Radio to Russia: Can Old Technologies Make a Dent in Putin’s Information Blockade?

The following article is an original work published by the Information Professionals Association. Opinions expressed by authors are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of or endorsement by the Information Professionals Association.

By Tom Kent

As Vladimir Putin tightens his stranglehold on what his citizens see and hear, will radio once again become an effective way to get outside voices into Russia?

For the time being, U.S. broadcasting officials believe the best way to get their content to Russia’s population is still through the internet, despite all of Putin’s attempts to control it. Activists in the United States and Europe, however, are convinced that in a wartime situation, those wanting to reach Russians should be trying everything – including shortwave radio, the mainstay of Cold War broadcasting by the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

The U.S. government’s reluctance to return to shortwave has led to the odd spectacle of American volunteers taking broadcasting into their own hands. Activists have crowdfunded projects to transmit on shortwave channels programs produced by VOA and RFE/RL that the government declines to broadcast with its own transmitters.

Shortwave broadcasting uses high frequencies that can reach across continents. During Soviet rule, VOA, RFE/RL, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and other stations used shortwave to punch news, religious programs and forbidden Western music through the Iron Curtain. Soviet jamming stations tried to drown out the broadcasts, but much of the content got through.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the internet in Russia, foreign shortwave broadcasting tapered off. Boris Yeltsin let RFE/RL open local stations in some 30 Russian cities, but under Putin they were forced to close because of Russian laws. The United States then switched its radio and video services for Russians almost entirely to the web and social networks.

Since the war began, however, Russian authorities have increasingly blocked from the internet any content that criticizes the war or Putin’s rule. Many Russians use VPNs and other software to get around the blocks, and have come to the US broadcasters’ websites and social network feeds in droves. But Russian officials are working feverishly to block these circumvention tools, and may be able to determine which citizens are using them.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees VOA and RFE/RL, believes there is no significant audience in Russia for shortwave radio. In an interview for this article, Shawn Powers, USAGM’s chief strategy officer, says a survey the agency conducted since the invasion found that fewer than 1 percent of Russian households have a shortwave receiver.

He said web and social media services by VOA and RFE/RL remain highly effective. Since the invasion, he said, Russians have viewed the two outlets’ videos 3 billion times on the internet. USAGM has helped subsidize the VPNs many Russians use. USAGM has also put its 24-hour Russian-language television channel, Current Time, on a second satellite – although Russians would have to point their receiving dishes to those satellites and specially program their receivers to see the programs.

Some outside experts share USAGM’s skepticism toward shortwave. A commentary in April in the publication Radio World said “Ukrainians and Russians need 21st century solutions, not a legacy technology primarily being kept alive by hobbyists.”

Others are convinced shortwave can still reach enough people to be worthwhile, and is an essential backup if Russian authorities manage to control the internet completely. On March 4, just eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, U.S. volunteers launched Shortwaves for Freedom. The group broadcasted to Russia, by shortwave, the programs that VOA and RFE/RL distribute mainly by internet. Media coverage of their effort helped attract more than $21,000 in donations, which they used to lease airtime from commercial shortwave stations in Europe and from WRMI, a 100-kilowatt station in Florida. The donated money ran out this month but WRMI continues to broadcast the programs.

Other shortwave ventures, such as Radio Truth For Russia, have been launched by Russian-speaking activists based in Europe. Government broadcasters in Taiwan, Romania and Japan, as well as the Vatican, are also on shortwave to Russia. When the war started, the BBC resumed shortwave broadcasting to Russia and Ukraine – though the programs are in English.

“We kept thinking USAGM would step up and we could stop,” says Kate Neiswender, an organizer of Shortwaves for Freedom, told me, “It was so frustrating to me that this organization pooh-poohs a form of communications that has been effective for more than 100 years and has proved effective in war situations. We thought they’ll see us doing this and will be embarrassed and will jump on board.”

