At the start of every hour, Washington, D.C. radio station WZHF plays an unusual message: “This radio programming is distributed by RM Broadcasting on behalf of the Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, Moscow, Russia.”
That’s how listeners know they’re tuned in to programs produced by the Russian government.
WZHF is one of two U.S. stations carrying Radio Sputnik, which is produced by Russia’s state-run media company from studios near the White House.
On the surface, Sputnik sounds like traditional talk radio. Observers, and the U.S. government, consider it Kremlin propaganda amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The views and topics range from explicit pro-Russia content to more innocuous attempts at undermining trust in western governments, media and institutions.
One recent segment on alleged Russian war crimes in Bucha, Ukraine portrayed Russia as the victim.
“This is the first time that it appears likely that it was the regime in Kyiv killing its own citizens who it views as traitors and then trying to present it as though it was some kind of atrocity by Russia,” explained a guest on a show called The Critical Hour.
Sputnik host Lee Stranahan, whose Twitter bio reads “I stand with Russia,” introduces his Washington-based show as broadcasting “live from the empire of lies.”
During a recent broadcast, he interviewed a guest who proclaimed that when it comes to the war in Ukraine, “the Russians are not only winning this thing, they’re winning it decisively.”
“The U.S. clearly miscalculated in their economic war,” agreed Stranahan.
What makes Radio Sputnik so unusual is that it has managed to stay on the air as other Russian state media outlets have been banned, de-platformed, or have ceased broadcasting in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
Cable news network RT America abruptly shut down in March after being dropped by distributors. Russia Today has been banned in Canada, while Europe banned both RT and Sputnik.
Kremlin-backed Sputnik has found a way to continue reaching Americans, by buying its way onto the airwaves.
To give its programs a home, Sputnik purchases airtime from U.S. stations, through an American broker. It’s effectively operating as a paid infomercial for Russia’s interests.
Sputnik was named by U.S. intelligence agencies as central to Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election by promoting misinformation and disinformation.
In 2018, the Department of Justice forced Russian state media operations in the U.S. to register as an agent of a foreign government. The American companies that sell airtime to Sputnik have similarly been forced to register. Legal filings show the Russian operation spends about $1.1 million per year buying U.S. airtime.
The bulk of that money is spent airing Sputnik around-the-clock on WZHF’s two Washington frequencies – one AM, and one FM — but Sputnik has also found an audience in the American heartland.
KCXL radio near Kansas City, Missouri, is paid $5,000 per month to air six hours of Sputnik daily, including during the coveted morning show slot.
“We’ve gotten very good response with people saying that they appreciated having a different point of view,” explains KCXL’s owner Peter Schartel.
Schartel says he originally sought out Sputnik programming as a source of money for the faltering station. “It’s a very significant part of our income,” he says.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has renewed scrutiny and criticism of station owners who air Sputnik. In March, the National Association of Broadcasters called on stations to drop all Russian-state programming.
“We believe that our nation must stand fully united against misinformation and for freedom and democracy across the globe,” said NAB President Curtis LeGeyt in a statement.
Sputnik’s U.S. partners have refused to budge.
“If you’re for free speech, you really do need to try to listen to what the other people are saying, what other people think,” says Schartel.
He suggests concerns about Sputnik’s programming are misplaced and called misinformation “a subjective term.”
“If I felt that it was all misinformation, we wouldn’t be airing it, even if even if it hurt financially,” he said.
Despite this unprecedented moment in U.S.-Russia relations, free speech advocates are on the station owner’s side.
“I see no problem having more news and information in our in our marketplace of ideas,” says Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, noting Sputnik’s ownership is no secret.
Gutterman points out that the programs have a very limited audience. They only air in two cities, on stations that don’t make the top 30 in either market.
However, he questioned what the Russian government was getting for its investment.
“It’s making headlines,” said Gutterman, “but I’m not sure who’s listening or whether they’re paying close attention to what they’re listening to anyway.