By Neil MacFarquhar
Radio Sputnik, a propaganda arm of the Russian government, began broadcasting on three Kansas City-area radio stations during prime drive time.
When commuters spin the radio dial as they drive through Kansas City, Mo., these days, between the strains of classic rock and country hits they can tune in to something unexpected: Russian agitprop.
In January, Radio Sputnik, a propaganda arm of the Russian government, started broadcasting on three Kansas City-area radio stations during prime drive times, even sharing one frequency with a station rooted in the city’s historic jazz district.
“Who needs a ridiculous Red Dawn invasion,” a participant in one online forum wrote about the new broadcasts. “Your overlord, Mr. Putin, will be addressing you soon, so it’s best to prepare now,” another commenter wrote, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
In the United States, talk radio on Sputnik covers the political spectrum from right to left, but the constant backbeat is that America is damaged goods.
Sputnik’s American hosts follow a standard talk radio format, riffing on the day’s headlines and bantering with guests and callers. They find much to dislike in America, from the reporting on the coronavirus epidemic to the impeachment of President Trump, and they play on internal divisions as well.
On a recent show, one host started by saying he was broadcasting “live from Washington, D.C., capital of the divided states of America.”
Critics in Kansas City called Radio Sputnik’s arrival an unabashed exploitation of American values and openness. Those behind the deal defended it as a matter of free speech, as well as a simple business transaction.
Peter Schartel, the owner of Alpine Broadcasting Corporation of Liberty, Mo., the company airing Sputnik in Kansas City, said that he started the broadcasts on Jan. 1 both because he liked what he heard during a trial run last fall and because he was getting paid.
The deal was brokered by RM Broadcasting, a Florida firm that hunts for airtime to sell to Rossiya Segodnya, the Russian state media organization behind Sputnik.
Last year a federal judge in Florida ruled against RM Broadcasting’s owner, Arnold Ferolito, after he sued to prevent the Justice Department from forcing him to register as a foreign government agent. (Various news media organizations linked to Russia had already been ordered to register.)
The ruling outraged Mr. Ferolito, who said he made his first deal to get Russian state radio on the air in the United States in 2009. “They are paying for airtime and I make a percentage,” he said in an interview. “I am not being paid to represent the Russian government.”
Anyone tuned to Sputnik on 104.7 FM while driving across the historic 18th & Vine district in Kansas City, Mo., will find that it fades for a few minutes of music from KOJH — the call letters refer to Kansas City’s oldest jazz house — before Sputnik takes back over.
For years, Anita J. Dixon, a community organizer, dreamed of creating a radio station built around the music of such legendary Kansas City musicians as Count Basie and Charlie Parker. Ms. Dixon said having Sputnik dominate the same frequency was jarring.
“What was supposed to be a historic jazz station in a historic jazz community is now broadcasting Alex Jones and Sputnik,” Ms. Dixon said. “Ever heard the expression of being sold up the river? That is how it felt.”
Mr. Schartel disputed the notion that Kansas City is getting Sputnik instead of jazz. Radio Sputnik does beam its signal on the same frequency as KOJH, he said, but outside the limited geographic area awarded to the Mutual Musicians Foundation for the nonprofit, low-power jazz station.
Ms. Dixon still found it galling that Russia had gained space on the radio dial on the same frequency she had envisioned as a beacon for a black community that, among other things, had sent soldiers to die defending American values like free speech.
People ask how Russia managed to interfere in U.S. elections, Ms. Dixon said. “Because they get free airwaves,” she said. “It is called propaganda.”
Before Kansas City, Washington had been the only American city with Sputnik broadcasts — round the clock on one AM station and one FM station. Public disclosure forms show that the Russian government is paying more than $2 million over three years, starting in December 2017, for the Washington broadcasts.
In Kansas City, the fee is $324,000 for three years, or $49.27 per hour, according to RM Broadcasting’s Foreign Agents Registration Act filing. Mr. Schartel said he gets $27.50 of that hourly rate.
