The broadcaster funded by the US Congress to “promote democratic values and institutions” has racked up fines of 169 million roubles ($2.277 million) for violating rules governing the presence of foreign media in Russia. This is an order issued by the Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Connection and Mass Communication), which as of 23 September 2020 has required foreign media to preface messages and materials broadcast with the indication that they are produced by a foreign media outlet. The broadcaster has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to verify the legality of the application of Russian legislation for foreign media against them and says it intends to appeal all court decisions.
During the Cold War, the FM band in Eastern European countries was different. Radio stations transmitted between 65.8 and 74 MHz (except in East Germany), called the OIRT band; frequencies used in the West by television. As a result, citizens could not pick up signals from capitalist countries, and vice versa. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the band was gradually abandoned, but there are still several nations in Europe that have not switched off all their OIRT transmitters: Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. In recent years, however, the decommissioning of the band has accelerated and the signals are now drastically reduced. In a number of articles, we examine the situation in each country.
Russia: in large cities the switch off goes slowly
In the report published in 2020, we talked about the decision of the government to move the broadcasters from the OIRT band to the CCIR (87.5-108.0 MHz). The state-owned Radio Rossii, which has already deactivated many installations, proceeds to switch off as soon as the communications authority makes available a frequency in the CCIR band. The switch-off has gone fast in the most peripheral areas of the endless Russian Federation, where the band is free, but it is going slow in the biggest cities, where the band is close to saturation. It also does not help that Russia uses a very “wide” channel spacing: in Moscow, the standard distance between stations is 400 kHz (while in many European countries it is 300 kHz, and drops to 200 kHz in some large Italian metropolitan areas). So in St. Petersburg, there are still four frequencies active in the OIRT: Rossii on 66.3 MHz, Radio Peterburg on 69.47 MHz, Orfey on 71.66 MHz, and Grad Petrov on 73.1 MHz. On YouTube you can listen to a scan of the OIRT band, recorded on March 27, 2021, and hear the four stations. In Moscow, only 66.44 MHz (Rossii from Ostankino), 68.0 MHz (Avtoradio), and 72.92 MHz (Radio Radonezh) are active. In the Kaliningrad Oblast (Russian enclave wedged between Latvia and Poland), 65.9 MHz and 66.02 MHz of Radio Rossii have been switched off, and only 72.11 (Radio Shanson) is on air.
Launched in 1973 at the height of the Cold War, The Buzzer (as it has been nicknamed by radio amateurs and listeners) is a ghost radio station that has been broadcasting bizarre transmissions non-stop on 4625 kHz ever since. It broadcasts a sonar-like sound, interspersed with pauses, the purpose of which is not known; sometimes short voice messages in Russian are broadcast. Over the years, the community of radio amateurs and listening enthusiasts has monitored the transmissions and found technical flaws, such as when in 2010 the transmissions were interrupted for a day and two days later voices were heard in the background, as if a microphone had been left open. The Infinity News article reconstructs the history of “The Buzzer”, while other details can be found on Wikipedia.
The annual report on the information industry in Russia covers many aspects of the media. Among these, we have focussed our attention on the move to digital TV, FM band migration and the increase in numbers of transmitters, and digital radio coming to a stop.
Analogue TV is dead! (but still operating alongside digital)
The switchover to digital was completed in 2019. It was proudly announced that the transition took ten years, which was faster than the United States (11 years), Australia (12) and Great Britain (14). In addition, with 98.4% of the population being able to tune in, Russia beats France (97.3%), Austria (96.0%), Switzerland (*) (95.0%) and Portugal (92.7%). However analogue TV is not totally dead. The national channels have been switched off, but the regional channels are still operating. And there are quite a few of them. Our FMLIST correspondent in the Republic of Karelia (east of Finland) confirmed that there are a good five of them in the city where he lives.
(*) Switzerland has switched off terrestrial TV via DVB-T in summer 2019
Radio stations move to FM
The state radio network will be moving from broadcasting on the OIRT band (between 65.8 and 74 MHz) to the European FM band (87.5-108 MHz), where the commercial radio stations are already present. New licences will be granted to Radio Mayak and Vesti FM in order to allow them to broadcast in all cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. In order to manage the increase in number of channels, they are studying isofrequency networks used abroad in countries like Moldavia, where the radio station Inter-FM can be received with traffic information along the motorway. A solution based on a lot of low power transmitters would also not infringe health regulations that limit the use of high power transmitters.
‘The market is not ready’ for DAB
The development of digital radio in Europe is analysed in the report. But this ‘revolution’ will not be happening in Russia. Even though frequencies for DAB+ transmissions have been allocated, this does not mean that they will be activated. The Ministry of Communications believes that the advertising market is not mature enough yet to justify the increase in the numbers of radio stations that can use updated technology.
St. Petersburg is experimenting with DRM+
Therefore the aim is to develop broadcasting systems such as DRM+ that allow a radio station to also transmit digital channels on the same FM frequency, leaving listeners free to equip themselves to receive transmissions in high quality sound, but not being obliged to replace their radio with a new one (estimated cost of about $10 US). In July 2019 Comedy Radio carried out tests in St. Petersburgby digitally broadcasting three channels on 95.7 MHz FM. The first one was a repeat of their analogue channel with a bitrate of 33 kbps, the other two were Avtoradio (43 kbps) and Evropa Plus (20 kbps).
Due to the Covid-19 crisis the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation offered radio and television broadcasters the opportunity to reduce the power of their transmitters and to turn them off at night (from 24.00 to 6.00) in order to save energy. This measure is in place from 24th April to 31st December, 2020. However, very few radio stations have taken this up. They are afraid that reducing power and coverage area could cause a drop in the numbers of listeners and commercials. Advertising is already going very badly. Advertising spots have dropped by 70% and 80% in many areas of the country and the ministry believes that broadcasters’ budgets will be more than halved this year (their revenues will be down by about 8 billion rubles)
Subsidies and cuts to rent and royalties
In order to compensate for financial losses, radio stations are asking for funding as well as a lowering of RTRS fees (Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network, the company that manages transmitters), which are considered two or three times higher than those of private companies. They would also appreciate a respite with a lowering of royalties for music rights. The Deputy Minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation, Alexey Volin, declared that their request for subsidies was unrealistic and stated that the measures currently in place were sufficient. However, he was more open on the subject of lowering royalties which he declared was a more reasonable request.
They did not make it to blowing out their 87 birthday candles. The transmission towers (215 metres high), also known as Radio Comintern located in the transmitting centre in Moscow, were packed with dynamite and demolished. Inaugurated on May 1st, 1933, it was the world’s most powerful (500kW) radio station in a period when radio was the only means of propaganda. After broadcasting for seventy years, it was closed in 2003 and became an attraction because the dilapidated towers were being climbed, even by free climbers. An article on Mediaradio.info recounts its history with images of the site. Radio Comintern was named after the Third International, an organisation that advocated World Communism.