How to Listen to the Radio
The ill-covered crisis at an American institution.


John O’Sullivan

Until then the sole U.S. coverage of the upheavals at Radio Liberty in Moscow had appeared in journals of opinion and blogs. In fact the first account appeared here on NRO on October 23. Entitled “Silenced by Washington,” the piece, written by Mario Corti, a former director of Radio Liberty, and Ted Lipien, a former acting associate director of VOA, was the case for the prosecution: a lively, argumentative feature critiquing the justifications of RFERL’s management but also laying out the main facts clearly. 


Following the NRO article, nothing much happened in the U.S. But in Moscow the crisis continued to metastasize. Masha Gessen took over, and she gradually began to change the character of RL’s broadcasts. But she did so against a background of mute resistance within RL and outright hostility outside it. A group of Russian intellectuals wrote a second letter to Congress protesting the decision. RL audience figures began to fall. The station disappeared from a list of Internet news sites that were most frequently cited by other news outlets — an indication of declining influence. The fired Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow established their own organization with the ironic title, “Radio Liberty in Exile.” Four of them were honored with prestigious professional awards. Liudmila Telen, the much-respected former editor of RL’s website, for instance, received a citation for her professionalism and integrity from the Russian Union of Journalists; reporter Kristina Gorelik for her human-rights journalism from the Moscow Helsinki Committee; and so on. These awards may have had an element of solidarity about them; but there’s no doubt that they also represented the collective admiration of the journalistic profession and human-rights groups for strong professional performances. 

All these things were reported, not on RL’s website, nor in the U.S. media, but by the watchdog BBG Watch, co-founded and directed by Ted Lipien, on its website.

BBG Watch is strongly in favor of U.S. international broadcasting — which it regards as an excellent investment for America — but highly critical of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency appointed to exercise oversight of the USIB entities. Its commentaries are written from this acknowledged standpoint, but it claims that the facts in them are accurate and that the opinions expressed are legitimate comments on matters of public controversy. You can judge the worth of these claims by going onto its site. What is undeniable, however, is

(a) that the website kept up a steady drumbeat of reports from Moscow on all the developing aspects of the crisis;

(b) that it quickly became the forum which RL journalists — some among the fired, others still employed at the radios — exploited to get their stories/grievances/allegations out to the world; and

(c) that its coverage of the Moscow brouhaha began to trickle through to official Washington through human-rights NGOs, regional experts in Washington think tanks, and the penumbra of ex-USIB people who follow any news of their old workplace.