Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Management Turns Radio Listeners and Visitors To Its Website in Russia Into Anti-Americans

by former Radio Liberty Russian Service director Mario Corti

I worked for RFE-RL for several years in different capacities and positions. As a manager, one of my responsibilities was to participate in the selection and firing of employees. A very difficult task, the risk being hiring or firing the wrong people. And I certainly made mistakes, some of which I am aware of and regret them. When I was in charge of the Samizdat Unit, which analyzed the underground press in the Soviet Union, I tried to fire one of the members of my staff, probably the best specialist in his field. In my opinion, his behavior inside the unit and working habits were more damaging then beneficial to the organization. My decision provoked a turmoil both inside RFE-RL and outside. Letters of protest against his dismissal came from RFE-RL employees and from prominent academics from all around the world. My supervisors got scared and cancelled my decision. During a major reorganization of the RFE-RL Research Institute, I participated as deputy director of the Information Resources Department in the outsourcing of media monitoring services. We found a company in Moscow perform the same tasks that were performed by our Monitoring Section. It was a much cheaper solution. All the members of the unit were fired. On April 11, 2001, NTV’s offices were stormed and sized by a new management team appointed by Gazprom and lead by Boris Jordan, an American businessman, and Vladimir Kulistikov, a former RFE-RL employee (what an irony!) Savik Shuster, the RL Moscow Bureau Director, who had previously been allowed by RFE-RL management to comment on soccer matches on NTV, immediately decided that he would never again work for NTV. For three weeks Savik Shuster was on the air everyday in his Liberty Live show condemning the seizure of NTV as an attempt against freedom of speech. After three weeks, all of a sudden, here was Savik again commenting on soccer matches on NTV. I was then director of the Russian Service and I thought that Savik, with his decision to cooperate with the Gazprom team, had betrayed the trust of Radio Liberty's listeners. I decided that, if Savik would continue to appear on NTV that he had previously sharply attacked, then he must leave RFE-RL. But he insisted on doing both: working for RL and for the new NTV. I suggested termination. Although my direct supervisor was against this decision, I was able to make my point and convince some of the higher level executives. My direct supervisor suggested that I should sign the termination letter since it was my initiative, but he was ordered by his superiors to sign it himself. While most Russian Service staff members in Prague understood that I had a point, most Moscow staffers insisted that we had not done much to convince Savik to change his mind. This situation increased the already existing division between the Russian teams in Prague and Moscow. But this is another story. In brief, I had my own trouble working with some of my most talented and skilled colleagues. Then my turn came to go. I was first removed from my position as Russian Service director and a year later I was fired altogether. I was not happy with the situation that led to my removal and tried to resist for as long as I could. But much later I realized that I had been only a small part of that glorious institution. The Russian Service existed before me and it would exist after me for a long time. People go, and new people step in. It's the life of any vital organization. But only to a certain degree."

