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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radio Mayak Tunes In to the Future

Radio Mayak was born 36 years ago, back when broadcasts went out on frequencies well below the FM bands, which the Soviet Kremlin had marked off as hostile Western territory. Now, after years of strumming the strings of nostalgia, Russias most popular radio station has just taken a radical step up into FM in search of a more middle-class market.

We need a new target audience, says Irina Gerasimova, Mayaks director. We want to talk to young and dynamic people.

But the goal of commercial success pits the state-owned station against its most loyal listeners.

We cant do much when we receive letters with requests to play Valenki [felt boots, a tune from the 1930s] or similar songs. We have to respond, says Gerasimova.

It is clear this road leads nowhere, but we cannot discriminate against our own audience.

While Moscow and a few other islands of capitalism have risen in the 1990s, much of the nation remains back in the quiet, slow and carefree Soviet past.

For that other Russia, Mayak remains a beacon.

For many people, the sounds of Mayak coming from the kitchen are like noises from the street, says Oleg Kupriyanov, the stations deputy director. If they hear Mayak, it means life goes on and everything is OK.

Back in Moscow, meanwhile, money talks and nostalgia doesnt.

So in an effort to have it both ways, Mayak last week launched new FM programs for Moscow that are different from its national broadcasting. The news is still the same, with a 15-minute program every hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The rest is mostly different, with Valenki for the provinces and more hip programming for Moscow.

Mayaks move into FM became a reality after it won a tender in February for the frequency 103.4.

Mayak won after first paying a participants fee of 200,000 rubles (about $7,000), and then paying 10 million rubles ($350,000) for a broadcasting license. Such licenses are usually automatically extended unless a user fails to honor its obligations.

Until last year, 103.4 FM was in the hands of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkovs Radio Sport, which lost the license together with radio station Govorit Moskva.

But it is not a problem-free number on the dial: FM channels are supposed to be separated by at least 0.4 megahertz, and the powerful Radio Maximum is uncomfortably close at 103.7 FM.

Mayak the word means lighthouse was founded in 1964. Today it is part of the VGTRK holding company, which also owns and operates Radio Rossii, the RIA Novosti news agency and the television stations RTR and Kultura.

Gallup Media research suggests Mayak is the nations most popular radio station, followed by Radio Rossii and Russkoye Radio. Gallup research tracks the companys share of listeners in a test 15-minute period rising from about 11.6 percent in May-July to 14 percent in August-October.

Gallups competitor, the market research agency COMCON, rates Mayak as the second-most popular station, after Radio Rossii. But COMCON data also shows Mayaks overall popularity rising, from 12.6 percent of the market in the spring to 14.2 percent this fall.

A typical Mayak listener is male, employed, over 55 years old, with a higher education and a below-average income, according to Yelena Koneva, director of COMCON.

Mayak was among the radio stations that lost broadcasting when the Ostankino television tower caught fire in August. But some of its competitors, including Russkoye Radio and Avtoradio, were hurt even worse.

And Mayaks visions of the future are too long-term to dwell upon the Ostankino fire for long. Mayak managers have been looking at the experiences of European radio, pondering the past 10 years in Russia, and are now hoping to catch a new wave in listening tastes.

As they tell it, Russian listeners in the early 1990s were enchanted with Western pop music, and so tuned their radios to Europa Plus.

But over the years that fascination with the sound of English faded, and audiences began demanding Radio Retro and other Russian-language broadcasts.

Radio Retro is a top hit among cab drivers over 50, says Mayaks Kupriyanov.

Kupriyanov says a third wave is now coming: One that will want not just music but also more meaty news and information broadcasts.

Catching that wave means a national upgrade from Soviet-era low megahertz broadcasting to FM bands which could cost several hundred million dollars. Our long-term goal is to expand FM broadcasting beyond Moscow, Gerasimova said.

That ambitious goal will mean spending serious money replacing the Soviet-era distribution system, which transmits signals through relay stations across the country.

Unwilling to let the population hear Western radio, the Soviet government developed its own frequencies, in the range of 66 through 88 MHz, and left the FM bands 88 MHz to 108 MHz to Europe.

It was only in the last decade that companies have moved into the FM bands, and it remains a fiercely competitive market. On Wednesday, the Press Ministry held an auction for yet another FM frequency. The tender was won by the Interros ProfMedia group, which includes the daily newspapers Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda.

For Mayak, going FM nationwide will mean installing new radio transmitters at a cost of up to $60,000 each, or perhaps several hundred million dollars all told.

Alternatively, Mayak may sell its franchise to commercial companies, which could install the transmitters at their own expense in exchange for the rights to sell advertising time.

Mayaks annual budget for 2000 as set by the government was 317.2 million rubles ($11.3 million), but last year the government only ponied up about 24 million rubles ($857,000).

Advertising makes up the rest. Figures about Mayaks advertising revenues are confidential, but Mayak officials say they are a far cry from what is needed to break even.