When it began in January, the Sputnik broadcast on KCXL was met with strong condemnation from locals. The station received a lot of hate calls, including a threat to burn it down, Mr. Schartel said.
An editorial in The Kansas City Star noted that the free press was a prime target of Mr. Putin’s attempts to weaken public trust in American institutions. “It’s sad, but not astonishing, that an American entrepreneur would put business above patriotism,” the paper wrote. “Listener, beware.”
Those involved in putting Sputnik on the air defended it as free speech. “I am not a bumpkin that fell off a wagon; I encourage people to listen for themselves,” Mr. Schartel said.
What was once Radio Moscow was reborn as Radio Sputnik in 2014. Mr. Putin backed the effort to create a central, state-run news organization — called Rossiya Segodnya, or Russia Today in English — designed to challenge the West’s global dominance on reporting news.
In a modern spin on propaganda, it focuses on sowing doubt about Western governments and institutions rather than the old Soviet model of selling Russia as paradise lost.
American intelligence agencies have concluded that Sputnik; its television sibling, RT; and other Russian-controlled media outlets were part of the Kremlin’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and could star in a repeat performance this year.
In Russia, the government controls the main television stations and an ever-growing list of news agencies.
Anna Starkova, the head of Rossiya Segodnya’s press service, said by email from Moscow that broadcasting in Kansas City would “not only broaden our audience but also give us valuable new experience locally.”
Sputnik now broadcasts in 90 cities worldwide, she said, dismissing as “absurd” the idea that listeners are the target of Russian election meddling.
Working through the news headlines on recent Sputnik broadcasts, the hosts found much to fault.
The impeachment of Mr. Trump is bad.
“The entire impeachment is a lie,” said Lee Stranahan, a former Breitbart reporter and the right-wing co-host of Sputnik’s morning show.
The American political system is bad.
Politics here is meant “to make sure that the masses of poor and working people don’t have access to even the most essential things,” said Sean Blackmon, a host of an evening program.
The American military presence in Iraq is bad.
United States forces should withdraw to allow Russia and China to rebuild Iraq and Syria, an Iraqi guest suggested.
Above all, the American press is beyond redemption.
“The wheels are coming off the establishment media,” Mr. Stranahan said. That is the Greek chorus across Sputnik.
Sputnik argues that the station is not trying to sow distrust or to undermine public confidence, but rather is seeking to express opinions that cannot be heard in other venues. “They know perfectly well that they are not going to be allowed to say that on CNN or Fox or MSNBC,” said Mindia Gavasheli, a veteran Russian television journalist who runs Sputnik’s Washington bureau.
Sputnik produces eight hours of daily material in Washington, filling the rest with feeds from its bureau in Edinburgh, from RT broadcasts and from shows that highlight aspects of Russia, like traveling to the Caspian Sea. In Kansas City, Sputnik airs six hours every day, during commuting times in the morning and evening as well as on weekends.
There are no immediate plans to expand elsewhere, Mr. Gavasheli said, although what he described as the “brouhaha” over Kansas City had prompted inquiries from other markets in the United States.
The Sputnik hosts seemed to revel in having a new audience. The morning show did a couple of segments on Kansas City barbecue and tried to make light of Russian influence by joking that Mr. Putin had ordered that the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl. (That was before the game, which the Chiefs won.)
Sputnik shares its Kansas City stations with a cast of far-right conspiracy theorists, evangelical pastors and anti-Semites. The host of one program, TruNews, recently described the impeachment of Mr. Trump as a “Jew coup.”
“He calls things the way that he sees them,” Mr. Schartel said of Rick Wiles, who made the remark. “I feel that he has got a right to say what he is saying.”
“We’ve always put on voices and people that wouldn’t be able to get on anyplace else,” said Mr. Schartel, who has owned the station for 26 years.
A mission statement on KCXL’s website says the United States has become a different country that now looks down on traditional values. “We tell you the things that the liberal media” will not, it said.
Barrett Emke contributed reporting.