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Free radio seeks a new format

Change to expose station to Russia censors, some fear

PRAGUE -- Ronald Reagan used it to reach out to the Soviets during the Cold War. Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, likened it to the sun lighting the earth. Rock band R.E.M. immortalized it in a cynical hit song.

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty is trying to woo new listeners in Russia with a controversial overhaul that former dissidents and other critics contend will compromise its reputation and influence as a beacon of democracy.

"We're becoming just another bunch of blah-blah-blah on the air," said Lev Roitman, a senior commentator for the private US-funded station. "They must be idiots to do something like this at this critical time in Russia."

Officials at the football field-size newsroom for RFE/ RL, housed in Prague's communist-era Parliament building -- an imposing edifice of black granite circled by heavy concrete barricades and machine-gun-toting guards -- say they simply want to modernize the programming and expand its reach.

The station's primary target is urban, employed, university-educated Russians ages 35 and up. Key changes include more call-in shows, a website overhaul to appeal to the 18-plus crowd, and a shift from longer evening programs on human rights and other issues to shorter, snappier spots aired throughout the day.

Nenad Pejic, RFE/ RL associate director of broadcasting, insists that Russian-language news and programs on human rights will remain a priority and that only the format -- not the content -- would change.

"It's about our survival, not our mission," he said. "Listeners in Moscow tell us our programming is a little old-fashioned, that we still sound like a dissident radio. We're just revamping. We want to be a local radio with a global perspective."

But the proposed overhaul also includes plans to cut staff and "move the center of gravity to Moscow" by dropping on-air references to Prague to give the impression that RFE/ RL is a local Russian station rather than an outsider.

The broadcaster, which gets $75 million a year from Congress, has moved key positions to Moscow and now broadcasts 70 percent of its material from the Russian capital. Critics say that exposes the station known as Radio Svoboda -- Russian for "Liberty" -- to government intimidation and the threat of censorship.

"If anything similar to the current plans of the RFE/ RL management would have been suggested in Soviet times, there would have been no doubt as to the source of inspiration: the KGB," Elena Bonner, the widow of Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov, wrote earlier this month in an open letter to Western media.

"Can anyone think of a more Cold War-type operation than one that pretends to disguise a radio funded by the US Congress and based in the Czech Republic as a local Russian radio?" she said, denouncing the plan as superficial and "a stupid gimmick."

Mario Corti, a former RFE/ RL Russian service director who works as an editor, ridiculed the station for basing the changes on recommendations by a US consultant recently hired to create an internal music channel for the Starbucks coffee chain.

"The rationale for some of the changes is reasonable. But how can you establish credibility when you're misleading people?" Corti said. "We're a paragon, perceived to be independent because we're a foreign station that doesn't belong to the oligarchs. We had something unique. Now we're becoming like everyone else."

RFE/ RL, whose 600 employees and network of 3,000 freelancers were overseen and funded by the CIA until 1971, now answers to the Washington-based Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Besides its transmissions to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which are rebroadcast by affiliates to far-flung regions, it also airs broadcasts in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Masha Klein, who heads the Russian service, conceded that RFE/ RL journalists in Moscow "have been under pressure for years" but said the station is prepared to shift staff back to Prague if Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government interferes.

She said the revamp sprang from the perception that the station nominated in 1991 for the Nobel Peace Prize is foreign, aloof, and run by Russian dissidents and expatriates "who hate Russia" and spout American propaganda.

"I'm Russian, and I dearly hope the day will come when our services are no longer needed," she said. "But I don't see that in the near future. The Russian people still need us."

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