deeply impressed Julia Ragona who presently, as RFE/RL vice president, is defining the “content” of that institution with its glorious traditions. What a pity that a Google search cannot produce any evidence that Ms. Ragona herself published a single line as a journalist. 

Equally if not more fascinated by Gessen’s plan was RFE/RL president Steven Korn. He doesn’t understand Russian (as well as any other of RFE/RL’s 28 broadcasting languages) and could not listen himself to Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) programs  or read the Internet-site of the Russian Service. But he was able to acquaint himself in English with Gessen’s concept  and started to fulfill it by firing, without any personal conversations, dozens of Moscow journalists whom, according to his own words, he never got to know. Gessen’s friends from her previous magazine staff just had to be better than these resistant to change Radio Liberty staffers, as Mr. Korn called them without knowing them, because she herself is wonderful, never mind that her friends didn’t do radio or video.

Masha Gessen’s broadcasting ideas envisage the “normality” of content. Normal as opposed to radical. President Putin also wants normality. Precisely this requirement is actively introduced already, for, in this instance, one does not need to create anything. Thus, to a brilliant Russian journalist Andrey Piontkovsky, the mike of Gessen’s Radio Svoboda became off-limits. Piontkovsky is considered by Masha as too “radical.” But to whom and to what Radio Liberty’s mike and its website will remain open is an open question.

For a while –  perhaps to some of the popular broadcasts prepared in Prague by pre-Gessen recipes. But in Prague too, staff terminations are pending: “more than five, less than twenty,” as it was revealed by Steven Korn at the BBG meeting in Washington on October 11. 

Journalists in Prague are still employed but feel themselves as expendable mercenaries. Who will be fired? Who among them, seasoned professionals with international experience, Masha Gessen will retain to lead the Russian society out of its isolationism? 

Alas, the purely textual Russian Internet-portal,, which publishes translations from foreign media, is not  particularly suffering from the Russian isolationism aggrieving Gessen, Korn and Ragona. It attracts a tremendous audience. Is not Masha Gessen taking somebody ignorant for a ride?

As for depth of discussions and analysis, all the best known and respected Radio Liberty reporters and commentators were fired, none of them stuck in the 1980s, as Mr. Korn described them without knowing them — many were still children in the 1980s —  but certainly very experienced, well known and respected. As for the young and new Radio Liberty audience, young but experienced multimedia reporters who served that audience, resigned in protest. Respected independent journalists will not join Gessen’s team and prominent democratic politicians and human rights leaders made their highly critical views known.

Who will then lead the detailed and profound conversation aimed to connect different social strata – between the virtually unknown but wise Masha Gessen of Moscow and the upsettingly provincial Sveta of Ivanovo? Sveta will listen to Masha Gessen on her cell phone? Really? Sveta could have done this already using her cell phone and had far more experienced radio personalities to choose from.

And also the news will come from the same expensive phones. The Radio Liberty news was there already, as was live video streaming, so Mr. Korn’s talk of a digital transformation is pure nonsense, a ploy to bring Masha Gessen on board and to get rid of investigative journalists and controversial — to them and the Kremlin — analysts and commentators. Gessen is not planning to give up entirely on the news — as she contended at the recent round-table discussion in Moscow. But why should her intended audience will pay for outdated, non-exclusive news without analysis, which is the current state of Radio Liberty’s website.

In fact, even before Masha Gessen took the helm of Russian Service, Radio Svoboda was not a news-breaking radio or website in the post-Soviet Russia. It offered instead in-depth reporting of news, analysis and comments, both for radio and online, using a multimedia approach and social media platforms as well. But Masha Gessen speaks of some other news, new news. 

Mr. Korn and Ms. Ragona are inspired. Being a journalist with thirty years of radio experience in New York, Munich, and Prague, I am amused. It reminds me of a joke about a new idea for a Russian newspaper in Israel. It would differ from the old one in one respect, Russian would be written from right to left. The joke did not inform if the print run went up.

To be sure, by the time Masha’s plan attracts the highly sought after young audience to Radio Liberty, present Russian youth will age dramatically. And to note again: the audience, be it for radio or  Internet, is attracted by meaningful and timely content only – in text, spoken word, sound and image/video. All that was in place at Radio Liberty several years before Masha Gessen came on board. After a month of her laboring, it still partially remains but in a much diminished state in terms of journalistic quality, original content, depth, analysis and updates. And of course, this content in whatever form will be there after she’s gone unless more experienced journalists are fired and replaced by amateurs.

Concerning the “appalling provincialism” which Masha undertakes to fight in Russians during her tenure at Radio Svoboda, in all fairness, that notion is applicable not to Russians but to the Americans managing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague and the staff of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington. 

It is they who are blind and deaf to international events caused by their deeds and misdeeds. Blind to the fact that American-funded public international broadcasting, an important tool of U.S. public diplomacy, is now viewed in many countries with shame. 

These executives are deaf to the lawsuits brought against RFE/RL in the Czech Republic and in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg charging discrimination against foreign-born journalists. They are blind to the fact, that already three times the Czech Parliament considered inquiries from indignant deputies about second-class status of RFE/RL foreign employees. On October 8, the Czech Helsinki Committee appealed to U.S. Helsinki Commission to look into human rights violations by RFE/RL in the Czech Republic where the American-funded broadcaster is based. Washington is still blind to numerous reports by multilingual media on the ongoing scandals triggered by RFE/RL management’s actions – in English, Russian, Czech, Croat, Armenian, etc.


Can the Moscow uproar become a wake up call?


The Czech Helsinki Committee headed by Anna Sabatova, a UN Human Rights Prize laureate, warns that a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva is to be expected. They don’t hear. They are too busy fighting for human rights, but not for the rights of their own journalists or their audience in Russia. American taxpayer foots the bill. 

But they did hear in passing from Korn about the astoundingly absurd Gessen plan and gave him their blessing without thinking about it too much. If Korn did not understand the implications of Gessen’s plan, he obviously could not explain them to the BBG. Long time ago at school, as a very young man, I read the Soviet poet Mayakovski. “I love the grandeur of our plans,” he wrote. Three years later he shot himself. But Stalin loved his poems.