Julia R. Barton
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Baltic to the Sea of Japan

[a Transom manifesto by Julia Barton and Alex Kleimenov]

I tried to download a map of the former Soviet Union to show you the locations of the 15 radio stations I visited during five months on a Knight International Press Fellowship last summer and fall. But there’s a problem with such maps: they’re too big. You can’t print them out on one page and can’t fit them on a computer screen without making the place-names too small to read.

So I’ll have to draw you this picture instead. At the end of October, we were standing on the shore of the Baltic Sea near Kaliningrad, a detached piece of Russia that will soon be imbedded in the expanded European Union. A week later we were looking at the Sea of Japan, 6,500 miles away. We had just flown from the longitude of Stockholm across that of Central Europe and Turkey (with a stopover in Moscow), then across the length of the Middle East, the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the angry border of India and Pakistan, not to mention all of the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, China, and divided Korea. Yet we were still in the same country. Imagine nine time-zones worth of jet lag, but still waking up to the same language and the same ads on network TV. Even the “Chinese” restaurants, despite our new proximity to their namesake, served the same scary lumps of unidentifiable matter braised in diesel oil.

The radio station director in Vladivostok (Russia’s Pacific port) was pretty blasé about our epic journey. “We were just in Kaliningrad looking at the Baltic!” we exclaimed. “Oh yeah, how is it?” he asked. He’d grown up there.

We visited radio stations that seemed surprisingly connected to the world, despite being in places that most of the world would think of as nowhere. We also visited stations whose reporters seemed frozen in a modern-day gulag with a mini-disc recorder. We worked with a lot of kids who’d been thrown on the air barely a clue as to what to do, but we also met respected announcers whose listeners brought them flowers and thanked them for years of good advice. One thing is for sure: commercial radio in Russia is a lot more varied and interesting than in the United States. Sometimes we heard things that were discouraging, especially ads disguised (and not very well) as news stories, and silly DJ prattle that made us want to throw the radio out the window – except we were usually in the radio station at the time. Still, I have to give the stations credit. At least they HAVE news, and at least they HAVE DJs that are in the same town as the station, not pre-recorded into some computer in Florida. In fact, Russia’s under-staffed, inexperienced, overworked radio newsrooms reminded me of nothing so much as… your average local public radio station.

The connections between public radio and Russian commercial radio are stronger than just happenstance. The stations invited me through the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting (known by the Russian acronym FNR), a Moscow-based non-profit that tries to keep some semblance of ethical reporting and social programming alive in that country. FNR works mostly with commercial stations in the regions, which in Russia means everywhere not Moscow. A couple of years ago, FNR’s director and editor-in-chief visited the Third Coast Audio Festival in Chicago. That inspired them to organize a series of regional audio festivals around Russia. They got funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute with the help of none other than Bill Siemering.

I got to go to the first of these audio festivals in Khabarovsk, near the border with China (hence the rush from Kaliningrad to the opposite Russian shore). You could tell that the staffers of these isolated, Far Eastern towns were excited to have the chance to talk about their work and meet their colleagues. Although during Soviet times people moved around a lot – sometimes against their wills – it seems today that Russians in the regions are becoming more and more cut off, not only from the world, but from the rest of their vast country. It costs money to travel, and almost no one has that anymore.

As far as radio goes, more has been lost in the upheavals of the last 11 years. When we’d start talking about a technique like natural sound, which is almost never used on commercial radio in Russia, sometimes an old-timer would pipe up: “That’s how we used to do things in Soviet times.” Soviet radio, I got the sense, paid a lot more attention to the craft of audio, even if the content was in service of the state. Radio workers had training and standards they had to meet. Except for the efforts of training outfits like FNR, much of that knowledge has been lost to commercial radio today. But then again, there was no commercial radio in Communist times, so the transition was bound to be abrupt.

But almost everyone I met was eager to learn these new-again broadcasting tricks. No one likes to go on the air without a clue, and we witnessed many great discussions and revelations during our seminars. I have to give a lot of credit to the person who traveled with me, Alex Kleimenov. He acted as my interpreter, because my Russian is fine for ordering a beer but not for explaining how to write into an actuality. As a stringer for NPR and other public radio programs in Ukraine, Alex is also a great teacher of radio himself. And he had a credibility that I couldn’t have. Alex survived the Red Pioneer and Komsomol Youth camps, he knows all the references to old Soviet movies that I’ve never seen – he is, in short, one of “ours,” a word that has resonance in the former Soviet Union in a way that it never could in the United States.

There are other kinds of isolation than just geographical, and the kind the United States is suffering now may be the worst. Discussion with and knowledge of our colleagues abroad is one small way to counter that.

