ZDZ: In communist times Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe were the main source of uncensored information and analysis for people living behind the Iron Curtain. It is legendary in these parts of the world. Quite often I hear from my Russian friends how in periods when the station was jammed they stayed up long into the night trying to catch the signal as clearly as possible.
KK: I happened recently to be queuing in front of a museum. It was raining, and a man just in front of me looked as though he needed an umbrella. I helped him with the one I had. We had a conversation; he was from Russia, but lived abroad. We moved together in the queue and in the end I told him that two of my children married Russians, that I have Russian grandchildren. He looked kind of surprised, so I added too that I am currently president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)…
ZDZ: What was his reaction?
KK: This kid was about 24-25, and looked at me like - ‘incredible, Svoboda[Russ: Liberty], Svoboda, oh my parents, oh I know about Svoboda.’ I am not sure this guy has ever listened to Svoboda, but it was in the thinking of his family for generations. Radio Liberty has been on air since 1st March 1953; this is its 60th year. Five generations have listened to our programmes, as I have said in Washington, and that is amazing.
ZDZ: The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The world in which the USA helped to create the radio station no longer exists. But Radio Liberty and its Russian Service survived even this historical earthquake.
KK: What is the first need of a people, a society, a community, which wants to explore actual self government, making its own decisions according to its own precepts and values, discussing what its policy will be? Does it need to defend itself and how it is going to do that? And who should be picking up the garbage, and how should this be paid for? What about freedom of speech, religion? That is why people can’t live without accurate, truthful, independently reported facts and the mechanism through which it happens. Its main component is people who are schooled in, trained in and devoted to accurate witnessing, recording and accurate reporting of what they have seen. It is as fundamental as that. If people are denied the ability to engage in and create that kind of fact telling and fact witnessing themselves, it is going to be much harder for them to create an open, free, just society where independent points of view would be engaged, welcomed and worked through. Journalism is the first partner of democracy.
Soviet-era Radio Liberty has an almost legendary reputation among dissident circles. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons/Ivan Tolstoy
ZDZ: Life for the independent media is not easy in Putin’s Russia. But Russians today have much easier access to information than older generations. Does Russia still need foreign broadcasting? Does Russia still need Radio Liberty?
KK: Seven years ago there were 30 small radio stations around the country which used our content; listeners could listen to our broadcasts on their frequencies. But the authorities told these stations to take our content down. No more Liberty on your wavelengths. Why did they do it? Is that freedom of speech? There are plenty of paid-for Russian television, radio and Internet outlets available to Americans. We are a free society which has a guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and we actually observe that. So the simplistic idea that the cold war is over, is actually not accurate today. America has itself benefited from independent, free media and freedom of the press. And we think the benefits are substantial. They are fundamental for building democratic societies, a democratic way of thinking. So taxpayers of the United States have supported this kind of activity for years. This is how we live in the community of nations.
In my adult life I have been extremely fortunate. I have been employed by the Washington Post, a great, independent American newspaper. I came to RFE/RL for the first time in the early nineties. And then I became president of National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA. These journalistic organisations followed standards of independence and verifiability. Their sceptical, thoughtful, coherent storytelling was based on reported facts, observations and ideas that people can struggle with. It is not an offence to anybody when Liberty’s Russian Service observes similarly good standards of reporting, and does it in Russian. I do not think there should be any problem about that. If there are a lot of media working in Russia, it is just one more media source. Let it exist. It is not threatening anything. I do not think freedom of speech is a threat to anybody. And I think the freedom of passage of ideas is essential to societies keeping up with the pace of social change.
ZDZ: Is it the right thing, though, for the US government to fund a radio station broadcasting to another country and critical of its government? The US government doesn’t fund media in the US.
KK: We are promoting independent journalism, which is the first partner of democracy. What people do with independent fact-finding journalism is their business; We are not dictating to them. We do think that the provision of this is essential for the exploration and maturing of internally responsible societies. As I said, I worked for 10 years as president of National Public Radio in the United States, which is a private, independent, nonprofit company. RFE/RL is exactly the same thing. Nobody tells me what we should put on the air. Or on the internet. There is no government influence whatsoever.
