Moscow calling: a view of the BBC Russian Service

Lyubov Borusyak
12 March 2009

Furious debate has been raging recently around one the oldest foreign radio stations that broadcast in Russian. It has reached a level which does not accord with the generally accepted (at least in Russia) idea that the English are reserved and not given to open demonstrations of emotion. Proposed staff lay-offs, budget cuts and changes in broadcasting content have provoked violent resentment from many employees of the Russian service and the British intellectual community.

 What is the problem? Why do the intellectuals consider the actions of the Russian Service management so unprofessional?  This has led themto say of Nigel Chapman, director of BBC World Service, that "he has at best a vague idea about what the Russian service does and what Russian listeners react to, and he is also badly informed by BBC employees who speak Russian and should know what is going on".


The Russian service ofthe BBC began broadcasting regularly to the USSR on 26 March 1946, i.e. almost 63 years ago. In the post-Soviet era, when the radio station was no longer "hostile", it could be heard in Russia and the CIS on the FM frequency, shortwave and then on the internet too. Particular attention was given to broadcasting on the FM frequency, as this gave the best opportunities for increasing the audience. The second fundamental change was that many of the Russian service programmes were broadcast from Moscow rather than London, which made it possible to get "closer" to the audience and work on the spot. In recent years, however, the political situation in Russia has changed and Russian-British relations have deteriorated.  This immediately affected the position of the BBC.

 In November 2006 the BBC lost the right to broadcast on the FM frequency. Incidentally, in the same year (a little earlier), 60 radio stations stopped rebroadcasting "Radio Liberty" and "Voice of America" programmes in Russia.  In other words the attack on western radio took place on all fronts. Two possibilities remained - shortwave and the Internet.

The loss of the FM frequency could not help but affect the size of the BBC's audience in Russia. Indeed openDemocracyRussia reported that in recent years the BBC has lost 40% of its audience.They say that the second reason for the decreased audience figures is that broadcasting hours on shortwave are being reduced.  Shortwave can at least be received all over the country, even if the quality leaves something to be desired.

For the BBC World Service management the drastic drop in audience numbers was a reason to introduce budget cuts. A smaller audience means less money: this the normal market approach, which is the basis for commercial media policy decisions. But the intellectuals are categorically opposed to the World Service and Russian Service market approach to the BBC. For them the radio service in Russia is a mission, a form ofservice.

The World Service charter contains the editorial values of the BBC, which do not assume that broadcasting should be commercial.  It reads "We aim to be the most creative and trusted broadcasters and creators of programmes, to satisfy the demands of our entire audience, informing, educating and entertaining them, enriching the lives of viewers and listeners in a way that the market of commercial broadcasters cannot.  We aim to... encourage the most outstanding talents of the United Kingdom; act independently of anyone's interests..."

One of the main accusations against the management of the Russian Service by its intellectual opponents is political short-sightedness.  They (the BBC management) believed that freedom of speech in Russia (even if only relative) could exist for a long time. The emphasis was placed on the strictly licensed FM frequency, which the BBC lost at almost one stroke. Now they are making another, similar mistake by shifting future development priorities to internet broadcasting.

Similar short-sightedness led to moving a large part of broadcasting from London to Russia. Criticism on this point becomes very heated. Firstly, BBC journalists in Moscow are in danger and risk their lives. Journalists are not killed in England, but for Russia this is almost the norm. Secondly, in Russia western journalists inevitably have to make compromises: they are carefully watched by the authorities and the special services, and may at any moment face considerable difficulties. The intellectuals note that the Russian service has already made serious compromises: they refused, for example, to read a book by Anna Politkovskaya on the air.

Let us try to analyze all these undoubtedly serious charges. The desire to increase the audience as much as possible is the norm for any media, both commercial and public (such as the BBC). It is obvious that the larger the audience, the more influential the media. There is no question that the FM frequency is preferable to shortwave,in terms of both quality of broadcast and audience coverage.  The emphasis over more than 15 years on this form of broadcasting has proved entirely justifiable. During this time Russian Service programmes were heard by millions of people.  If they had been broadcast on shortwave, the number would be much lower.  To a certain extent we can say that the BBC management was able to seize the moment, and that moment stretched out over many years. In 2006, as has already been described, it was not only the BBC Russian Service that suffered.  Other western radio stations were also affected, so the BBC situation is not unusual, or any worsethan for other western radio stations.

