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Russia: Ekho Moskvy May Be Next In Line For Gazprom Takeover

By Sophie Lambroschini/ Francesca Mereu

In Russia, a court decision on 4 May handed Gazprom-Media additional shares in Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST -- giving the state-backed gas giant full control over a number of the company's outlets if the decision is not appealed. For NTV, which along with "Segodnya" newspaper and "Itogi" magazine have already been targeted by the Gazprom takeover, the days may be numbered for the one remaining stronghold of Gusinsky's former media empire -- Ekho Moskvy Radio. Russia's largest privately owned radio station, Ekho Moskvy was the first in the country to popularize a "talk radio" format with professional news coverage. RFE/RL Moscow correspondents Sophie Lambroschini and Francesca Mereu look at the station's history and its current efforts to protect its independence.

Moscow, 9 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last month, Russia's state-backed Gazprom gas monopoly succeeded in its takeover bid of NTV television, the crown jewel in Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST empire. Since then, the gas giant has chipped away at more of Gusinsky's media businesses, shutting down the oppositionist "Segodnya" daily and firing the staff of the "Itogi" political weekly.

Of Media-MOST's most prominent news organizations, only one now remains so far untouched -- radio station Ekho Moskvy, or echo of Moscow. But a court decision last week, which handed Gazprom shares in a number of Media-MOST outlets and granted it majority control of Ekho Moskvy, has put the popular and outspoken station's future in doubt.

The first radio station in Russia to adopt a "talk radio" format, Ekho Moskvy is the country's largest private, information-based station, with its programs rebroadcast throughout the country by over 70 regional stations.

In Moscow, independent monitors rank the station fifth in listenership, after two powerful state-controlled stations and two music-based stations. Eight percent of Muscovites tune in daily to Ekho Moskvy's famous jingles.

Founded more than 10 years ago, the station is older than most of its fellow Media-MOST outlets. Aleksei Venediktov, the station's current editor in chief, remembers how in 1990 a group of young journalists from the state-owned station Golos Rossii, or Voice of Russia, tired of government restrictions and decided to open the country's first private radio service.

"[One of the founders,] Sergei Korsun -- fed up of working for the government radio, with its atmosphere of censorship, propaganda, and lies, was able to register Ekho Moskvy and then to get [radio] license number 1 in Moscow. So out came Ekho Moskvy. It first began to broadcast on the 22nd of August, 1990."

On its first day on the air, Ekho Moskvy broadcast news, a conversation with perestroika-era politician Sergei Stankevich, and the Beatles hit "All My Loving." The station soon became an open forum for political debate, airing different points of view and offering an alternative voice in a country where radio broadcasting, to this day, is dominated by state-owned stations.

Venediktov says that from the very beginning, Ekho Moskvy's journalists distinguished themselves by reporting on the top news events as Russia struggled to break with its communist past:

"In was in September 1990 when the military maneuvers first started around Moscow and the army turned against [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. We were the first -- and only -- ones to report on it. Then, in 1991, we had the Vilnius [independence demonstrations], and we turned into a European and internationally known small radio station."

The station now combines strong news reporting with lighter informational fare. Twice daily -- in the morning and early evening -- Ekho Moskvy broadcasts so-called "information blocks" featuring general news, business and finance updates, and reviews of the day's press. The station's commercially sponsored daily programs include everything from gardening tips to Moscow medical care to helping listeners untangle the grammatical complexities of the Russian language.

For several years, one of Ekho Moskvy's trademark shows -- sponsored by the Council of Europe -- aired news on European affairs and held a daily call-in game show on Europe. A separate program invited listeners to call in and voice their opinion on daily news issues ranging from the economy to Chechnya.

But perhaps the station's greatest claim to fame -- and what has made it an indispensable source for Russia-watchers -- are its live interviews with prominent Russians and foreigners.

Ekho Moskvy is the only private radio station in Russia to have hosted heads of state. Its guests have included U.S. President Bill Clinton, who visited the station during his visit to Moscow last year, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who answered radio listeners' questions live during his two-day summit last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian on-air guests have included then-Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, pop superstar Alla Pugacheva, and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin.

Unlike most other Media-MOST outlets, Ekho Moskvy was not the brainchild of magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. Ekho Moskvy had spent four years building its reputation as a reliable source of news and information before joining Media-MOST in 1994, when a ruble depreciation forced the advertising-driven station to sell some of its stakes to Gusinsky.

Gusinsky currently holds a 38-percent stake in the station, with station journalists holding 33 percent and Gazprom holding 25. But last Friday, in the latest round of ongoing litigation over Gusinsky's outstanding debt to the gas giant, a Moscow court ruled that an additional 25 percent of many Media-MOST outlets, including Ekho Moskvy, be handed to Gazprom. If the court decision holds, Gazprom will hold a controlling stake -- 50 percent, plus one share -- in the radio station.

While Media-MOST considers an appeal, journalists at Ekho Moskvy are fighting to keep the station under their own control, saying they are negotiating with Gazprom to buy back the 25-percent stake -- a task that station General Director Yuri Fedutinov concedes is "difficult."

Chief editor Venediktov says he fears that if Gazprom does gain majority control of Ekho Moskvy, the station will lose its independence and most journalists will leave -- a change that would affect not only Moscow, but the 70 affiliates broadcasting the station's programming in regional Russia.

"If Gazprom succeeds in taking the majority of the shares, we will soon be a government station, even if not from a formal [point of view]. Then I think that I, as the editor in chief, and most journalists who came here after they left state radio, will have to leave this radio station. There will be only an 'echo' left of Ekho."

Many of Ekho Moskvy's journalists agree with Venediktov. One, Oleg Solomonov, worked with state television before joining the station. He says it was an experience he does not want to repeat:

"You'll have editors saying to you, 'Listen, why did you use that word? You can't use that word. It's better to put that sentence another way. You can't say that things are so bad here [in Russia.] Everything is fine here.'"

Tatyana Nevskaya, an Ekho Moskvy employee for nine years, previously worked at Russia's Mayak government radio station. She says she is not ready to go back to the days when her material was strictly monitored before being approved for broadcast:

"If I prepared a piece for Mayak, it was put into a folder and I had to get six signatures for every page. Then I had to send it to the deputy editor and then to the [main station censor], who controlled everything, for another stamp. It was really exhausting. When I came here [to Ekho Moskvy], it was unbelievable. You didn't need any folders, any signatures!"

Venediktov admits it is doubtful his station's journalists can succeed in persuading Gazprom to sell back a 25-percent stake. Although Gazprom's media head Alfred Kokh has repeatedly said that the gas giant is acting out of purely financial concerns as a creditor, Venediktov says that Ekho Moskvy has little commercial value but high political worth. Its news format means high costs and low revenues. That, Venediktov says, is "not exactly what a businessman would be looking for."