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Russia: Ekho Moskvy's Venediktov Readies For Departure, New Station

A group of radio journalists and managers from Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station -- led by Editor in Chief Aleksei Venediktov -- won a bid this week in a state auction of another FM frequency. Venediktov, who announced on 26 February that he and a number of his colleagues were quitting Ekho Moskvy over concerns the station was falling under state control, says he hopes to find a new venue for his team's respected brand of news reporting and analysis.

Moscow, 1 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The licensing commission of the Russian Media Ministry awarded a new FM frequency to one of the country's best-known teams of radio journalists this week (27 February). The group -- currently employed by Russia's most influential radio station, Ekho Moskvy, and led by Ekho's Editor in Chief Aleksei Venediktov -- is planning to use the new frequency to establish a new radio station, to be called Arsenal, later this year.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Venediktov, who will continue to work at Ekho Moskvy through the end of May, said he expects some 58 journalists to depart with him to begin work at Arsenal, which he says will have an entirely new format.

"Most of Ekho Moskvy's team -- 58 journalists -- have expressed interest in this project. I informed them, in all honesty, that this is a new project. And we need to develop this new project. [We need] to create something new -- to create a new brand and a new audience. The wages [at Arsenal] will be lower [than at Ekho Moskvy]. I'll start working on staffing later and, of course, I will offer my friends and colleagues to take part in this new deal. In other words, this is our chance to grow 10 years younger."

The anticipated departure of Venediktov and much of Ekho Moskvy's staff comes after the station's majority shareholder -- a subsidiary of Russia's state-controlled Gazprom gas monopoly -- took control of the station's leadership last month, naming five of nine directors. Venediktov believes a change in the station's editorial policy cannot be far behind, saying Ekho Moskvy's news-based format is "not prestigious, but dangerous" in a country like Russia. He adds that the fear of a switch in editorial policy has been a realistic concern ever since Gazprom acquired a controlling stake in Ekho Moskvy after taking over its parent company, Media-MOST, last April.

"For a year I've been talking about the problem [of our independence] with Gazprom, our main shareholder. We knew that Gazprom, according to a decision by President [Vladimir] Putin, had to sell the portion of its business not linked [to gas]. We [thought] we could buy the 52 percent of Ekho Moskvy's stakes [owned by Gazprom]. But for nine months we got no answer. I felt a lack of interest, and I felt I couldn't work anymore for a radio station that has practically been nationalized by Gazprom."

Any change in Ekho Moskvy's editorial policy will have a lasting impact on Russia's radio audience. Founded in 1990, Ekho Moskvy is the country's largest private information-based station, with programs rebroadcast in 70 Russian cities. The station is best-known for its coverage of breaking events, analytical news programs, and interviews with top Russian and foreign officials.

In Moscow, independent monitors rank the station ninth in listenership. Some 6 percent of Muscovites tune in daily to Ekho Moskvy's famous jingle: "It's 11:30 in Moscow and this is some short news from Ekho."

Despite the success of the Ekho formula, Venediktov says Arsenal will have a different style that focuses more on a talk-radio format.

"[The new station] is going to be an information-based station with a talk-radio format. Anyway, a lot depends on the format that Ekho Moskvy is going to have [in the future]. If the new owners of Ekho Moskvy [decide] to change the information-based format, the market will have one fewer information station. In this case, we will increase Arsenal's information side. But if Ekho Moskvy keeps its information format, [Arsenal's] talk-radio format will prevail over news. An important aspect is our new frequency will give a lot of air time to our future audience. They can speak directly with the newsmakers -- more often than they can now with Ekho Moskvy. Arsenal's slogan will be 'active radio.'"

Ekho Moskvy is considered to be the last media outlet in Russia to maintain an independent editorial line in its coverage of President Putin and his government. A second Media-MOST venture, the private NTV television network, changed its previously critical format after the Gazprom seizure of the company last April. A second private television channel, TV-6, was closed recently after a lawsuit against the company was filed by the partly state-controlled LUKoil.