What should be done now? Like "Radio Liberty" or "Voice of America", the BBC management is making internet broadcasting a development priority. Other radio stations are taking similar decisions and this is obviously not just a coincidence.  Critics of the BBC Russian Service believe that this decision is politically short-sighted and seriously mistaken. They argue that in China the internet is under the complete control of the state, and that a similar situation could well arise inRussia.  This could indeed happen.  There has been much talkabout the internet needing more attention from the state.  At this stage how great the danger is of possible state control with attendant risks for western radio stations cannot be assessed. But it exists in principle, so it does not seem very sensible for the BBC management to reduce short-wave broadcasting - they really do need an "alternative base".

The intellectuals' second objection to internet broadcasting is that users are very unevenly distributed across Russia. The highest concentration is in Moscow, followed by St. Petersburg and other large cities, while in medium and small towns distribution is patchy. Even in cities with a population of over 1 million there are not many people who can regularly listen to the radio or look at the BBC site.   This requires unlimited internet,a rare phenomenon in Russia except in the two capitals.   Nevertheless, the internet is developing in Russia, the number of users is growing every year and it is stil lnot under state control. So the decision to make the development of Internet broadcasting a priority seems logical and correct, as long as the potential dangers are not forgotten and shortwave broadcasting is not too drastically cut back.

If we agree on the need to develop internet broadcasting as the most promising means of gaining more listeners, we inevitably come to the need to modernise broadcast content. Excellent technical conditions may be created for viewing, reading or listening to media, but unless people are interested in the content, technical improvements will have no effect on the size of the audience.

Content problems

There is an obvious contradiction in the drastic reduction of the audience: people who are really interested in BBC programmes would look for (and many have indeed found) other ways of listening to them. This was correctly pointed out by Professor Donald Rayfield in hisletter to the BBC management.  He noted that "it is not the quantity, but the quality of listeners that is important" and that "this decline may be ascribed to the fact that the BBC broadcasts an increasing amount of news to the detriment of diversity of programmes.  In this way it loses its distinguishing features and becomes increasingly similar to competing stations such as Radio Free Europe." In other words, the BBC is actually competing with other stations and changes in content lead to decreased audience figures.

Replying to Professor Rayfield, the director of the BBC World Service Nigel Chapman said that an increase in listeners is quite possible even in the current, very complex situation.   "At the height of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, the monthly number of visitors increased dramatically - to almost 3 million. The audience is also getting to grips with other online opportunities:  audio materials, which doubled in popularity in August and video materials, the demand for which increased six times, around 2,300,000 viewings".  So people in Russia are technically able to listen to the BBC more actively, but they do not use the facilities as actively as the BBC management and its intellectual opponents would like. The BBC maintains that  listeners are attracted by topical highly political news, as was apparent during the Russian-Georgian conflict. Their opponents agree that there is the possibility for expanding the audience, but they think there is more to be had from playing on a different field, one that is not just political.  

The BBC management view that competitive broadcasting presupposes primarily news and current events commentary leads to the logical conclusion that the internet and broadcasting from Russia should be emphasised. The majority of internet users are, of course, young people who are not prepared to listen to the radio for long periods of time. They prefer short news bulletins, analytical commentaries etc. Features about life in Britain, highlighted by the English intellectuals in their letters and internet comments, are a very low priority for these listeners.  The intellectuals are,however, absolutely right that political discussions of topical problems will not increase audience figures, even if the BBC stops making compromises with the Russian authorities.  They will find themselves in a highly competitive situation, and outdoing "Echo Moskvy" and "Radio Liberty" is extremely difficult.

So perhaps it would really make more sense to concentrate efforts on short-wave broadcasting? The listeners would be older and highly educated, a more traditional BBC audience. Some of them may be attracted by features about life in Britain.  The BBC is famous for these programmes and the intellectuals set great store by them.  But the topics are often so specialised that they can only be of interest to a very narrow (and shrinking) circle of listeners. Then we have to concede that BBC is not a market, but a service.  Thi sis what the writers, historians and translators are trying to prove. If this is the case, then there is no need to think about the competitive environment.

If the BBC Russian Service is part of a large radio market, then the director of the BBC World Service Nigel Chapman is right that the BBC Russian Service needs to  "concentrate on radio broadcasting in prime time, with more attention paid to the main news bulletins and current affairs". But there are nine time zones in Russia, so these programmes will be mainly heard by people in Central Russia, and little beyond the Urals. If one takes a market approach, the relatively low eastern audience may be neglected in favour of the large European audience.