ZDZ: The Soviet authorities described Radio Liberty as a nest of reactionaries and CIA agents working round the clock to destroy the happy life of the Soviet working class. Official Russia doesn’t feel comfortable either with initiatives and projects funded from abroad, as the law on foreign agents demonstrates. A few months ago the Kremlin expelled USAID. Are you afraid something like this might happen to you too, And you would have to close your Russian bureaus?
KK: In the community of nations there are such things as reciprocity. Values. And we value a multiplicity of ideas and views. There is a lot coming out of Russia from organisations not happy with what Liberty and its Russian service do. So what is the issue? Liberty is not a part of American foreign policy. It is not even part of what the Russian government tries to portray as representing American goals and views. I think it is a very important source for people who are exploring civil society and want to create a multiparty democracy. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to us. It’s that simple.
ZDZ: Since September last year your Russian Service has been in the throes of a crisis. Your predecessor Steven Korn approved a major staff reshuffle and a fundamental change in the Russian Service’s format. Dozens of experienced journalists were fired, and well known journalist Masha Gessen was appointed as the station’s director. The new strategy was to stop broadcasting and develop Internet content. But this did not work out well, and there was a dramatic fall in audience figures. The Russian human rights community was also outraged, and Its leaders appealed to the US Congress, the White House and State Department to stop Svoboda’s transformation from a serious broadcasting organisation concerned about human rights into just another entertainment outlet. Washington got the message and you were asked to sort out the crisis…
KK: The station’s Broadcasting Board of Governors got in touch with me at the end of 2012. I was travelling in a car when I received a phone call from one board member, Susan McCue. They remembered me as the president of Liberty who moved the station from Munich to Prague. I went to Washington, and had a meeting with three members of the board sometime in January. They asked me if I would be interested to serve as interim, or acting, president and CEO, with full powers to do what I needed to do. To succeed the person who was leaving. Because they did not have time to organise a search, my name came up… they had looked into my background. So I said it would interest me. I knew there was some kind of upheaval in the Russian service in Moscow, with some staff changes. I do not want to minimize what I knew, but I did not know much.
'Liberty is a very important source for people who are exploring civil society and want to create a multiparty democracy. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to us. It’s that simple' - Kevin Klose
ZDZ: You had already worked at Radio Liberty in the nineties.
KK: I have great affection for RFE/RL. I went there originally in 1992, after 25 years of working at the Washington Post, one of the best newspapers in the world. I remember very well a conversation I had at that time with former Liberty president Eugene Pell. He wanted to write an article for the Washington Post; he felt that Radio Liberty should be kept open, at a point when many people believed that the cold war was over. He also asked if I knew anybody qualified to run it. I said I knew Radio Liberty from when I had been the Post’s Moscow bureau chief. And the only reason for me to leave the Washington Post would be to get my hands on responsibility, not for reporting from Russia to the United States, but for broadcasting fact-based journalism to the Russians. My most difficult task was relocating the station from Munich to Prague. It was very difficult; we had a dramatic downsizing of the staff in the aftermath of the cold war. But it was a successful operation; we moved to Prague without losing a single second of broadcasting, and I stayed there as RL president until 1997.
ZDZ: Having accepted the offer from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, how soon did you realise that sorting things out at Svoboda would not be an easy task?
KK: There had been wholesale dismissals and various other things; there was some disarray in the organisation. And after making my own assessment of the situation I considered whether I could be of help to them, and whether they would support what I thought needed to be done. But it made things easier that there were a number of voluntary resignations by people from previous leadership, and that is absolutely normal - when leader who has assembled a team leaves, typically his closest associates want to leave with him.
ZDZ: But there was also a new wave of staff changes in the Russian service…..
KK: When I was appointed CEO I first talked to Masha Gessen, the Russian Service director appointed in September 2012. She is an accomplished journalist and author, with a splendid international reputation. We discussed her views about the Russian bureau, and what she would be doing. I went to Moscow in mid February, and we had further conversations there. I also talked to people on the staff and people who had been fired in September 2012, and I talked to a variety of people whom I’ve known since the seventies.