Transom.org, 6/1/03


The Good Old Days

Julia Barton finds that some Soviet standards could benefit Russian radio today

The radio station, like many others I saw in Russia, sat in a Soviet industrial park on the edge of town. But this one had particularly depressing torn-linoleum floors and an even sorrier scene outside. A pack of stray dogs roamed the snow-packed parking area or huddled on an above-ground heating pipe for warmth. Sometimes I saw them gnawing on the pipe insulation for a snack. Inside, the radio staff seemed to gnaw on our ideas with the same mixture of reluctance and hungry desperation. Should we quote real people in our newscasts? Should we verify facts from press releases or off the Internet?

Hmmm… maybe. But one thing they couldn’t do, the station’s chief editor insisted, was even refer to anyone who contradicted the views of the local government.

“You see,” says the middle-aged woman who previously worked at Soviet state radio in Kazakhstan, “the governor’s office is taping all our newscasts! They’ll make life difficult for us if we make them angry.”

In visiting 15 radio stations, from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast to Kaliningrad on the Baltic, I’d never heard of such control. Neither had my co-trainer and interpreter, Alexander Kleimenov, who lives in Ukraine, where media freedoms are arguably worse. Information on commercial radio still largely flies “under the radar” in Russia. After all, what local official has time to sift through hours of music and primitive infomercials for a few snippets of possibly offensive news? But being an outsider, I was willing to give the editor the benefit of the doubt. What depressed me was that she didn’t seem familiar with any of our suggestions. We’d grown accustomed to any elder in the room piping up during the seminar with the most remarkable statement: “Oh yeah, that’s how we used to do things in the Soviet times.”

Thus we discovered that we weren’t presenting new and radical ideas to Russian radio newsrooms. When talking about narrative form, the use of natural sound and interview techniques, we were actually discussing professional standards that had simply been lost in the shuffle during years of political and financial upheaval. Given my background in public radio, my advice often sounded closer to that of a Soviet-trained radio journalist than the modern DJs-turned-newscasters that populate many commercial radio newsrooms in Russia now. The old-timers sometimes seemed shocked at how much we had in common and that it took a foreigner to get the youngsters enthusiastic about the craft of radio.

Commercial radio displays such a generation gap in Russia because until the breakup of the Soviet Union, FM broadcasting barely existed in the world’s largest empire. Private radio stations had to invent themselves in the 1990s at the same time the country was reinventing itself. Since radio stations were looking to the West for music, no one wanted news to sound like a throwback to Soviet state radio, with its long reports and maternal or paternal sounding announcers.

At one point, I traveled to a radio competition organized by my Moscow-based partner organization, the Foundation for Independent Radio, in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk. There, I heard a commercial radio staffer lambaste a contest entry from state radio: “Sad, sad, sad. It sounds like reinforced concrete!”

But in rejecting everything about the past, commercial radio also threw out the standards that Soviet-trained reporters had developed, says Evgeniy Morozov, general director of Radio Lemma, a commercial station I visited in Vladivostok. Those standards included clear writing, lively interviews and the use of natural sound.

Yes, censorship and, especially, self-censorship were a permanent feature of life in the Soviet media, Morozov admits. But within those restraints, he adds, reporters still had to prove themselves with good work. “Journalists had to present ordinary facts in a way that was interesting for listeners. From simple events—maybe slightly interesting ones —you had to make it SO interesting so that people listened, so that they knew you, they remembered your name.”

Morozov got his start in the 1980s while still in journalism school by working on a regional program aimed at youth, “Primorsky Pioneer.” “It was the lowest, simplest level, programming for children, but almost all journalists started with that, and only then, if you showed you could do the work, could you go on to produce other material.”
Now that system is gone, Morozov concedes, along with any practical education for broadcast journalists. What’s left of journalism training in Russia is poorly funded and full of “useless theories from 40 years ago.” So when Morozov hires staff, rather than looking at diplomas, he picks those who show some common sense and a command of language. “The rest they can learn on the job,” he says.

Morozov’s technique seems to work, as his newsroom was one of the best we visited in Russia. Its relatively large staff of seven editors and reporters all do their jobs with diligent composure. We found plenty to work on with them, but their newscasts are nonetheless a model we could show to other stations.

Sadly, as if to show the fragility of such a phenomenon, the last day of our seminar at Radio Lemma was also Morozov’s. He was leaving to head news programming at the regional state-television station. He said he’d grown tired of battling Lemma’s owners, a local fish-canning company, who seemed determined to sell the station to a Moscow-run network.

The capital sets, as with most things in Russia, the trend for commercial radio. While many local FM stations started up with only euphoria and the owner’s record collection, the realities of formatting and niche marketing have emanated from Moscow into the regions. More and more stations are now owned outright by the city’s networks or those paying to air Moscow “brand” formats, such as Avtoradio, which aims to capture the driving market. (Owning and maintaining a car is still not easy in Russia, so driving is practically a separate profession, or at least a way of life.)

