LIBERTY, Mo. — A man who runs a little-known, low-budget radio station in suburban Kansas City says he champions free speech and alternative viewpoints when airing government-sponsored programming. Russian State in the Midst of the Ukrainian War.
Radio Sputnik, funded by the Russian government, pays broadcasting companies in the United States to air its programs. Only two do: one is Peter Schartel’s company in Liberty, Missouri, and the other is in Washington, D.C.
Schartel began airing Russian programming in January 2020, but criticism intensified after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Schartel said people accused him and his wife of being traitors to the United States and sometimes made threats. Some critics say it promotes propaganda and misinformation, but Schartel maintains that most people who call to complain haven’t listened to the show.
“Some will talk to me, but others will always call me a piece of whatever,” he said. “What I’m grateful for is that we still live in a country where they can call me. Even if they don’t think about free speech, they exercise that right.
Radio Sputnik is produced by the US branch of Rossiya Segodnya, a Russian government-run media group.
Its content prompted the National Association of Broadcasters to issue an unusual statement on March 1 calling on broadcasters to stop airing state-sponsored programs with ties to Russia or its agents.
The statement from NAB President and CEO Curtis LeGeyt said the organization is a “fierce defender” of free speech, but that given Russia’s unprovoked attack on the Ukraine, “we believe that our nation must be fully united against disinformation and for freedom and democracy throughout the world”. .”
During a recent show of “The Critical Hour” airing on Schartel’s KCXL, the hosts and their guests echoed false and unsubstantiated claims about the Ukrainian government. They repeated Russian state media’s lies about the Russian military’s attacks on civilian targets and its destruction of entire neighborhoods, as well as Putin’s baseless claim that his enemies in Ukraine are Nazis.
The Kansas City Star said in an op-ed that Schartel puts financial needs above ethics by spreading Russian propaganda.
“Like the National Association of Broadcasters, we advise KCXL to drop any programming that portrays (Russian President Vladimir) Putin in a positive light. The Russian President is not a victim; he is certainly not a war heroes,” wrote The Star.
Schartel acknowledged that he initially accepted the Radio Sputnik contract because he had difficulty keeping KCXL afloat. The station operates in a dilapidated and cluttered building. He said he stopped getting a salary months ago, despite doing almost all the work.
Alpine Broadcasting Corp. de Schartel is paid $5,000 a month to broadcast Radio Sputnik in two three-hour blocks each day, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing from the US Department of Justice in December 2021.
Other KCXL programming includes shows that are strongly religious, offering opinions across the political spectrum and promoting conspiracy theories. One program, TruNews, has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for broadcasting anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ messages.
Schartel said it airs programs that are not commercially viable and do not depend on advertising, which it says influences reporting. He said he promotes free speech by providing a platform for people who would otherwise not be heard.
Roy Gutterman, director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech, said all radio station owners in the United States have the right to broadcast whatever content they want.
“If this station thinks it’s going to make a mark in Missouri by carrying Radio Sputnik, it has every right to do so,” Gutterman said.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radio and television program licensing, does not censor content unless it intentionally endangers public safety or is deemed obscene, indecent or profane.
Radio Sputnik listeners hear discussions not only about Russia, but also about current issues in the United States and other countries. The theme throughout the show is that American policies intentionally damage the United States and other countries while benefiting other corrupt governments, the wealthy, and big business.
The deal that brought Radio Sputnik to the small Missouri station was brokered by Florida-based RM Broadcasting, headed by Anthony Ferolito. He signed a similar deal in 2017 with Way Broadcasting, which agreed to lease WZHF-AM airtime in Washington, DC, to RM Broadcasting.
Because of his contracts with Rossiya Segodnya, the Justice Department required Ferolito to register as a foreign government agent in 2018, citing a 1938 law for people lobbying or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Ferolito lost a registration lawsuit.
Ferolito did not return the Associated Press messages, but RM Broadcasting said in a statement that the company stands with Ukraine and all victims of oppression and aggression. He said RM Broadcasting is dedicated to freedom of expression.
“Audiences are explicitly informed throughout the broadcast day of the source of the material, so that people can make an informed decision on whether to listen or turn the dial – and that freedom of choice is the ultimate foundation of our republic”, the statement mentioned.
Gutterman of Syracuse University noted that state-produced content from countries not friendly to the United States, including Russia and China, is already available on some cable channels and online, although some providers have dropped Russian content since the start of the war.
“Modern media has changed the radio landscape that we grew up with,” he said. “Even if the stations drop it, people can find that content.”
For his part, Schartel does not think the uproar over Radio Sputnik broadcasts will last.
Russian company RT America, the television counterpart of Russian state-controlled Radio Sputnik, closed its US subsidiary this month and laid off most of its staff. Schartel said that likely means his contract won’t be renewed when it ends in December.