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Golden Age of Cold War Radio Offers Lessons Today in Russia

FILE - A view shows the newsroom of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcaster in Moscow, Russia, Apr. 6, 2021.
FILE - A view shows the newsroom of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcaster in Moscow, Russia, Apr. 6, 2021.

For Russians of a certain age, the jingle of the radio show known to its listeners as “Rock, According to Seva” is imprinted in their minds.

Performed by female vocalists in a parody of Russian folk chant, the jingle played at the end of broadcaster Seva Novgorodsev’s music show that started airing in 1977.

The show had a large following among listeners in the then Soviet Union.

Novgorodsev, a Briton of Soviet descent, became a star on BBC’s Russian Service, much like Willis Conover, the host of VOA’s Jazz Hour.

Both are considered a part of the golden age of international radio broadcasting, when cross-border shows acted as a kind of cultural diplomacy from the West.

The legacy of international radio in the Soviet Union, and what that period could teach audiences about countering Russian propaganda today, formed the basis of a talk at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy this month.

Veterans of radio broadcasting, who have written books about the period, discussed the history of the information war between the U.S. and Russia.

The power of international radio in the Soviet Union was so great that Communist Party leaders met in the late 1980s to discuss how to counter them. Their solution: a TV show to try to win back audiences from VOA, Radio Liberty, and the BBC. That show ironically became a voice to demand change later in Soviet history.

Michelle Daniel, who authored The DJ Who ‘Brought Down’ the USSR —a book on the work of Novgorodsev, told the panel that this era of broadcasting helped “change the hearts and minds” of the Soviet people and destroy the idea of the Soviet Union.

Novgorodsev was able to skirt around the iron curtain and reach audiences.

“He was trying to entertain disenfranchised and lost Soviet youth, in particular, because he felt that this generation was the most distanced from the leadership in the USSR,” Daniel said. “He was speaking to them on a very personal level.”

A journalist worka in a news room of the Dozhd (Rain) TV channel in Moscow, Russia, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo)
A journalist worka in a news room of the Dozhd (Rain) TV channel in Moscow, Russia, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo)

Daniel said she believes that media today should also take a closer look at the interests of the younger generation, noting that it is the youth in Ukraine and Russia who will determine the direction of political developments.

“It's extremely hard to engage them because we're in a social media environment and there are a million distractions,” Daniel said. “However, government or politicians’ actions in the modern media are one of the clearest signs of how they interact with young people today.”

Mark Pomar, a veteran journalist who opened the first Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said that international broadcasters worked together on programming, and human rights became “underlying [to] all the programs that we did.”

“We had a phenomenal amount of people we could bring into the air,” Pomar said, adding that it helped that “the elite of Russia, artists, thinkers, and philosophers were living in the West.”

Pomar, who works at the Clements Center for National Security, authored Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

During his time at RFE/RL Pomar traveled to Moscow to work on abolishing Soviet jammers that were used to block radio shows from the West.

And in the 1990s, he opened the Moscow bureau of RFE/RL. The bureau was in operation for more than 30 years until the Kremlin labeled it a foreign agent. The network announced it would suspend physical operations there in early March 2022, shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February.

“The power of broadcasting came about because the Soviet Union also opened up and we were broadcasting to a friendly and open audience,” said Pomar. “That's very, very important to note, given today's situation where I would say that it's a more difficult task to reach the listener.”

Access to credible news is key.

“I think that the task of the Russian service of VOA and [Radio Liberty] is to present and to be as factually accurate and to bring the war home to Russia because that is what the Russian media's not doing,” he said.

The ability to reach audiences across the Soviet Union is the focus of RFE/RL veteran journalist Gene Parta’s book, Under the Radar: Tracking Western Radio Listeners in the Soviet Union.

Parta recalled to the audience how during Russia’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, his research center found that opponents of the war were critical of Radio Liberty’s reports.

When reporting on Soviet casualties “the audience felt that Radio Liberty should maintain its critical stance in the war, while at the same time the audience waited for showing sympathy for the loss of life,” Parta said.

That information resulted in the service changing its approach, and it “adopted a tone that showed more empathy.” In doing so, future research found that the broadcasts had greater impact, he said.

Parta said that it is harder today and that “new ways are going to have to be found to effectively reach the Russian people.”

For Parta, the key to reaching audiences is “staying true to our values of honest reporting” and providing technical information to help Russians find credible news feeds.

Pomar added that the media should “pay attention to many smaller efforts by journalists who have left Russia,” and reach large audiences via their YouTube channels that they run from exile.

Vasily Gatov, a media analyst and expert at the USC Annenberg Center, believes it is necessary to find less politicized ways of reporting.

“We need to return a comfortable, warm, empathic ‘storytelling’ back into communication with [the] Russians. Perhaps we need to talk about things that are not directly related to war, political conflict, Putin's atrocities,” he said. “We need a much more balanced conversation with the Russian audience about things that are outside of the agenda of the immediate political or foreign policy.”

This article originated in VOA’s Russian service.