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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making Your Old Radio Sing

Radio Orpheus" is Russia's leading all-classical radio station. But it won't jump out at you from the FM dial; finding it will take some effort.

Hidden away on the near-obsolete UKV, or "ultra-short wave," band, the government-funded Orpheus is in danger of being forgotten amid a rash of belt-tightening.

But for now, the station continues to offer nonstop classical music and learned commentary on the subject. On a typical day, you can hear an entire symphony, opera or concert; cultural news; and programs on specific artists, genres and other topics ("the quartet from Haydn to Hindemith," "Russian composers in and about Italy," "musical parodies"). These programs are custom-crafted by the station's 15 editors, all of them professional musicologists.

Starting Jan. 1, Radio Orpheus will have a satellite connection provided by the European Broadcasting Union, which will bring performances from concert halls and opera houses in Europe and North America.

Orpheus broadcasts to most of European Russia. In Moscow, it is at the 72.14 megahertz frequency on the UKV band and 1152 kilohertz on AM. To receive UKV, you need an old Soviet radio or one of the few imported radios designed specially for the Russian market. Orpheus' AM signal in Moscow is very weak.

Called "Channel 4" when it started in 1967, the station was only an appendage of the main government radio station, Channel 1, and it broadcast for six hours a day.

In 1991, Channel 4 gained equal status with the other three radio stations that existed at that time under the state broadcasting company Ostankino, and took its new name from the myth of Orpheus, whose singing was so beautiful that it melted the tigers' hearts and toppled the oaks. In keeping with this lofty aspiration, Orpheus' air time was expanded to the current schedule of 18 hours a day.

Since the decline of the domestic recording industry, Orpheus has become the country's primary mass medium for classical music, especially Russian music. Vladimir Makoveyev, deputy director of the Federal Broadcasting Service, says some private radio stations at first declare loyalty to classical music, but then waver toward pop, in deference to the demands of their advertisers.

Orpheus, however, is committed to staying commercial-free.

"Bach and Snickers are incompatible. We're not against Snickers, but we think they're incompatible," said Olga Gromova, the station's director since independence.

But as a government-funded station, Orpheus has struggled with financial problems. In 1994, Ostankino proposed to cut broadcasts back to 10 hours a day. And in June 1995, one privatized transmitter threatened to shut down Orpheus broadcasts for nonpayment of fees.

Reaching for her public relations file, Gromova produces evidence of an outpouring of support, including a Duma resolution calling on the government to give Radio Orpheus more funding and operational independence, and a petition with a signature list that reads like a who's who of Russian music (singer Irina Arkhipova, conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, violist Yury Bashmet and dozens more). The petition calls Radio Orpheus one of the last lines of defense against the "rampant pseudo-culture that has already engulfed Russia's television screens and concert halls."

Orpheus got through these crises thanks to ad hoc government allocations and an October 1995 presidential decree that Gromova at the time called her "certificate of safe passage." The decree provided for the liquidation of Ostankino, with Orpheus and certain other state-owned radio and television stations to be spun off as separate "government institutions," which by law cannot be bankrupted. The government implemented this plan in 1996, a year of relatively smooth sailing for Radio Orpheus.

In January 1997, another blow came - this time not financial, but equally severe. Before then, Orpheus's programs were drawn mostly from the State Musical Recording Archive, compiled over more than 60 years. Now responsible for its own finances, the archive gave Radio Orpheus seven days' notice that it was instituting "market" rates for use of its holdings, which Gromova says were unaffordable.

Since then, Orpheus has been building its own archives from private collections, including those of leading performers and record companies. The station is also frequently allowed to record concerts for its own noncommercial use.

The 1998 federal budget allotted Radio Orpheus 6.9 million rubles (about $1 million at pre-Aug. 17 exchange rates), 42 percent of which is for transmission fees. Olga Zolotseva, the station's first deputy director, says not all of the budgeted money has been received, and very little is left after paying salaries averaging 1,200 rubles a month ($58 at Friday's official rate) for the station's 65 full-time employees and buying office supplies and other essentials.

In July, the station lost a second AM frequency for lack of funds, and Zolotseva says the station is in debt to several other government organizations and cannot buy modern computer and broadcasting equipment.

Orpheus' situation will become more precarious under its next government-decreed reorganization. Starting Jan. 1, Orpheus and the 98 other state-owned radio, television and broadcasting companies across the country will become subsidiaries of a new holding company, VRGTRK, or the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company. Under this new legal form, the subsidiaries will receive government funding through VRGTRK. Until now, Orpheus has been a separate line item in the federal budget.

While Gromova expressed confidence in VRGTRK's current leadership, she is worried that Orpheus's funding can be arbitrarily reduced in the middle of any budget year. As for private sponsorship, Gromova said that fund-raising efforts have only yielded support for a few events from foreign organizations.

Orpheus's main argument for government funding should be the size of its audience. But the potential audience has clearly shrunk, as Soviet radios have disappeared from the market and listeners have replaced their old sets with imports that do not receive UKV, a system that the Soviet Union touted as a competing model to FM.

The prospects for moving to the FM dial don't look good for Orpheus right now. As always, the main issue is money. The Federal Broadcasting Service allocates FM frequencies by tender, taking into account qualitative factors, as well as the amount of money offered by bidders.

While Makoveyev of the broadcasting service praised Orpheus's "unique content and format," he said the station would not be able to get an FM frequency until there is enough "demand for its product." But Zolotseva from Radio Orpheus says even the initial FM licensing fee is beyond the station's means.

A recent declaration of support came from Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who met with the heads of VRGTRK and some of its subsidiaries earlier this month. As Gromova recounts the meeting, Primakov assured her that Orpheus should not be forced to operate on a commercial footing at the expense of quality, and that the station will receive necessary funding for development.

To judge from the public statements of government officials, Radio Orpheus has succeeded in melting their hearts, but with the critical federal budget deficit this is no guarantee of adequate support.

Ultimately, Radio Orpheus seems to survive in large part on what Gromova calls "self-sponsorship," referring ironically to the tiny salaries that she and her staff receive.

In a refrain often heard in the Russian art world, she adds, "The people who do this work are the ones who can't live and breathe without it," whatever the monetary reward.