RADIO SILENCE

Last Tuesday (March 17, 1998) about a hundred young philosophers, artists and music fans gathered in southern Moscow to mark the fourth birthday of their beloved indie radio station, Radio Rakurs, which can rightfully be called a successor to Russia's first post-perestroika independent radio project, SNC. But the celebration was far less festive than last year's: few of the attendees believe that Rakurs, off the air since January 1 due to non-payment for its transmitter, will recapture its place on the dial. "A good party, but a little like dancing on tombstones," joked a former disc jockey.

Rakurs' uniqueness - both as a creative venture and a fledgling media project of Russia's early capitalist era - hinged from the outset on its non-commercial status, which the station managed to maintain for all four years of its existence. On one hand, the station's birth was fantasy turned reality: the funding came from an aspiring young businessman eager to promote Russian culture and willing to afford the staff complete artistic freedom. On the other hand, it reflected an interaction often encountered during the country's emerging-markets phase: traditional Russian intellect meets new Russian capital, but neither has the managerial know-how or entrepreneurial drive to fuse the two halves synergistically and produce a sustainable project. That Rakurs survived as long as it did is quite amazing in itself.

The station's pre-history stretches back nearly a decade, to the time when Gorbachev's winds of change started sweeping across Russia. Perestroika was in the air ... and gradually reached the airwaves. In 1989, those whose ears were eager for more than official radio could offer got a new alternative, Europa Plus, and this kept the masses satisfied for a time. But two years later, those Muscovites who were young at heart and in the know, and craved for less of a pop-music feel, started tuning their receivers to a remote location on the AM dial. There, you could hear the freshest music, from the latest underground Russian rock to western retro unknown to the Soviet listener; or you might be lulled to sleep with night-time reading, from new-wave poetry to "Lord of the Rings" or Ursula LeGuin.

This elite listening experience was part of the multifaceted music project known as SNC - Stas Namin Corporation. Namin became widely known in the mid-70s as the lead man of the unorthodox but state-sanctioned rock band Tsvety, or Flowers, which made its name performing cover versions of hits by western rock giants such as Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the like. Thanks to his renown, charisma and connections, Namin was able to attract patrons to the project and, adding some of his own savings, created the archetype of an alternative, not-for-profit rock station. But Namin's first major attempt in the culture business apparently proved unsatisfying and he soon moved on to greener pastures: after about two years, Namin's enthusiasm fizzled, as did his fund-raising efforts, and in 1992 the station folded.

Nonetheless, a core team of SNC enthusiasts felt the need to carry on. Headed by Sergei Golyamin, the station's resident expert on Russian music, they actively searched for a sponsor who would help them recapture the free, creative spirit of SNC and eventually came upon their enigmatic young donor, Andrei Scherbakov, the president of AO Kurs, a trader in industrial-capacity engines.

Why this dedicated gentleman agreed to finance an independent radio station - and continued to support it for nearly four years - remains something of a mystery. Oleg Chilap, who became the station's chief editor in May 1996, recalls kitchen-table guesswork sessions on the reasons for Scherbakov's generosity: "'What does he want from this?' we would ask ourselves. You don't run for president on AM..." Some of those involved with the project speculate that Scherbakov's original intention was to run for city government and to use the station as his mouthpiece. But this goal seems to have remained in the theoretical stage. First of all, the frequency occupied by Rakurs was expensive to rent, but inaudible throughout most of Moscow and, hence, useless as an instrument of wielding influence. Second, the station's broadcasts included no hint of politics or economics, no lobbying for this or that oligarch; there were just musical and cultural programs, from jazz to symphonies, from book reviews to philosophy. Scherbakov occasionally protested that Rakurs was "omnivorous," that it lacked a unified format, but he had agreed from the very beginning not to interfere in the staff's "creative process" and largely stood by his word. Finally, soon after the 1996 presidential elections, AO Kurs and, consequently, its pet subsidiary Radio Rakurs started experiencing financial difficulties. Wages - as small as they were - were held up for months at a time and this state of affairs, albeit with some fluctuations for better and worse, continued for a year and a half.

Mr. Scherbakov refused to comment for this article; however, a company spokeswoman explained that her employer funded Rakurs as a philanthropist, but currently intends to sell the station due to the strain it places on Kurs' budget. "It just eats up money," she complained. Taken together, comments by Rakurs staff and the plaint by Mr. Scherbakov's assistant lead one to believe that the businessman's support for the radio station may have been sincere, but was not very well calculated.

Surely, the sponsor did not want his new acquisition to become a permanent charity case and a hopeless drain on his company's finances, yet no active efforts were made to turn the station into a sustainable business venture. All promotional work was left in the hands of the staff, who, by Chilap's admission, were "fantastic people, but completely clueless about how to make money." Advertisements were solicited via the barter system and a concrete person to head up this activity was never appointed by management - when such an individual did appear, she turned out to be a devoted listener who came to the station as a volunteer a year and a half before it went off the air. Such a passive approach was clearly suicidal, especially since competition had become much more intense since the years of SNC, with hip FM stations proliferating like rabbits by the mid-90s.

The fate of Radio Rakurs as an investment project is faintly reminiscent of the protracted conflict surrounding the Literaturnaya Gazeta newspaper - fortunately, without the scandal and bitter feelings. In both instances, commercial institutions without major strategic interests in media decided to try their luck with a new area of investment. And in both cases, capital failed to assess the effort required to make the project a viable one.

Objectively speaking, independent media in Russia is the rarest of anomalies, and Radio Rakurs was one of the few examples. The station was tiny and apolitical and, for a time, it occupied a particular niche among a small but promising audience of Moscow's youth. While it is truly refreshing to learn that there are wealthy businessmen willing to give creative, intelligent young people the proverbial fish ("Give a man a fish, he eats for a day..."), it would be even better if there were experienced managers willing to teach them that time-honored art of fishing, which would allow them to "eat for a lifetime."

Natalia EFREMOVA

(Moscow News, issue 11, 1998)