For a few seconds every hour, WZHF-AM interrupts its 24-hour talk program to broadcast a curious warning: “This radio programming is distributed by RM Broadcasting on behalf of the Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency , Moscow , Russia. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, DC”
The cryptic notification masks a larger story. WZHF, a former Spanish-language station 11 miles east of the White House in Maryland’s Capitol Heights, is the flagship of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to exploit American radio waves to sell the views of the Kremlin. Despite periodic legal and political challenges and the imposition of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the station remained on the air, delivering its Kremlin-approved message.
The station at 1390 AM is one of only five stations in the United States that carry English-language programming from “Radio Sputnik,” produced in Moscow and Washington under the supervision of the Russian government.
Sputnik is the radio and digital arm of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), the same Kremlin-controlled media agency that runs RT and RT America, the best-known television and digital media operations founded by the Putin regime in 2005 .
But while US distributors and European governments have banned RT since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, leading to the collapse of RT’s US operations on Thursday, WZHF is still offering Sputnik content to Beltway listeners.
With names like “Political Misfits” and “By Any Means Necessary,” his talk shows are as slickly produced as anything on NPR or the conservative talk-radio giants. Some discussions — organ transplantation, recycling, and paranormal activity were among the topics last week — are apolitical. But many Sputnik hosts offer sharper comments on America’s perceived flaws: racism, economic inequity and political dysfunction. A common thread for years has been skepticism over the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia acted to influence the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.
Sputnik’s talking heads tended to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, alleging Ukrainian “crimes” against its Russian-speaking population and “encroachment” on Russia from the NATO alliance. They generally describe the invasion as “a military operation” or “an intervention”, echoing Putin’s framing. There’s a lot of whataboutism: A Russian commentator on Friday worried that the United States might give Ukraine nuclear weapons. “We cannot be sure that America will be a responsible member of the international community,” he said.
Listeners are also likely to hear arguments that the harsh economic sanctions imposed on Russia are doomed to the opposite effect. A guest, U.S. economist Jack Rasmus, predicted on Wednesday that the sanctions could lead to a 20% drop in the stock market and a spike in gasoline prices of $1 a gallon. A host speculated recently that the United States and Europe could experience a “cataclysmic shift where entire industries won’t survive.”
In its most pernicious form, Sputnik offers totally misleading information. Former correspondent Andrew Feinberg recounted in 2017 how his editors ordered him to ask if the White House would explore “alternative” theories about the Syrian government’s sarin gas attack on its own people, consistent with Kremlin claims that which his ally was not responsible. (Sputnik editor-in-chief Mindia Gavasheli did not respond to requests for comment).
Despite a 9,000 watt signal that can be heard across the region, the message doesn’t seem to get very far. WZHF does not rank among the top 40 Washington-area stations in the Nielsen rankings. But as limited as Sputnik’s audience and likely influence are, his dealings with the Kremlin have recently begun to attract some negative attention.
The National Association of Broadcasters on Tuesday called on station owners to stop broadcasting state-sponsored Russian programs. Without mentioning WZHF or Sputnik by name, General Manager Curtis LeGeyt nevertheless hinted that they were spreading Kremlin propaganda.
“While the First Amendment protects free speech … it does not preclude private actors from exercising sound moral judgment,” LeGeyt said in a statement. “Our nation must stand fully united against misinformation and for freedom and democracy across the world.”
Sputnik has already been the subject of political criticism. In 2017, three Democratic members of Congress called for an investigation into why he was still on the air despite evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The then-Federal Communications Commission chairman , Ajit Pai, declined to take action, saying the First Amendment would prohibit his agency “from interfering with a broadcast licensee’s choice of programming, even though that programming may be objectionable to many listeners.” .
Sputnik does not own WZHF, nor could it under federal regulations prohibiting foreign governments from controlling US broadcast licenses. The decades-old ban was prompted by fears that hostile foreign powers would use American radio and television stations to broadcast propaganda. But the Kremlin found another way to go on the air.
WZHF has been licensed to a New York company, Way Broadcasting, since 2001, according to FCC records. But Way seems to be a largely passive owner. In 2017, he agreed to lease the station’s airtime to a second party, RM Broadcasting of Jupiter, Florida.
RM, in turn, sold all of the station’s airtime to Rossiya Segodnya and Sputnik. RM struck a similar deal in 2020 with Alpine Broadcasting to place Sputnik’s programming on Alpine’s three stations in the Kansas City area.
The practice, known as the time-brokering arrangement, has been a financial lifeline for small broadcasters in financial difficulty since the 1930s. Instead of hiring sales staff and producing programs, owners Many stations simply rent blocks of airtime from another party, often through a broker, who airs their own programs. The best-known form of such agreements is that of television “infomercials”.
The Sputnik deals were lucrative for the broadcasters involved. According to federal filings, RM paid $1.12 million to Way Broadcasting last year to carry Radio Sputnik full-time and Alpine Broadcasting about $160,000 to carry Sputnik for six hours a day on its Kansas City stations.
RM owner Arnold Ferolito defended Sputnik in a recent interview, saying the effort to get him off the air was an attack on free speech.
“RM Broadcasting stands with Ukraine and the victims of oppression and aggression around the world,” he wrote in an email. “One of the fundamental rights that Ukraine fights for is freedom of expression and freedom from censorship, and RM is dedicated to the unhindered exchange of information and ideas.”
He noted that stations disclose Rossiya Segodnya’s role as the source of broadcasts throughout the day “so that people can make an informed decision on whether to listen or turn the dial.”
Ferolito said other US station owners also wanted to offer the service, but Sputnik’s parent organization “didn’t have the budget” for broader US reach.
Under a separate lease agreement, WZHF’s signal is carried on FM radio in the Washington area by a company called Reston Translator. “I’m a strong First Amendment supporter,” John Garziglia, the company’s principal owner, said in an interview. “Under the First Amendment, we should be seeking more information, not less.”
Way Broadcasting declined to comment.
RM is required to file federal disclosures about Rossiya Segodnya’s payments following a lengthy legal battle between the company and the Department of Justice. The agency determined in early 2018 that RM’s involvement with the Russian media group required him to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Ferolito sued to block the designation, arguing that RM was simply acting as an intermediary and had no control over Sputnik’s programs, but a Florida federal judge ruled against the company in 2019.
Hence, the hourly warning from WZHF. And if one of his listeners accepts the suggestion and searches for the station on the Department of Justice website, he will find a voluminous collection of government documents revealing exactly who is behind it.