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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Medical Student Meets His Fate on FM Radio

MTMikhail Kozyrev's taste in music was heavily influenced by American alternative rock bands.
As a teenager growing up in Yekaterinburg in the late Brezhnev era, Mikhail Kozyrev tried to get his conservative parents to appreciate the banned Western rock music he had fallen in love with.

His father, a classical violinist, would have nothing of it, putting down whatever Mikhail played.

"For years, he said 'that stuff you listen to -- that isn't music,'" Kozyrev recalled. "One day, I played for him [Queen's] 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' After the song was over, he looked at me and said, 'You can call that music.'

"I had finally convinced him that my music was good, and I felt victorious."

Twenty years later, Kozyrev, 35, is trying to convince Russians to enjoy alternative rock. And he's doing so with such success that industry insiders call him one of the most powerful figures in Russian music and FM radio.

As head of Nashe Radio FM 101.7 and Radio Ultra FM 100.5 -- the country's leading rock and alternative stations -- the former medical student has introduced millions to a crop of unknown local bands, some of which have grown to superstar status.

He is also the brains behind Russia's largest music festival, Nashestviye, which draws some 100,000 rock fans to a muddy field outside of Moscow every August to hear some of the country's most popular bands.

"Kozyrev is a unique and very influential person in the radio industry," said Yelena Koneva, an expert at Comcon, a media research company that regularly monitors Russian radio.

"He is the only one trying to expand what is, compared to Western countries, the rather narrow taste of music among Russian radio listeners," she said. "He has already had an effect on people's tastes and has helped make new groups popular."

The number of Muscovites tuning in to rock radio has doubled since Nashe Radio hit the airwaves in 1999, according to Comcon. Little-known groups that Kozyrev routinely played -- such as Zemfira and Chicherina -- have become household names.

Kompaniya magazine last year called Kozyrev the most influential person in the Russian music industry.

Kozyrev seemed destined for a life in entertainment. While his father was a distinguished violinist, his mother was an award-winning documentary film director and philologist.

Kozyrev's childhood was partially spent in the local concert hall listening to his father practice or in the film studio with his mother, as his parents were too poor to afford a babysitter.

"I can still remember the studio editing room piled up with film," he recalled. "My mom would dub these films with all types of sounds, and the machine would make this strange buzzing noise when she worked with it. I would sit next to her all day and just watch everything she did."

When his mom was away filming on location, Kozyrev would listen to his dad practice various classical pieces over and over "about 100 times."

Kozyrev never took up music in his youth -- nor did his dad want him to. The career demanded practicing hundreds of hours per month for little money and little respect, he recalls his father telling him.

"He said you had to invest an insane amount of effort to become good at playing an instrument, and even when you reach that level, you are under-appreciated," Kozyrev recalled. "He was very unhappy at times with his life; he wanted to guard me from that crazy effort."

His parents also wanted to guard him from military service and advised him to study medicine, which he did, earning an exemption from the mandatory two-year stint in the army.

But midway through his studies in Sverdlovsk, the exemption was annulled and Kozyrev served. Kozyrev eventually went back to university and finished the medical department at the top of his class in 1992 -- having worked as an emergency-room intern in Yekaterinburg, the United States and England.

Kozyrev then packed his bags -- tossing in some of his favorite Russian rock albums -- and headed off to California to attend medical school in late 1992.

"I wanted to raise my professional level to the highest possible degree, and during my time as an intern in New York, I sensed that America offered stronger graduate programs."

Kozyrev buried himself in the library at the University of California at Los Angeles to prepare for the U.S. medical board exams.

But the break in studies during military service had erased freshman microbiology from his memory, and he failed the exams by a few points, shattering his dream of becoming a doctor.

"I never expected to fail," he said. "I was a golden boy in university, and this was a terrible blow for me. It was a turning point in my life."

Short on cash, Kozyrev took a job at Pomona College in California teaching Russian language to American students. The university ran its own FM radio station, KSPC 88.7, which played mostly alternative music but devoted several hours of airtime each week to Caribbean and Latino styles.