I worked for RFE-RL for several years in different capacities and positions. As a manager, one of my responsibilities was to participate in the selection and firing of employees. A very difficult task, the risk being hiring or firing the wrong people. And I certainly made mistakes, some of which I am aware of and regret them. When I was in charge of the Samizdat Unit, which analyzed the underground press in the Soviet Union, I tried to fire one of the members of my staff, probably the best specialist in his field. In my opinion, his behavior inside the unit and working habits were more damaging then beneficial to the organization. My decision provoked a turmoil both inside RFE-RL and outside. Letters of protest against his dismissal came from RFE-RL employees and from prominent academics from all around the world. My supervisors got scared and cancelled my decision. During a major reorganization of the RFE-RL Research Institute, I participated as deputy director of the Information Resources Department in the outsourcing of media monitoring services. We found a company in Moscow perform the same tasks that were performed by our Monitoring Section. It was a much cheaper solution. All the members of the unit were fired. On April 11, 2001, NTV’s offices were stormed and sized by a new management team appointed by Gazprom and lead by Boris Jordan, an American businessman, and Vladimir Kulistikov, a former RFE-RL employee (what an irony!) Savik Shuster, the RL Moscow Bureau Director, who had previously been allowed by RFE-RL management to comment on soccer matches on NTV, immediately decided that he would never again work for NTV. For three weeks Savik Shuster was on the air everyday in his Liberty Live show condemning the seizure of NTV as an attempt against freedom of speech. After three weeks, all of a sudden, here was Savik again commenting on soccer matches on NTV. I was then director of the Russian Service and I thought that Savik, with his decision to cooperate with the Gazprom team, had betrayed the trust of Radio Liberty’s listeners. I decided that, if Savik would continue to appear on NTV that he had previously sharply attacked, then he must leave RFE-RL. But he insisted on doing both: working for RL and for the new NTV. I suggested termination. Although my direct supervisor was against this decision, I was able to make my point and convince some of the higher level executives. My direct supervisor suggested that I should sign the termination letter since it was my initiative, but he was ordered by his superiors to sign it himself. While most Russian Service staff members in Prague understood that I had a point, most Moscow staffers insisted that we had not done much to convince Savik to change his mind. This situation increased the already existing division between the Russian teams in Prague and Moscow. But this is another story. In brief, I had my own trouble working with some of my most talented and skilled colleagues. Then my turn came to go. I was first removed from my position as Russian Service director and a year later I was fired altogether. I was not happy with the situation that led to my removal and tried to resist for as long as I could. But much later I realized that I had been only a small part of that glorious institution. The Russian Service existed before me and it would exist after me for a long time. People go, and new people step in. It’s the life of any vital organization. But only to a certain degree.”

After I was forced to leave Radio Free Europe  and Radio Liberty and my position as the director of the Russian Service  several years ago in a dispute with the management over their proposed program content changes, I could only remotely imagine that only a few years later,  some of the same BBG and  new RFE-RL executives would put at risk the very existence of the Russian Service.

Put at risk is a very mild expression. In fact by firing almost all of the Moscow bureau team, including the best journalists, RFE-RL President Steve Korn and his acolytes inflicted a mortal blow to this great institution. To mention but three journalists who were fired or left on their own: Mikhail Sokolov, Anna Kachkaeva and Marina Timasheva are not only among the best professionals in their field, they are also celebrities in Russia.

Why it has always been so difficult for the BBG and RFE-RL executives, managers and administrative personnel to work with and get along with talented professionals?

I think no one would argue that Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and their colleagues were far more important than General Leslie Groves for the Manhattan Project to be successful. Oppenheimer and his team of scientists knew far better what was to be done. Lots of people around the world know who Oppenheimer and Fermi were, hardly anyone has ever heard of Groves and his team of  administrators and military technicians. Oppenheimer and Groves spoke different languages, but they still somehow managed to understand each other.

Similarly, Russian Service broadcasters are much more important than any BBG member or RFE-RL administrative personnel for the success of Radio Liberty. They are the ones who do the real job. They are the experts. They know better by definition. They are on the front line, they are the identity of Radio Liberty and they grant the visibility to America in Russia. People in Russia care about what they are being told on the radio and who is addressing them.

In Russia, the country of Radio Liberty’s audience, the name Sokolov means a lot, as a journalist he has made history there. He and his colleagues are the stars. For a radio to be successful, you need strong personalities to go on the air, and they are. Russian listeners couldn’t care less about the Trimbles, the Korns, the Ragonas.

I tried to explain this simple truth to my supervisors. They didn’t get the point. They thought they knew better. As far as they were concerned the Russian Service had too much visibility, too much power, it was too much of a radio with too many personalities.

And this is something administrative managers of RFE-RL after Kevin Klose, the last great President of RFE-RL, could never put up with. It is not easy to manage and work with strong personalities. And RFE-RL bureaucrats did only see one part of the medal, preferring to consider and treat their Russian broadcasters  only as capricious, awkward and annoying human beings.

This mentality hasn’t changed.

General Groves main function was to obtain the necessary financial resources, identify the sites, provide the facilities, coordinate the work of the different components of the Manhattan project. Similarly–once the editorial policy is in place, and it has been in place for a long time–the BBG and the RFE-RL administrative personnel functions are to seek and provide the financial means, the technical facilities, administrative experience, support and the other necessary means for the broadcasters to perform their job and to succeed.