Gerhard Straub, a former broadcast technology executive with USAGM, estimates that the cost to the agency to broadcast on shortwave to Russia would likely be $100 per hour or less. USAGM has 250-kilowatt transmitters in North Carolina and 100-kilowatt units in Europe that it could use. Given the wartime urgency of reaching Russia’s people, “it is a very small gamble to take, even if it results in zero listeners, which is highly unlikely,” Straub said in a Facebook post last month.

Still, how many people are really out there to listen? One percent of Russian households with shortwave radios works out to about 55,000 families in a nation of 144 million. Russia probably has 25,000-35,000 amateur radio hobbyists with shortwave equipment. An unknown number of people probably still listen occasionally to shortwave stations from around the world. Inexpensive radios with shortwave bands can be easily bought online from Russian dealers. 

Russian ground forces use shortwave radios for tactical communications; Russian soldiers, especially those in Ukraine, would be a prime target for information from the United States. Shortwave can reach Russian naval ships and merchant vessels. Ukrainians in devastated cities without electricity or functioning local broadcasters might view shortwave as a lifeline.

Another kind of broadcasting also reaches into Russia. A station in the Baltics broadcasts RFE/RL programs to Russia on medium wave, the same frequencies used by AM radio in the United States. Russians do have AM radios, and AM signals can travel for 1,000 miles or more at nighttime. The downside is that programs on AM are hardly easy listening at long distances, and can be inaudible in urban areas because of static from power systems. Powers, the USAGM chief strategy officer, said his organization is considering going ahead with a long-discussed plan to upgrade the power and antenna of the Baltic station.

As for shortwave, WRMI General Manager Jeff White said the station has received messages from listeners in Russia and Ukraine, indicating its signal is getting through. Transworld Radio, a U.S.-based Christian broadcaster, started shortwave transmissions to Russia and Ukraine in May, using a transmitter in Guam to supplement its traditional medium-wave broadcasts. It began receiving listener messages the first day, indicating at least some people are actively tuning the shortwave bands looking for stations. “We believe there is a visible listening audience in Russia,” said Lauren Libby, the company’s president and CEO.

As for the size of the shortwave audience in Russia and Ukraine, Libby said “Who knows? We’ve received hundreds of reception reports so people are obviously listening. We’re committed missionally to bringing people hope in a hopeless situation. We make the assumption that someone’s there.”

USAGM might do well to make the same assumption. The cutoff of information to Russia’s people has been a crucial part of fueling Russia’s war effort. Powers said USAGM has the capacity to fire up shortwave broadcasting to Russia in less than three hours if officials decide it is needed; assuming the cost is as low as Straub estimates, there seems little downside to relaying existing content, like the soundtracks of some Current Time programs, for a few hours a day to see if an audience can be built.

Even if listeners are few, consistent broadcasting – with promotion through other USAGM media – could at least spread word that shortwave is available. If Russians’ access to outside information is strangled even more, it will be harder to publicize the start of shortwave broadcasts at that moment.

Certainly there is debate about whether any broadcasting from outside is likely to have much effect on Russia’s population, given the power of official propaganda. VOA and RFE/RL, though congressionally funded, are organized as independent news operations; neither is an official advocate for U.S. policies. I believe that communication efforts to Russia should include existing broadcasters as well as new, more assertive programming by government and private groups.

But so long as the United States values the work of its present broadcasters, a modest investment in shortwave and medium-wave radio could prove an important backup to dependence on Russia’s increasingly controlled internet.

About the author

Tom Kent teaches about Russian affairs and disinformation at Columbia University. He was president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty until 2018. Previously, he was Moscow bureau chief, international editor and standards editor of The Associated Press. He consults on disinformation, journalism and ethics for government, non-governmental organizations, media, and corporate clients. He is also the author of Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation, published in September 2020 by the Jamestown Foundation, where he is a senior fellow. Tom is also an Information Professionals Association member.

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