Old Dissident, New Career

MT
Alexander Gerasimov's path to political journalism was through the back door. He started out as an engineer on the technical team with Vremya, the Soviet Union's nightly news program. In the 1980s, he traveled with the TV crew all over the country. "A couple of weeks before Brezhnev died, we were all in Baku, where a million people had to perform dances for him on the main square," Gerasimov recalls, "Brezhnev failed to climb up on the stand, and everyone was told to leave." After a few years of seeing how real events are shaped into news pieces, Gerasimov decided that he needed to write his own reports.

Gerasimov joined Vremya's editorial staff in 1987 and worked there throughout the perestroika years as a political observer, studying at night for a journalism degree, which was seen as a requirement for the profession. "Now, I think the opposite is true," he said. Eventually, he was invited to join the original team behind the legendary NTV channel, which set new standards for journalists and news anchors and was the only national channel not controlled by the state until it was taken over by Gazprom in 2001. In its founding days, the station's editorial staff were crammed into one small room.

In the aftermath of NTV's scandalous ownership and staff changes, the original team broke up and went their different ways. Gerasimov briefly headed the station as general director, but his position was eventually given to colleague Tatyana Mitkova. "When I watch TV today, I thank God that I was kicked out in time. I am not ashamed of what I am doing now," he says.

What he is doing now is a long way from political journalism. Gerasimov's new turf is City-FM, an informational radio station whose office has bright orange walls and a flock of young employees.

City-FM's signature features are quarter-hourly city news and snappy commentary. The content offers no political analysis, instead providing middle-class Muscovites with information on buying a second car and avoiding traffic jams in it.

Gerasimov says he understood the differences between television and radio on his first day of work as the station's editor.


Vladimir Filonov / MT
Gerasimov oversees a mostly young staff at his informational radio station, whose target audience is Moscow's "office rats."
"You can put an imbecile on television and pull it off, but on the radio that will never work," he says. "Without the image, nothing glosses over people's stupidity."

Adapting to commercial radio after almost 20 years of political journalism was no small feat: "The old Gerasimov was constantly nagging, let's make old wounds bleed, let's fight for freedom of speech! But Ekho Moskvy was doing that already," Gerasimov says, referring to the well-known national talk radio station. To be successful, the new station had to do something never before done in Russian radio: address the well-off, apolitical Moscow "office rat."

"We don't fight the 'bloody regime' because our listeners are not interested," Gerasimov says.

In the two years since City-FM's launch, some things have changed for those Muscovites caught up in the rat race: Their salaries have risen, which in turn increased consumer appetites, and the station had to adapt accordingly. "[Getting a] mortgage was only a theoretical concept for most people in 2005, and now they are everywhere," Gerasimov says.

One thing has not changed, however -- City-FM still does not discuss politics. "You start a political discussion on the air -- nobody calls in," he says. For someone who calls himself an "old dissident," that's some statement.

To form the most attractive audience possible for marketers, City-FM began the practice of censoring its callers, not letting voices too old or too young on the air. Today, babushkas and young "pioneers" practically never call the station.

But the tactic paid off -- after working two years to pay off its debts, City-FM is now operating off its own advertising sales.

Although Gerasimov says he's become a radio man, some part of him must still long for the glow of the television. City-FM's latest project is a joint program with Zakon-TV, a cable television channel.

"My old colleagues joked that whatever I start doing, it eventually turns into television," he chuckles.

"Gerasimov has always worked with information; it is something he is good at. He is creating a new informational resource in radio, a difficult task, since all that's broadcast nowadays is music," said Pyotr Orlov, the executive producer of NTV, who has worked with Gerasimov.

Someone who interprets Gerasimov's career switch as a sign of the times would have an obvious question: What if Moscow's middle-class office rats become bored with their consumer-driven lifestyle and suddenly become interested in politics?

"For every action there is a reaction," Gerasimov says after a long pause. "We'll think of something to do as soon as we feel the winds of change."