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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Free Speech and Straight Talk for 15 Years

Itar-TassU.S. President Bill Clinton, one of many foreign dignitaries who has visited the station's studios, talking with Ekho Moskvy's Alexei Venediktov in 2000.
As Ekho Moskvy radio turned 15 this week, the country's most prominent independent-minded station was inundated with plaudits for its professionalism and dedication to freedom of speech from across the political spectrum.

"Ekho Moskvy fulfills the function of the only objective radio station that says what is really happening in the country," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Extreme Journalism. "It's difficult to find better journalists who report the news as promptly and without censorship."

As well as being the country's largest private news-based station, Ekho Moskvy was also the first to adopt a talk-radio format.

Although majority-owned by Gazprom-Media since 2001, the station remains one of the country's last independent broadcast media, with its journalists retaining editorial independence through their blocking 34 percent stake in the company.

Sergei Korzun, one of the station's founders and a former editor, said that the station grew out of perestroika-era frustrations at government restrictions shared by a group of young journalists at Gosteleradio.

"The idea was born in the late '80s, when I was working at the French service of Gosteleradio. I would go to various countries and borrow their ideas," said Korzun, who left Ekho Moskvy in 1996.

In the station's first day on the air, Aug. 22, 1990, a two-hour news program included an interview with politician Sergei Stankevich and the Beatles hit "All My Loving."

The station soon became a forum for open political debate, fielding on-air telephone calls from listeners and offering an alternative voice at a time when the airwaves were still dominated by state-owned stations.

"At first, our listeners were very cautious before speaking on air. Some would accuse us of encouraging them to speak freely. Some would say, 'You're recording what we say to give it to the KGB.' This was the first reaction, but then people started to like it," said Korzun, who is now Radio Liberty's chief correspondent in Moscow.

During the bumpy transition from Soviet rule, Ekho Moskvy's journalists distinguished themselves by free and professional reporting.

Ekho Moskvy was the first Russian radio station to report from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on Jan. 13, 1991, that Soviet troops had opened fire and tanks had run over protesters.

The station also broadcast extensively during the attempted coup of Aug. 19-21, 1991, when a dozen senior hard-line Communists, calling themselves the State Committee for a State of Emergency, or GKChP, attempted to seize power from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev by placing him under house arrest and sending hundreds of armored vehicles onto Moscow's streets.

More recently, Ekho Moskvy was the only Russian radio station that questioned the authorities' initial count of 354 hostages in last September's Beslan school raid, Panfilov said. Editor Alexei Venediktov called the Education and Science Ministry and found out the possible number of students, and then estimated how many parents and guests there could be, Panfilov said.

Ekho Moskvy then said that terrorists were holding more than 800 hostages, Panfilov said, an estimate that turned out to be a lot closer to the real total of about 1,300.

The station now combines strong news reporting with lighter informational fare. Analysts are invited to comment on current affairs shows such as "Osoboye Mneniye," or "Individual Opinion," while a variety of consumer and lifestyle programs offer everything from tips on car care to untangling grammatical complexities.

One of the station's most high-profile functions, which makes it an indispensable source for Russia-watchers, is its live interviews with prominent political leaders, domestic and foreign.

For visiting dignitaries, a turn in the interview hot seat at Ekho Moskvy's offices has become almost a required part of the Moscow itinerary. U.S. President Bill Clinton was quizzed by Venediktov in 2000 and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder answered listeners' questions live in 2001, while U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demonstrated her knowledge of Russian at the station this May.

The station has, on occasion, carried its commitment to freedom of speech further than even some of its staunchest supporters would wish.

Panfilov said he regretted that the station's editors offered a platform to nationalist leaders such as the Liberal Democratic Party's Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Rodina's Dmitry Rogozin. These and other "quite odious figures" incited ethnic hatred, Panfilov said.

Referring to speculation that some interviews with businesspeople on the station appeared to be advertisements, Panfilov said that staff told him that companies paid for such interviews, a practice he said he did not approve of but understood. Without such revenues, "it would be impossible for an independent radio station to survive," Panfilov said.

Venediktov insisted, however, that commercial broadcasts always began and ended with a jingle or an announcement.

Speaking on his show "Direct Speech" on Sunday, Venediktov defended the station's airing of diverse opinions. "We will continue to encourage the diverse opinions expressed by journalists and guest contributors on 'Individual Opinion.' I can tell you this for sure," Venediktov told a caller.

One pro-Kremlin commentator, Mikhail Leontyev, who often trashes the country's liberal opposition on his show "Odnako," or "However," on Channel One state television, said he liked to make weekly appearances on "Individual Opinion," where people from across the political spectrum share their thoughts on current affairs.

"It's the only well-established news talk radio at the moment, and we like it to talk," he said.

Leontyev said he was opposed to the station's liberal stance, but said he respected its professionalism and openness to divergent views. Ekho Moskvy "is able to digest everything, including me, and still look good," Leontyev said.

Leontyev also said that the station's existence was something the Kremlin could point to if accused of stifling media freedoms. "Ekho Moskvy is proof of the authorities' vegetarianism," he said.

Ekho Moskvy, which broadcasts on 91.2, is the city's top FM news and current-affairs radio station, with 688,000 Muscovites -- 7.3 percent of the city's total radio audience -- tuning in daily in July, according to the Comcon Media market research agency.

Close behind is the Serebryanny Dozhd, or Silver Rain, radio station, which competes for Ekho's middle-aged and liberal-minded audience but dedicates only 15 percent of its airtime to news and talk shows, said Irina Chmovzh, head of Comcon Media's radio department.

Ekho's other competitor is Russkoye Radio-2, which has upped its news and talk show content to 70 percent since this spring, when it switched from an almost entirely music-based format. Russkoye Radio-2 had 346,000 listeners in Moscow in July, or 3.7 percent of the city's radio audience, according to Comcon Media.

Gazprom-Media acquired the station in 2001 after seizing a packet of shares from oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky. In what was seen as a Kremlin-inspired bid to curb independent media, a court ruled that 25 percent of several Media-MOST outlets, including Ekho Moskvy, be handed to Gazprom in lieu of debts.

Liberal journalist Viktor Shenderovich, who used to host a satirical show on Gusinsky's NTV television before the channel was taken over by Gazprom, said Ekho Moskvy was the only media outlet nowadays that would offer space to his shows.

"Journalists who haven't found a place in other media are always given space on Ekho," he said. "In another country, Ekho would be the best democratic radio, but in Russia it is the only democratic radio we have."

On Monday evening, about 400 current and former staffers attended a party at the station's offices.

As part of its 15th anniversary celebrations, Ekho Moskvy will throw a party at the end of September for the guests of its shows, and a concert in October for its listeners and some of the people who influenced its spirit, such as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, singer Andrei Makarevich and science-fiction writer Boris Strugatsky, Venediktov said.