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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tiny radio station broadcasting Russian propaganda in D.C.

How the Kremlin found a middleman who found a Beltway home for Radio Sputnik, known for spreading Russian spin.

Co-hosts in the D.C. newsroom of Sputnik, a radio station funded by the Russian government, in 2017. (Jonathan Newton)

For a few seconds every hour, WZHF-AM interrupts its round-the-clock schedule of talk to air a curious disclaimer: “This radio programming is distributed by RM Broadcasting on behalf of the Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, Moscow, Russia. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.”

The cryptic notification masks a larger story. WZHF, a former Spanish-language station 11 miles east of the White House in Maryland’s Capitol Heights, is the flagship of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to harness America’s radio airwaves to sell the Kremlin’s point of view. Despite periodic legal and political challenges, and the imposition of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the station has stayed on the air, broadcasting its Kremlin-approved message.

The station at 1390 AM is one of only five outlets in the United States that air English-language broadcasts of “Radio Sputnik,” produced in Moscow and Washington under the Russian government’s supervision.

Sputnik is the radio and digital arm of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), the same Kremlin-controlled media agency that directs RT and RT America, the better-known TV and digital media operations founded by Putin’s regime in 2005.

But while American distributors and European governments have banned RT since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, leading to the collapse of RT’s American operations on Thursday, WZHF is still offering Sputnik’s content to Beltway listeners.

With names like “Political Misfits” and “By Any Means Necessary,” its talk shows are as slickly produced as anything on NPR or the giants of conservative talk radio. Some discussions — organ transplantation, recycling and paranormal activity were among last week’s topics — are apolitical. But many Sputnik hosts offer more barbed commentary about America’s perceived flaws: racism, economic inequity and political dysfunction. One consistent thread for years: Skepticism of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia acted to influence the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.

Sputnik’s talking heads have tended to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, alleging Ukrainian “crimes” against its Russian-speaking population and “encroachment” on Russia from the NATO alliance. They typically describe the invasion as “a military operation” or “an intervention,” echoing Putin’s framing. There’s plenty of whataboutism: A Russian commentator on Friday fretted that the United States could give nuclear weapons to Ukraine. “We cannot be confident that America will be a responsible member of the international community,” he said.

RT was Russia’s answer to CNN. Now its pro-Putin spin on Ukraine is sparking new outrage.

Listeners are also likely to hear arguments that the severe economic sanctions imposed on Russia are doomed to backfire. A guest, American economist Jack Rasmus, predicted on Wednesday that sanctions could lead to a 20 percent stock market decline and a $1-per-gallon spike in gas prices. One host speculated recently that the United States and Europe could experience a “cataclysmic shift where entire industries won’t survive.”

At its most pernicious, Sputnik offers wholly misleading information. Former correspondent Andrew Feinberg recounted in 2017 how his editors ordered him to ask if the White House would explore “alternative” theories about the Syrian government’s sarin gas attack on its own people, dovetailing with Kremlin claims that its ally wasn’t responsible. (Sputnik’s editor in chief, Mindia Gavasheli, did not respond to requests for comment).

Despite a 9,000-watt signal that can be heard across the region, the message doesn’t appear to be going very far. WZHF doesn’t rank among the top 40 stations in the Washington area in Nielsen’s ratings. But as limited as Sputnik’s audience and likely influence is, its Kremlin connections have lately begun to attract some negative attention.

The National Association of Broadcasters on Tuesday called on station owners to stop carrying Russian state-sponsored programming. Without mentioning WZHF or Sputnik by name, chief executive Curtis LeGeyt nevertheless suggested they were spreading Kremlin propaganda.

“While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech … it does not prevent private actors from exercising sound, moral judgment,” LeGeyt said in a statement. “Our nation must stand fully united against misinformation and for freedom and democracy across the globe.”

Sputnik has come under political fire before. In 2017, three Democratic members of Congress sought an investigation into why it was still on the air despite evidence that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission at the time, Ajit Pai, declined to take action, saying the First Amendment would bar his agency “from interfering with a broadcast licensee’s choice of programming, even if that programming may be objectionable to many listeners.”

Sputnik doesn’t own WZHF, nor could it under federal regulations that bar foreign governments from controlling U.S. broadcast licenses. The decades-old prohibition was driven by concerns that hostile foreign powers would use American radio and TV stations to broadcast propaganda. But the Kremlin found another way to get on the air.

WZHF has been licensed to a New York company, Way Broadcasting, since 2001, according to FCC records. But Way appears to be a largely passive owner. In 2017, it agreed to lease the station’s airtime to a second party, RM Broadcasting of Jupiter, Fla.

RM, in turn, sold all of the station’s airtime to Rossiya Segodnya and Sputnik. RM made a similar deal in 2020 with Alpine Broadcasting to place Sputnik’s programs on Alpine’s three stations in the Kansas City area.

The practice, known as a time-brokerage agreement, has been a financial lifeline for small and financially troubled broadcast outlets since the 1930s. Instead of hiring a sales staff and producing programs, station owners merely lease blocks of airtime to another party, often through a broker, which puts its own programs on the air. The best-known form of such agreements are TV “infomercials.”

Sputnik’s deals have been lucrative for the broadcasters involved. According to federal filings, RM paid Way Broadcasting $1.12 million last year to air Radio Sputnik full time and Alpine Broadcasting about $160,000 to carry Sputnik for six hours a day on its Kansas City stations.

RM’s owner, Arnold Ferolito, defended Sputnik in a recent interview, saying efforts to remove it from the air were an attack on free speech.

“RM Broadcasting stands with Ukraine and victims of oppression and aggression worldwide,” he wrote in an email. “One of the fundamental rights that Ukraine is fighting for is freedom of speech and freedom from censorship, and RM is dedicated to the unfettered exchange of information and ideas.”

He noted that the stations disclose Rossiya Segodnya’s role as the source of the broadcasts throughout the day “so that people may make an informed decision on whether to listen or turn the dial.”

Ferolito said other American station owners wanted to carry the service, too, but Sputnik’s parent organization “did not have the budget” for wider U.S. reach.

Under a separate lease agreement, WZHF’s signal is carried on FM radio in the Washington area by a company called Reston Translator. “I’m a fervent believer in the First Amendment,” John Garziglia, the company’s principal owner, said in an interview. “Under the First Amendment, we should be seeking more information, not less.”

Way Broadcasting declined to comment.

RM is required to file federal disclosures about Rossiya Segodnya’s payments as a result of a long-running legal battle between the company and the Justice Department. The agency determined in early 2018 that RM’s involvement with the Russian media group required it to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Ferolito sued to block the designation, arguing that RM was merely acting as a middleman and had no control over Sputnik’s programs, but a federal judge in Florida ruled against the company in 2019.

Hence, WZHF’s hourly disclaimer. And if any of its listeners take the suggestion and look up the station on the Justice Department’s website, they’ll find a voluminous collection of government documents disclosing exactly who is behind it.

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