These regional “brand” stations get little more than some promo material and vague guidance from the network, which leaves a lot of room for local programming. The Avtoradio station we visited in Novosibirsk aired a popular afternoon show called “People’s Traffic Jam,” where drivers would call in to report traffic snarls around town. In between, celebrity guests (including yours truly) would talk about their own cars. Kleimenov, who went to graduate school in the U.S., also explained the relative ease of getting a driver’s license there—no triple-digit bribes involved!

While formats and target audiences are concepts Russian radio has largely embraced, much confusion about the role of news per se prevails. Unlike commercial radio in the U.S., Russian radio stations see the benefit of having hourly newscasts, even if only for two minutes. But how those newscasts should sound—and whether any actual journalistic effort or ethics should go into them—were questions still up in the air at most stations.

One major problem is that regional stations pay poorly, $100 to $200 a month on average. News staffs consequently tend to be young and inexperienced, and turnover is high. The Internet has also been a seductive money-saver for stations. Rather than subscribe to costly (but more reliable) wire services, newscasters just get their material off the Web, though they often don’t know how or when to ask questions of what’s written there. I sat down with the young staff of Avtoradio in Novosibirsk to listen to their station’s newscast and then asked what they could remember of it. They couldn’t remember much, and their crestfallen facial expressions betrayed a fear of looming punishment.

How were they supposed to know and remember what all those stories were about? Either a boss handed a story to them, or they pulled it off the Internet. Asking questions, clarifying vague language and generally taking control of the news for the benefit of listeners—all that sounded horrid and daunting. But by the end of the week, after a mock press conference, some writing exercises and much encouragement, people showed more enthusiasm and self-confidence.

One last short-cut to an “exciting” newscast at most commercial stations is a music bed beneath the news. This can usually range in sound from jolting to merely hyperactive. Avtoradio also includes between-story “beats,” a pre-recorded male voice that swoops in to announce the next story: “About The Economy!” or “About Chechnya!” and even, “About That!” (which caused this American visitor some confusion until people explained that “that” is a Russian euphemism for sex).

When I played a typical newscast from National Public Radio, most younger radio staff thought the lack of music gave it that Soviet “reinforced concrete” sound. I’d explain that with at least two sound bites and two voiced reports from around the world, all crammed into three minutes along with a stock-market update, music would be a horrible distraction to listeners. I got a much better response after playing the newscasts of Radio France, which uses music beds subtlely. One program director immediately ran into the studio during a newscast and told the engineer to turn down the volume on the music. Everyone exclaimed that it was suddenly easier to hear the newscaster’s voice and understand what he was saying.

Child’s Play?

Despite the superficial breaks with the Soviet past, Kleimenov sensed a deeper continuity. Now 30, the Kiev-based freelance journalist lived through the whole “extra-curricular” education of Soviet life, from the red-Pioneer kerchiefs to the teenage Komsomol Youth meetings. And too many radio stations, to him, felt like his Pioneer days.

“At Pioneer camp, people would all do skits that were funny to them and
their close friends, but no one else would laugh. But it didn’t matter. If you thought it was funny, then it had to be funny,” he told me.

At many radio stations I visited, that translated into a lack of connection with listeners. What would they like to hear? Would, for instance, weather forecasts be useful more than once an hour in the mornings? Could anyone but the advertisers stand to listen to the ads or, worse, the ads disguised as news stories? This vein of questioning was rare at many stations. (To be fair, it seems absent at many U.S. radio stations as well). Part of the disconnect was due to an almost total lack of audience research in the regions. But part of it seemed a holdover from Soviet days, when listeners really didn’t have a choice in radio. Today, the best stations I visited, and those with the best staff morale, know their listeners now have a choice, and stations must make a constant effort to keep their audience share.

That means communicating with, not just at, listeners. In this regard, one of the best stations I visited was Baltic Plus, in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. It played an “adult contemporary” mix of music, had a strong (though small) news team and featured weekly shows on topics like fashion—though the host, Tatiana Ponomarenko, takes that term to include many issues affecting the modern Russian woman. She feels a bond with the audience that’s apparently reciprocated: The newsroom exhibited a bouquet of flowers from a listener, one of many, we were told, who bring them to her on a regular basis.

Ponomarenko told us that once, as she was waiting to cross the border to Poland, a Russian border guard recognized her name and said that everyone listened religiously to her show in the barracks. “We know we can’t live that life of fashion,” the guard said. “We listen to it like a fairy tale.”

That connection with radio is the motivation for many who work in the field, and it may be the best hope for Russian radio. Anna Bakumova, a young correspondent at Avtoradio in Novosibirsk, grew up with Pioneer Youth radio. She would listen to its plays, sing along with its songs, and even send in a few verses of her own. “It gave me the feeling that radio was many different people, many points of view, all coming to me in my home. It had the feeling of people talking personally to me,” she said.

That wasn’t surprising to hear, considering what Bakumova had asked us, almost tragically, a couple of days before. Soviet radio was great, she said, the way it used sounds and drama. “Can we do that still?”

KnightLine International, Summer 2003

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