Liberty, Md. – A man running a low-profile, low-budget radio station in suburban Kansas City says he stood up for free speech and alternative views while broadcasting Russian state-sponsored programming in the midst of the Ukrainian war.
Radio Sputnik, funded by the Russian government, pays broadcasters in the United States to broadcast its programs. Only two do it: one is Liberty, Peter Skurtel’s company in Missouri, and one is in Washington, DC.
Schartel began broadcasting Russian programming in January 2020, but criticism intensified after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Schartel said people accuse him and his wife of being traitors to the United States and occasionally threaten them. Some critics say he is spreading propaganda and misinformation, but Skartel maintains that most people who call to complain have not listened to the program.
“Some will talk to me, but others will still call me whatever,” he said. “What I am grateful for is that we are still living in a country where they can call me. Even if they are not thinking about freedom of speech, they are exercising that right.”
Radio Sputnik is produced by the US-based branch of Rossiya Segodnya, a media group run by the Russian government.
Its content prompted the National Association of Broadcasters to issue an unusual statement on March 1 urging broadcasters to stop carrying state-sponsored programming related to Russia or its agents.
A statement from NAB President and CEO Curtis Leggett said the organization was a “fierce defender” of freedom of speech but in the face of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, “we believe our nation must stand united against misinformation and for global freedom and democracy.”
During a recent broadcast of “The Critical Hour” on Schartel’s KCXL, the host and his guests echoed false and unsubstantiated claims about the Ukrainian government. Putin’s baseless claim that his enemies in Ukraine are Nazis, as well as Russian military strikes on civilian targets and the destruction of the entire surrounding area.
The Kansas City Star said in an editorial that Skartel was spreading Russian propaganda by putting his financial needs above morality.
“Much like the National Association of Broadcasters, we advise the KCXL to exclude all programming that puts Putin (Russian President Vladimir) in a positive light. The Russian president is no victim; He is definitely not a war hero, “wrote The Star.
Schartel admits he initially accepted the Radio Sputnik deal because he was struggling to keep KCXL afloat. The station operates from a dilapidated, cluttered building. He said he did almost everything but stopped taking pay a few months ago.
In December 2021, Schartel’s Alpine Broadcasting Corp. K pays $ 5,000 per month for Radio Sputnik broadcasts on two to three hour blocks per month.
KCXL’s other programming includes shows that provide views across a highly religious, political spectrum, and propagate conspiracy theories. One program, Trunews, has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for spreading Semitic, Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ messages.
Schartel says he broadcasts programs that are not commercially viable and do not rely on advertising, which he claims affects news reports. He said he was promoting freedom of speech by providing a platform for people who would otherwise not be heard.
Roy Guttermann, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, said all radio station owners in the United States have the right to broadcast whatever they want.
“This station thinks it’s going to make a mark in Missouri by playing Radio Sputnik. They have a right to do that,” Gutterman said.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the licensing of radio and television broadcasts, does not censor content unless it intentionally endangers public safety or is deemed obscene, indecent or profane.
Radio Sputnik’s listeners listen to discussions not only about Russia, but also about current issues in the United States and other countries. The theme throughout the broadcast is that U.S. policies deliberately harm the United States and other countries while benefiting other corrupt governments, the rich and big business.
The deal to bring Radio Sputnik to a small Missouri station was brokered by Florida-based RM Broadcasting, which is run by Anthony Ferrolito. He signed a similar agreement with Way Broadcasting in 2017, agreeing to lease WZHF-AM’s Airtime RM Broadcasting in Washington, DC.
Because of his agreement with Rossiya Segodnya, the judiciary forced Ferrolito to register as a foreign government agent in 2018, citing a 1938 law for those who lobbied for or worked for a foreign government. Ferrolito lost a lawsuit over registration.
Ferrolito did not return a message from The Associated Press, but RM Broadcasting said in a statement that the organization stood by Ukraine and all victims of oppression and aggression. That said, RM Broadcasting is dedicated to freedom of speech.
“The source of the object is clearly communicated to the public throughout the broadcast day, so that people can make a conscious decision about whether to listen to the dial or turn – and freedom of choice is the ultimate foundation of our republic,” the statement said.
Guttermann of Syracuse University noted that state-produced materials from countries not allied with the United States, including Russia and China, are already available on some stations and online, although some suppliers have excluded Russian materials since the war began.
“Modern media has changed the landscape of radio with which we grew up,” he said. “People can find this stuff even if the stations drop it.”
For his part, Skartel doesn’t think the chaos over Radio Sputnik broadcasts will last.
Russia’s state-run RT America, a television rival to Radio Sputnik, closed its U.S. branch this month and laid off most of its staff. Schartel says his contract will probably not be renewed if it expires in December.