But the most essential task they had and needed to be always focused on was providing radio program delivery and distribution, so that the broadcasters’ work reaches and can be appreciated by the listeners. They failed.

Because they failed and since the departure of Kevin Klose as  RFE-RL President, they put the whole blame for falling ratings on the Russian Service staff. Since then, their obsession has been to reform the Russian Service no matter what. They never understood that it is useless to have the best possible journalists team (and they had it) and the best possible radio programming (and they had it) if the programs cannot be widely distributed and heard.

Whether your radio is good or lousy, your ratings will be low if you have a lousy signal and no program distribution. However, there have been opportunities to get a powerful medium wave (AM) transmitter covering the whole North West of European Russia that would not be under the control of the Russian government. Just days before the RFE-RL management announced that it was being forced to abandon AM rebroadcasts in Moscow, they were again offered an AM transmitter in the Baltic states. They refused the offer.

Not that this one transmitter could on its own attract a vast audience, but it would be a step in the right direction while other options are being considered. It would be a response to Putin rather than the current capitulation. At one time, they could have even obtained an FM transmitter in Moscow.  RFE-RL management failed to grab these opportunities.

Mikhail Sokolov argued that, even under under Putin, RFE-RL could have had a mix of effective broadcasting presence in Russia if the management tried hard and put some brains, flexibility and creativity into it. I agree with him. After all, you can always distribute a perfect digital radio signal or even better radio studio/TV hybrid program over the satellite and advertise it. There are millions in Russia who have satellite antennas. You can always broadcast radio over the Internet, and even put video cameras in the studio, as an excellent byproduct. But you have to have an excellent radio program, talented hosts, and a team of journalists and broadcasters to produce it who enjoy the trust and respect of their audience.  The main statutory purpose of RFE-RL is to create radio broadcasts, or broadcasts in any case, and no one has removed the two initials for “Radio” in that acronym.

I admire the Moscow bureau team for what they did in incorporating radio into one of the best news and commentary websites in Russia. They were not only part of the digital revolution, they led it in Russia in social media and in using well known radio personalities of Radio Liberty to promote the unique power and influence of the broadcast medium over the Internet. They increased traffic to the site tenfold. The entire Moscow Internet and social media team was fired along with some of the best radio journalists. They were fired by RFE-RL President  Steven Korn and his Vice President Julia Ragona, which makes me wonder what they know about Russia, journalism, Runet (Russian Internet) and Russian social media that these Russian journalists and media experts do not.

As far as the past recent history of RL is concerned, I have already touched upon some of what happened a few years ago in my interview to Free Media Online, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Has Lost Its Uniqueness Warns Former Director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service.

Another “cultural” divide between broadcasters and bureaucrats has to do with work habits and work ethics. The former make sure that broadcasts are on the air 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. If necessary they are at work during the night, on Saturdays and Sundays, while RFE-RL administrative personnel is there hardly 8 hours a day from Monday to Friday. (I am not referring here to RFE-RL technical personnel. I know them and I have the highest appreciation for their professionalism and dedication. But they could and can only do what bureaucrats order them to do.) Broadcasters expected more support and understanding from the administrative personnel, including their managers. This was very annoying for the bureaucrats. One of my impressions when I worked at the radios was that RFE-RL executives would have been much happier doing away with radio altogether. I didn’t realize though that I had a right premonition.

Because BBG and RFE-RL administrators miserably failed in program delivery, program distribution and multimedia program presentation–a lot of the blame, of course, also goes to the Russian authorities who clamped down on foreign rebroadcasts–they now decided to do away with radio altogether and concentrate on Internet only.  And what did they do? They did not even blame the Kremlin with any  forcefulness or tried to use the influence of the United States government to win concessions, considering that Voice of Russia and Russia Today are widely distributed on AM, FM, cable, and satellite TV channels in America. Crazy as it may sound, they rented new, bigger and more expensive facilities in Moscow and then fired the whole Internet team and most broadcasters. The transition to the new facilities is not over yet. Masha Gessen, the newly appointed Russian Service director, and her team, will have to wait a few months before they can enjoy them.

