A Russia-funded radio station broadcasting blocks from the White House found a second home on the dial in Washington after its partner, a Virginia-based radio company, registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent.
Sputnik, a project of the Russian government, began broadcasting around the clock from a K Street office in June on 105.5 FM, and hasn't stopped. However, that frequency is merely a "translator" — a station that rebroadcasts another station's programming — and Sputnik needed a permanent base.
As a result, 1390 AM, a former Spanish-language station based in Capitol Heights, Md., began carrying Sputnik on Nov. 25. The deal was brokered as Sputnik struggled to find a home frequency amid criticism of its connection to Russia and questions about Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"We were not looking to be on AM," said Mindia Gavasheli, editor in chief of Sputnik's D.C. bureau. "We were effectively forced to."
The deal gives the Kremlin two spots on Washington's radio dial, but Sputnik's programming hasn't changed.
It's still home to left-leaning hosts such as Eugene Puryear, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council in 2014 as a member of the Statehood Green Party, and Brian Becker, a founder of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Although they deny that anyone dictates what they say on air, many Sputnik hosts reject the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election.
"Russians invade local AM radio station," Sputnik host Garland Nixon responded in an email when asked about the move to AM. "Tens of thousands of innocent radio workers kidnapped and presumed captured and taken to Siberian gulags." He added: "All jokes aside, we are very happy to be on both instead of shut down. As some people had desired."
The company that owns 105.5 FM says it was directed to register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a move met with criticism by some of Sputnik's on-air personalities.
Lee Stranahan, a former Breitbart investigative reporter who co-hosts a "Crossfire"-style show with Nixon, said pressure for Sputnik's partners to register under FARA was designed to discredit the station by highlighting its Russia connection.
"It's dangerous," he said. "It's beyond bogus. It's a pure propaganda play."
In September, three Democratic members of Congress wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to criticize the station, questioning whether it should be on the air. Reps. Anna G. Eshoo (Calif.), Mike Doyle (Pa.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) wrote that D.C. radio listeners can "hear Sputnik and the Russian government's effort to spread misinformation."
"This means the Kremlin's propaganda is being broadcast over a license granted by the FCC and the Russian government may be using our country's own airwaves to undermine our democracy," they wrote.
In an October response to the letter, Pai declined to conduct an investigation, saying, "the First Amendment and the Communications Act generally bar the Commission from interfering with a broadcast licensee's choice of programming, even if that programming may be objectionable to many listeners."
Eshoo called it a "duck and cover strategy."
"Our nation's public airwaves are owned by the American people and the FCC is charged with protecting these airwaves from those entities who want to do us harm," she wrote in a statement. "Chairman Pai's excuses, couched in legal gibberish, are unacceptable."
Meanwhile, Sputnik's stateside business partners are getting acquainted with their new status as foreign agents.
John Garziglia, part owner of Reston Translator, the company that owns 105.5 FM, told The Washington Post that his deal with Sputnik wasn't related to politics, but was a "business arrangement."
FARA documents show that Reston Translator — and Garziglia himself — registered as foreign agents in November despite his insistence that the company "is not an agent, representative, employee or servant . . . of a foreign principal."
"Reston Translator LLC does not qualify for registration under [FARA], but is doing so at your direction," Garziglia, a communications attorney, wrote to the Department of Justice on Nov. 15. "We do so because we have been directed to do so, not because it is required by the law."
The Justice Department declined to comment. However, its correspondence with Garziglia didn't mince words.
"Reston Translator acts directly as a 'publicity agent' and 'information-service employee' . . . by disseminating its radio broadcasts (under the name Sputnik Radio) over public airwaves," read a Sept. 12 letter to Garziglia from the department.
Garziglia said he was told to register as a foreign agent after he asked the Justice Department whether it was necessary. He said he considers the threat of FARA registration a chill on free speech.
"I can easily understand why most broadcasters would reject the carriage of Radio Sputnik, not based upon any analysis of its content, but rather based upon a DOJ threat of being forced to register under FARA," Garziglia wrote in an email. Of Sputnik, he added: "I never see the harm in opinions being freely broadcast. It's better for all of us. I don't endorse what they're doing. I don't un-endorse it. That's their opinion."
Yet Arnold Ferolito, 75, who brokered Sputnik's new deal with 1390 AM after a partnership with another station expired in October, is undaunted by possible FARA registration. The semiretired owner of Florida-based RM Broadcasting said he built connections in Russia years ago, traveling there after the Soviet Union's collapse as its TV industry became privatized.
Ferolito said he hasn't had to register with FARA after arranging the Sputnik deal, but he has been asked about FARA registration before. In 2013, he faced questions from the Justice Department when he worked with Voice of Russia, another Russian-funded radio network that previously broadcast on 1390 AM.
Ferolito said the Justice Department let the matter go, and neither his name nor "RM Broadcasting" appear in the FARA registry. Like others at Sputnik, Ferolito pointed out that many countries besides Russia maintain state-funded news organizations around the world, such as the Voice of America or France 24.
"I have nothing to do with the programming," he said. "I'm just a conduit. . . . Why anyone should have to register seems bizarre to me."
As he saw it, the fundamental issue was the First Amendment.
"Do we have freedom of the press in this country or don't we?" he said.