Then the Boston marathon bombings happened. Masha Gessen reported on that and was very interested in the Tsarnaev brothers; she had also done a lot of work on Pussy Riot and her book on Putin was very successful. So we began to talk about her future and in the process of that conversation she said she actually wanted to write a book about the Tsarnaevs. I was with her in the Moscow bureau when she made the announcement about her resignation. Within the next few hours, a number of people hired in September 2012 also quit… end of story. But now the Russian service has been left diminished in size. 40 people left - some voluntarily, some not - in September; 15 came in, and then those people left voluntarily in April. So where do you turn? The next place to go is the people who worked here before. But the media environment in Russia is changing rapidly, people are increasingly using mobile devices; we have to be there, it doesn’t mean our principles or ethics are different, but the content and the format are going to be different. We are going to figure that out. You want to join us on that? Come on and come back. And if you know anybody who is interested and is smart enough to do this stuff, the way we would not be able to figure out on our own, we want to talk to these people too. So this is what is going on at the moment.
Masha Gessen's short and highly controversial tenure as head of Radio Liberty began with the mass firing of 40 people from the station. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons/Rodrigo Fernandez
ZDZ: You have had a wonderful career with what some would describe today as the old fashioned traditional media. But at the same time you do not hide your enthusiasm for the new digital era.
KK: During my last visit to Moscow I walked down Tverskaya Street. Every restaurant there is jammed with kids, every kid has got a mobile device of one kind or another, and they’re having six different conversations - with their friend across the table, with people in New Delhi; some on Skype, some tweeting; they are in a completely different zone of contact. I am not saying it is more substantive - or less; it is just an entirely different zone. They are not confined as they were in Soviet times, so we have to be in that zone, we have to be relevant in their thinking, we have to interact with them, using Twitter, using Facebook, if they are using all these new services that aggregate communities and people sharing ideas. We have to be a part of it; the New York Times and Washington Post are doing the same thing, we have to do that as well.
ZDZ: Is there any chance for Liberty to get access to normal radio frequencies?
KK: It is not easy, but there are some options. One thing that we could do is to continue short wave broadcasting, but it is expensive. It takes a lot of power, a lot of electricity. And people no longer listen to it as they did in the past. There is also audio and video streaming on the Internet. As for mobile devices and apps - we are getting there, but our response speed has to be improved. We have to make sure that the news and events of the past few hours, of the past day, are very much part of our presentation and on our website, svoboda.org [Russian language link]. I know it from NPR, where the more we did high quality news, breaking news at the top of every hour, and in prime time, the more our audience grew.
ZDZ: Would this work for Russia too?
KK: We want to know. We want to expand our news reporting capacity, so we can get breaking news to the public, more and faster.
ZDZ: How much do you know about your audience in Russia?
KK: The figures that we have, we can argue them round and you can argue them flat as they say, but they show that we have always had a deeply committed core audience in Russia. It has been typically urban centred, but not always. I think in the era of short wave, our broadcasts were much more widely available, because the farther away you got from major metropolitan urban centres, the less jamming there was. There were fewer people living there but the signal was clearer; maybe they were listening more, but we did not know.
ZDZ: How do you see Russia’s future? Even in Russia you may hear some voices warning that its history may repeat the Soviet scenario.
'We are moving in a very complicated era now. In some ways it was easier in the past.' Kevin Klose
KK: Even though I did not expect the Soviet Union to fall like that, I could see that it was impeding its own ability to renew itself: by its very strange closed borders; by its refusal to allow people to come and go easily; by its attempt to monopolise information and its embedded fear of allowing its populace to know serious things about the way their country was functioning. And Russia’s future? I think it is extremely uncertain, that is what I would say. Do you remember the tragic April fire at the psychiatric hospital outside Moscow? So many people died. I was very much interested how it was covered and how people reacted to this. They spoke openly not about anger, but about fury. The people who lost their lives were not protected; there were plenty of opportunities to make sure that fire fighters would get there sooner, and so on. And these matters had not been looked into. The spontaneous reaction of people who did not even have relatives in the hospital had a deeper meaning. If a society doesn’t publicise responses that are positive and credible, that gets to be very uneasy. It makes for a change. And change can happen unexpectedly.
Every society, every nation has its own pace, its own abilities, and it can’t just stop completely. It will continue to move, outpacing any attempts to stop it. You know, there was a lot of analysis of the events in Egypt several years ago, when the Internet was shut down, and actually that turned out to be a catalyst for greater confrontation, and people got engaged in that, because they were denied something they had got used to. There are various governments that are uneasy with the free flow of information. We are moving in a very complicated era now. In some ways it was easier in the past.