Sensing an opportunity, Kozyrev suggested a Russian music program, and the station manager agreed. His weekly half-hour program -- which Kozyrev called "the Music of Bolshevik Children and Grandmothers" -- was soon expanded to two hours and featured call-in questions and discussions.

The new profession conquered his heart.

"I loved the position so much I would count the days remaining before I would go on air again," he said.

The job introduced Kozyrev to FM radio, which was only just beginning to develop in Russia, having been blocked by the Soviet regime until 1990. It also taught him about music formats -- rock, pop, hip-hop, jazz -- something the new Russian FM stations had yet to grasp.

Kozyrev music tastes developed during daily rides in his beige Ford Tempo listening to K-Rock radio.

"KROQ radio was playing these new alternative groups like Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins one after the other, and I remember sitting in my car saying, 'What was that line? What was that sound?'" he recalled. "I couldn't believe the lyrics and sounds I was hearing. It was completely new and fantastic."

Howard Stern was also a big influence. His candid, and crass, on-air discussions of sex, politics and music, which shocked even Americans, left Kozyrev glued to the front seat.

"I would be ready to get out of the car, and he would say something outrageous," he said. "I had to sit in my car until he finished talking."

A family illness brought Kozyrev back home in summer 1994 -- and not a minute too late.

Radio Maximum, a joint Russian-U.S. venture, was looking for a programming director who understood FM, and Kozyrev's cousin put him in contact with station management. Maximum's Los Angeles-based consultant was familiar with Kozyrev's Russian music program at Pomona and offered him the position.

"This was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make," Kozyrev said. "I was up all that night thinking 'what am I doing with my life? Where am I going from here?'"

Kozyrev called a friend in Pomona who told him he was "in the right place at the right time." He accepted the offer.

Within a few months, the boy from the Urals was giving the station a facelift. Pop was out. Western rock and alternative music like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and Depeche Mode were in, as was Russian rock.

Kozyrev wrote jingles and slogans, with an attitude. He pushed the station's image further by helping create and produce Maxidrom, an annual music festival inside the Olimpiisky Sports Complex featuring dozens of groups and attended by thousands of fans.

He also began producing and hosting the controversial "Sumerki" talk show on Maximum and NTV television. Modeled after the American radio program "Love Line," Sumerki featured Kozyrev and a doctor discussing issues such as sex and drugs with callers, something still taboo at the time in Russia.

Under Kozyrev, Maximum's ratings grew, but not as fast as new pop stations.

Kozyrev said that Maximum's management wanted to see a return to more mainstream music like the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls, but he disagreed. In July 1998, after four years on the job, Kozyrev was fired.

But within a month, Logovaz News Corp. -- a joint venture between Robert Murdoch's News Corp. and Boris Berezovsky's Logovaz -- invited Kozyrev to develop and manage a new rock radio station, Nashe Radio. The station is called Nashe, or Ours, because it plays only Russian music.

Kozyrev brought to Nashe his taste for alternative rock and penchant for large-scale projects. In 1999, he created Nashestviye, a two-day, open-air version of Maxidrom featuring Russian bands both new and old. The festival has been his most memorable achievement to date.

"When I saw about 100,000 people singing along to the groups on stage, I was overcome because I could see the event had made an impact on people," he said about last year's Nashestviye. "No drug could make me feel as high as I did at that moment."

The success of Nashe and his other station, Radio Ultra, has made Kozyrev a sought-after figure in the industry.

The Soros Foundation, a philanthropic organization created by billionaire George Soros to fund business projects in the former Soviet Union, has hired him as an adviser for radio, and he regularly appears as a music critic on "Zemlya-Vozdukh," a weekly music program on TVS.

Kozyrev is also a consultant for Real Records, Russia's leading music label, having helped produce the soundtrack for the Russian blockbuster "Brat 2."

He has also worked to organize radio stations to increase their lobbying power and promote radio advertising.

Kozyrev is now trying to purchase more frequencies in order to launch several new radio stations.