If one regards the activity of the BBC as a mission, then this approach is mistaken.  Everyone in Russia has equal rights of access to broadcasts.  Perhaps people in remote regions have even more rights than the "spoilt" Muscovites and those in the European part of the country, who have greater access to information (if only because of the wider availability of the internet).

To set out the opinions of the two sides in the most general form: the management of the BBC believes tha tbroadcasting must be modernised to make the Russian service more competitive.Without sinking to the level of the most undemanding listeners, one needs to be guided by the demands of the greatest number.

The intellectuals believe that the BBC is a conservative radio company with its own image and no changes are necessary.  There may be fewer listeners, but one should not sink to the level of the audience, one should raise the audience to one's own level.

Reading the arguments of both sides,I get the strange feeling that I am in Russia,  not  England.The two types of arguments are universal and they are logical in their own way; they are just unconvincing for those believing in a different paradigm. Should the media educate its listeners (viewers, readers etc.), and bring them up to its high level? This would be wonderful, of course, but it is completely unrealistic where there is a wide range of choice. You can't make people listen, watch and read things they do not like and find uninteresting.

If, on the other hand, you are guided primarily by ratings, the level of the media will inevitably start to fall.  It will very quickly become clear that you can't talk to consumers in their own language without corrupting your own.

Whatis to be done?

I think that one of the main problems is that both sides rely on their own ideas about what is correct and useful and know very little about their audience. I didn't, for instance, find any mention of the existing, lost, or potentially desirable listener. They take no account of audience opinion and say nothing of audience interests and wishes. The discussion constantly proceeds on the level of  "subject-object", where subject and object do not have equal rights.  Listeners are seen as an object by the broadcasters who "know what is best for them" or the intellectuals with their own interests. In this way they are, unfortunately, very like Russian politicians and Russian intellectuals.

In a situation of conflict, it is not only useful, but simply essential to establish the composition of the audience, how it has changed in recent years, and people's opinions.  Special research should examine who these people are, why they choose the BBC rather than other radio stations, how regularly they listen or look at the Internet etc.  It is also extremely important to assess whether many BBC listeners live outside large cities, in the east of Russia etc., i.e. the importance of repeating prime time broadcasts. At present the opinions of both sides on this issue are primarily based on their own ideas about what the BBCis and what makes it interesting.

The second important problem concerns the advisability of broadcasting from Moscow.  If one takes the position that a new "cold war" has already begun, and that Russia is a strategic enemy, then the BBC should leave Moscow, and as soon as possible. If one believes that the "war" has not yet begun, and that the BBC in Moscow is not under any serious pressure that hinders its work or violates its "editorial values", then it should stay. The longer the BBC broadcasts from Moscow, the better for the Russian audience. The less separation there is from the "source", from the events taking place, from the Russian people who assess them, the more alive the information will be, and the greater will be the level of trust.

Thirdly, I have listened to programmes via the internet and read the site.  This has shown me that the BBC does not currently have a strong enough image.  Their programmes are rather slower in tempo and longer. Modern viewers and listeners (and in Russia reactions to all media are determined by television rather than radio) are not used to this tempo. Some may regard this as an advantage for the BBC, but for the majority of the potential audience it is more of a shortcoming. This also requires special research, but one still gets the feeling that the Russian Service management's view that broadcasting should be broken up with news bulletins is correct.

Fourthly, an analysis of content shows that the BBC does not pay enough attention to the many Russians living in England, primarily in London. Surely they are the potential, and in part the actual BBC audience. There are people in Russia who would like to study (or like their children to study) or work in England. I think that more attention should be given to these people's needs: what it's like to be a foreigner in England, how Russians feel here, how to behave here, taking into account the English mentality, how to understand English humour, what the "idea" of English food is, and so on. These sorts of amusing but instructive programmes are attractive to young people and a young audience is a valuable priority for any media.

Intellectuals insist that the BBC is supposed to educate and uplift listeners. In this they are effectively echoing Russian scholars and even politicians word for word. Supporters of the market approach to the media in Russia, like the managers of the BBC, try to attract the biggest audience.  They believe that programmes that don't get decent ratings should be cut, and are prepared to reduce the budget in the event of a loss of audience. The main thing is that both sides should not forget they are working for the audience and try to consider audience interests. As of yet this object of heated debates has taken no part in the discussions, and probably has no idea that they are going on.  Listeners are not regarded as subjects by either of the sides, though it might perhaps help them to come a little closer to understanding each other.

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