Something I have not seen underlined by the media so far about the new director is that when Masha Gessen was initially offered the job by RFE-RL, she refused it. Instead she accepted another job in Moscow and only when very soon she was fired from that job for refusing to cover one of President Putin’s publicity stunts, she agreed to join RFE-RL, which says something about her preferences. RFE-RL was not her priority, it was only her second choice.

Why did Korn choose Masha Gessen?

Steve Korn may be convinced that he and Masha Gessen speak the same language. But he does not seem to have the same appreciation for foreign cultures and administrative skills as those who managed Radio Liberty in the past. He will be disappointed. He has already encountered controversy and very soon will run into even greater trouble with Masha Gessen and her team.  He should have taken a closer look at her professional history.

In conclusion, Mikhail Sokolov, Anna Kachkaeva, Marina Timasheva, Elena Fanailova and their brave colleagues–forgive me for not mentioning them all–will remain as prominent figures in the post-perestroika history of RFE-RL. Steve Korn will only be remembered as the person who, with his clumsy responses and lack of understanding threw out the baby with the bath water. He will be remembered as the person who managed to turn even Radio Liberty listeners and visitors to its website into anti-Americans.

About Mario Corti:

A member of the FreeMediaOnline.org Board of Directors and the International Advisory Board, Mario Corti is a distinguished journalist, writer, and analyst of Russian politics, society, and culture. He has been an active supporter of independent journalism and publishing in Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe.

In 1979, Mario Corti joined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Munich as a research-analyst/editor of the Samizdat unit of Radio Liberty. He later became deputy chief and chief of the Samizdat unit and served as Deputy Director and Director of the Information Resources Department of the RFE-RL Research Institute. After RFE/RL’s move from Munich to Prague, Mario Corti worked as a broadcaster in the Russian Broadcasting Department, serving as Deputy Director (1996 – 1998) and as Director (1998-2003). While in charge of RFE/RL Russian broadcasts, he expanded Moscow and Saint Petersburg news bureaus and opened a news bureau in Ekaterinburg. He also organized training seminars for journalists who contributed news reports to RFE/RL and instituted the “Radio Svoboda” Journalistic Award. While at RFE/RL, he also launched a number of cooperative projects with independent media outlets and independent journalists in Russia. He also started a multimedia educational project with the Moscow University for the Humanities (RGGU) based on the Radio Liberty series dealing with the XXth Communist Party Congress. He retired from RFE/RL in 2005.

Before joining RFE/RL, Mario Corti worked as a translator and interpreter in the Italian Embassy in Moscow, cofounded a publishing house (La Casa Matriona) in Milan, and was actively publicizing the work of Soviet human rights activists and Samizdat writers. Between 1969 and 1978, he edited several books on dissent in the USSR. In 1977 he served as chairman of the Italian Organizing Committee of the Second International Sakharov Hearings in Rome and contributed to an exhibit on Soviet dissent for the Venice Biennale. He organized exhibits of Samizdat documents in Turin, Italy (sponsored by La Gazzetta del Popolo in 1978), and in Washington, D.C. (sponsored by AFL-CIO in 1979). In 1979, he helped to organize the Third (American) Sakharov Hearings in Washington, D.C. on violations of human rights in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

Mario Corti is the author and editor of several books. Dreif, a book written in Russian about philosophy and culture, was published in Russia and Ukraine in 2002. His book, Salieri i Mozart, on the relationship between the two composers, was published in Russian in 2005. His book about Italian physicians in Russia appeared both in Russian (Drugie ital’iantsy. Vrachi na sluzhbe Rosssii, St. Petersburg, 2010), and in Italian (Gli “altri” italiani. Medici al servizio della Russia, Rome, 2011). His articles on human rights and Soviet dissent have appeared in several languages in many countries. He speaks Italian, Rusian, English, German, Spanish, and French and has a working knowledge of several other European languages. He currently lives in Italy and writes for the Russian media.

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