On a Washington radio station known for broadcasting the high and lonesome sound of bluegrass, the fiddles recently fell silent, replaced by a very different kind of programming: Russian state media.
Rather than string instruments, 105.5 FM listeners now hear Sputnik, a terrestrial radio station named for the satellite that started the space race. Funded by the Russian government, the station began broadcasting July 1 out of unassuming offices about three blocks from the White House, next to a Chop’t on K Street NW.
Russia’s influence on American politics is debated daily. This is what it sounds like.
“I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about us,” said the Russian-born editor in chief of Sputnik’s D.C. bureau, Mindia Gavasheli. “Now you can actually listen to us.”
Gavasheli, showing visitors the station’s studio this week as news of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian attorney scrolled on a nearby television, made it clear: Boris and Natasha are not in the building. There’s not even a Russian flag.
Sputnik, like news outlet Russia Today, is a project of the Russian government. Available only online in the United States until last month, the station, with a staff of 40, now reaches radio listeners 24 hours a day in the D.C. region — its only terrestrial radio presence in the country.
“Sputnik points the way to a multipolar world that respects every country’s national interests, culture, history and traditions,” according to its website. It adds: “The agency is uniquely positioned as a provider of alternative news content.”
Gavasheli and some of the station’s hosts — all of whom broadcast in English, and some of whom are familiar faces in D.C.’s political landscape — said no spymaster is telling them what to do.
“If they’re propaganda artists, they ain’t good at it,” said Garland Nixon, a Sputnik radio host who also appears on WPFW 89.3 FM, which bills itself as dedicated to “jazz and justice.”
Nixon, a former Maryland Natural Resources Police officer, co-hosts “Fault Lines,” a “Crossfire”-style show in which discussion is dominated by U.S. politics. A self-described “die-hard Bernie supporter,” he doesn’t appear to be awaiting marching orders from the Kremlin.
“At some point, if I say something and they’ve got to fire me, they’ll fire me,” he said. “All I can do is say the things that I believe in, and whoever attacks me, that’s up to them.”
There seem to be few supporters of President Trump in Sputnik’s D.C. orbit. Its hosts include a former union organizer and a politico to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party less interested that Sputnik is funded by Russia than that it’s not run by a corporation.
Eugene Puryear unsuccessfully ran for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council in 2014 as a member of the Statehood Green Party. He hosts “By Any Means Necessary,” a show he said spotlights the voices of young people and members of the Black Lives Matter movement. A recent episode focused on protests at the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg and “Amazon’s efforts to monopolize shopping in America,” according to the show’s website. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“This is an extraordinarily valuable opportunity to have,” he said. “The New York Times and Washington Posts of the world aren’t giving these voices their just dues.”
Sputnik’s most visible Trump supporter is Lee Stranahan, a former Breitbart reporter who calls Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, his mentor. He co-hosts “Fault Lines” with Nixon, offering a conservative counterpoint.
“I like the fact that I’m on the same network as ‘By Any Means Necessary,’ ” Stranahan said. “I think that’s awesome. What I don’t like is highly controlled corporate media.”
Trump supporters or not, many Sputnik hosts profess skepticism that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Top U.S. intelligence officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations have said Russia interfered in an attempt to help elect Trump.
Nixon, Stranahan’s co-host, said he has “yet to see the evidence” of Russian meddling. Those looking for someone to blame for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s loss shouldn’t look to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, but to voter suppression and corruption in the Democratic Party.
“We’re not comfortable unless we have a boogeyman,” Nixon said. “I don’t subscribe to the common narrative that we have to run around with our hair on fire fearing Russia.”
Stranahan, meanwhile, said he wanted to work for Sputnik because so many Americans falsely think Russia is an enemy.
“I think the Russia narrative is b-------, so I’ll work for the Russians,” he said. “If you really thought the Russians were meddling . . . you wouldn’t work here.”
Gavasheli, who formerly worked at Russia Today, said Sputnik’s D.C. location is one of many bureaus around the world, although it’s the only one in the United States. He noted that other nations also fund international journalism, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation.
It’s hard to be a good spy if no one’s told you you’re a spy.
“If we are a vehicle in a disinformation campaign, I should have known by now,” he said.
Whatever the geopolitics, Sputnik’s takeover of 105.5 left bluegrass fans unable to hear the genre on Washington’s airwaves for the first time in 50 years. (The station can still be heard online and on 88.5 FM HD Channel 2.)
WAMU 88.5 FM announced last summer that it was selling its Bluegrass Country service, citing changing demographics and a greater interest in news programming among listeners. The station reached an agreement with a nonprofit earlier this year that kept bluegrass on D.C. radio at 105.5, although that move was short-lived.
“The owner of the transmitter clearly got a better deal from Putin than a public radio station,” Randy Barrett, president of the D.C. Bluegrass Union and a board member of the Bluegrass Country Foundation, wrote in an email. “It’s a pretty amazing story, as Vlad has bumped all-American bluegrass in the very heart of the nation’s capital.”
John Garziglia, a part owner of Reston Translator, the company that owns 105.5, said it leased the frequency to Sputnik through the end of 2019 after it became clear that Bluegrass Country could no longer foot the bill. He said the deal wasn’t related to politics, but was a “business arrangement.”
“I leave it to anyone who listens to make up their mind to what Radio Sputnik is doing,” he said. “I think they’ve been straightforward.”