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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nostalgia Play Propels Russkoye Radio to Top

Founded in 1995 as the only radio station playing exclusively Russian songs, Russkoye Radio mined a rich vein of nostalgia and patriotism to emerge as Moscow's top FM station. Sergei Rybak reports.The Russkoye Radio recipe for success goes like this: Take a handful of unknown DJs, a stack of Russian records and $120,000. Mix well, throw into a wide open and unexploited niche in the Russian market, and watch as fortunes rise.

Russkoye Radio, founded just two years ago, now boasts more listeners than any other Moscow commercial FM station and has emerged as the top ad revenue earner.

Back in 1995, the station's three founders, Vladimir Maslov, Sergei Kozhevnikov and Sergei Arkhipov, were working for companies that supplied equipment to television and radio studios.

Setting up their own radio station seemed like a logical step, said Maslov, the general director of Russkoye Radio. Maslov was already acquainted with Russian radio officials, he said, and so obtaining the proper licenses for a new station was fairly easy.

Maslov's broadcasting equipment supply company, TTSI, spent $80,000 on equipment for the station. TTSI's total investment, Maslov said, was nearly $120,000.

With the help of a market research company, Russkoye Radio management hit upon a successful format: All-Russian music.

That a healthy portion of Russian listeners would want to listen to exclusively Russian music may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact, no one else in the industry had developed such a format. Most top Russian FM stations were offering listeners a mix of Western and Russian music that was at best eclectic, and at worst, simply random.

"Even before Russkoye Radio's appearance, we noticed that listeners have an absolutely obvious preference for Russian music," said Yelena Koneva, general director for media-market researcher Comcon 2. "This was a completely unexploited niche, and we even advised them to open a station with precisely such a specialty. Their success was guaranteed."

Maslov concurred that introducing an all-Russian format was a savvy move.

"The tendency in the rest of the world is to be divided up neatly by format," said Maslov. "Listeners are supposed to enjoy to a single kind of music -- [Louis] Armstrong, or Alyona Apina. You don't have to throw everything into one heap.

"It was obvious that in a country with 200 million Russian speakers there had to be a radio station that would speak Russian and broadcast Russian music."

With a generous helping of Soviet-era songs, Russkoye Radio has ridden the same wave of nostalgia and patriotism that brought success to other projects. Soviet-era films, for example, enjoy high ratings on Russian television stations. "Russian TV viewers seem to be tired of foreign films and the highest TV ratings of last year belong to Russian films," said Koneva.

Likewise, recent compact disk projects that feature contemporary artists singing Soviet-era classics have enjoyed brisk sales. Russkoye Radio was stepping into an arena of listeners eager for its product.

Coming up with the concept for Russkoye Radio was the easy part. Making it work was a shade more difficult.

The first problem the new managers encountered was a shortage of radio professionals. Maslov said that as a matter of principle, Russkoye Radio did not want to poach disk jockeys from other stations. This forced the founders to look for talent beyond the ranks of top disk jockeys then on the air.

Many of Russkoye Radio's current DJs worked earlier in modest positions at other stations. Russkoye Radio's management discovered DJ Gleb Deyev in Uzbekistan, for example, and moved him to Moscow.

Once they were up and running -- the station began broadcasting around the clock at 105.7 FM in August 1995 -- the nostalgia for Soviet music and a sense of pent-up patriotism among listeners brought almost instant success to Russkoye Radio.

By November 1995, 6.3 percent of the 3,500 respondents to a Comcon 2 poll of Moscow radio listeners reported that they listened to Russkoye Radio. The station trailed Europa Plus (with a 15.7 percent share of listeners) and Nostalgie (6.4 percent). It had already pulled ahead of Radio Maximum, which claimed 6.2 percent of those polled.

To boost its listenership, the station began to feature guest appearances by famous personalities, including television-show hosts Nikolai Fomenko and Valdis Pelsh. "We decided that if 10 million viewers liked these people, then why not invite them to the station?" said Maslov.

To prevent the station's lesser-known disk jockey from embarrassing the station, they regularly receive lessons -- in the Russian language. A teacher from a local theater school comes in weekly to teach the on-the-air cadre proper diction.

The company conducts marketing surveys several times a month, Maslov said, to stay abreast of consumer preferences. As a result, several programs have been added to the station's repertoire, while others have been pulled from the air.

Last year, for example, the station featured on-the-air story time each evening, during which Russian fairy tales were read by a serious-voiced male announcer. However, a study showed that the children's audience the station was hoping to capture was too small. After that, the station obtained rights to rebroadcast the old program "Radio Nanny" -- a popular Soviet-era radio show with stories, chat and music that appeals to a broader audience -- which it has been broadcasting successfully ever since.

The mix of Russian music, guest stars and retro story time seems to have been right: Russkoye Radio has now nudged the erstwhile market leader, Europa Plus, out of its top position.

According to a Comcon 2 poll conducted this June, nearly 668,000 Muscovites listen to Russkoye Radio, compared with 635,000 for Europa Plus.

In the middle of last year, Russkoye Radio began broadcasting to other cities in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Today, the station can be heard in 140 cities. Local stations rebroadcasting Russkoye Radio are permitted to air their own commercials, but the musical format must remain unchanged.

"They broadcast only Russian music, and do a great job in servicing this sector of the market," said Reginald Thomas, director of Radio Na Semi Kholmakh, or Radio on the Seven Hills, Moscow's fourth-largest radio station by listenership.

Nevertheless, competitors believe Russkoye Radio and other stations aggressively expanding their empires into the provinces are going to encounter problems. Thomas, for example, said that sooner or later the concept of network radio where the same programs are broadcast to many cities will become exhausted.

"It's unlikely that the programs Muscovites like will be interesting to people in Russia's hinterlands," said Thomas. "There's nothing like this in America, and it's possible that Russian radio stations will sooner or later need to restructure their work."

But for now, listeners are gravitating toward Russkoye Radio, and advertisers are close behind. Today, a 30-second commercial to air in Moscow costs $270, more than twice the $100 rate of two years ago. Advertising rates are expected to rise an additional 15 percent beginning in September.

Russkoye Radio now has the largest advertising revenues of any of Moscow's stations. The Russian Public Relations Group marketing agency estimated Russkoye Radio brought in advertising revenues of about $9.1 million in the first half of 1997, with monthly revenues averaging $1.5 million. The agency estimated that the station's closest competitor had advertising revenues of $1.1 million a month over that same period.

These figures do not take into account discounts the stations may offer to their advertisers, and so they tend to be high. Russkoye Radio itself reports much more modest revenues of 5.9 billion rubles -- about $1 million -- for the first six months of the year.

Maslov said he does not consider Russkoye Radio wealthy. Nearly all revenues, he said, are reinvested into the station and in purchasing new equipment.

Russkoye Radio employees attend various industry fairs where they buy modern equipment, Maslov said. This allows the station to provide good sound and maintain a small staff. The contemporary equipment used at Russkoye Radio enables one DJ to do the work of three or four employees at state-owned stations that use old equipment.

Russkoye Radio's all-Russian format does not mean that the stations founders are prejudiced against Western music.

In April, the station began a new project called Radio Klassika, at 102.1 FM, which broadcasts Western "classic rock" hits by groups such as the Beatles, Eagles and Police.

"The problem now with radio stations is that they are too poppy," said Russkoye Radio producer Sergei Kozhevnikov.

Like Russkoye Radio, Radio Klassika has forged a strong format identity.

"Unfortunately, many stations are becoming formatless," said Maslov. "There are very few formatted stations left. There's Russkoye Radio, there's Stantsiya 106.8, and Radio Maximum has a relatively well-tested format."

Despite the massive promotional campaign that accompanied Radio Klassika's launch, the new station still occupies a rather modest position. According to Comcon 2, only 0.2 percent of those polled in February and March said they listened to Klassika's predecessor on the same frequency. That figure increased, after the format change, to 1.2 percent by June.

Russkoye Radio has more expansion plans: Kozhevnikov said the station plans to broadcast on the Internet in order to reach homesick Russians the world over.

"We were surprised to find out that four Russian families living in the Maldives and Russian communities in Canada wanted to listen to our station," said Kozhevnikov.