Funny, it doesn't sound Russian Radio: A tiny FM station on the shores of the Baltic Sea brings an irreverent mix of music, talk and news to the city of Kaliningrad.

Sun Journal

February 28, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KALININGRAD, Russia -- Whether it's frank sex talk, crooners or sarcastic news broadcasts, what's wafting onto the Baltic airwaves from the radio transmitter in a broom closet here doesn't sound very Russian.

That's the intention, too. Radio BAS -- Baltic Audio Service, FM 100.8, the voice of Kaliningrad -- pointedly doesn't want to be Russian, at least not the old Russian stereotype of moldy conservatism and inward focus that the station loves to pillory.

"We are not Russia. We are not the West. We're something in between," says owner Yevgeny Aloshin, a former regional Communist Party cultural official who has pioneered one of Russia's first private radio stations.

Radio BAS, like Kaliningrad, is a Russian toehold in the West.

Kaliningrad, a strategic chunk of territory about the size of Connecticut, is Russia's only ice-free port on the Baltic. Until the end of World War II, it was German territory.

It was part of East Prussia, and the city was called Koenigsberg. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union regarded it as important enough to claim it as part of its spoils.

Then the Soviets deported, jailed or killed virtually all the German population and renamed the area after a revolutionary hero who had never set foot here.

They moved in hundreds of thousands of Russians and declared the area a military district, closed to visitors.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kaliningrad entered a sort of limbo. Russians here often say they don't know exactly what they are.

They are Russian by birth, certainly, but they often feel disconnected from that heritage.

They live on territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania, marooned 250 miles from the rest of Russia. It is a land dotted with German Gothic ruins and the beach homes of Nazis.

Radio BAS reflects this identity crisis.

Since putting it on the air in 1993, Aloshin has made an unapologetic effort to look west instead of east for models.

So his Russian listeners -- most of them born here since the war, and without roots in mainland Russia -- identify the station as "Western."

But they claim it to be nearer their hearts than Russian TV, whose broadcasts rarely acknowledge Kaliningrad.

Radio BAS is a lively, shoestring operation staffed by mostly under-30 Russians. It is based out of a not-quite-converted residential apartment; kitchen faucets and gas mains still poke out of the studio walls.

The transmitter sometimes overheats. The fax machine is held together by tape.

This is one of Russia's few wholly private stations. Aloshin is sole owner of a license for a private transmitter and antenna -- a great rarity.

To survive, he relies on advertising revenue, an American friend who helps pay the $2,000 annual subscription to a package of American Top-40 radio CDs, and his own diplomatic skills in keeping away bureaucratic and mafia bosses.

After backing the losing candidate in elections for governor last fall, Aloshin says cryptically that he had to "make a peace treaty" with the winner's prosecutor in order to avoid legal problems.

"I'm the only owner, and I stay independent and have no debt -- at 30 to 40 percent interest, I can't afford credit," he says.

"Besides, when bandits used to come, they'd look around this apartment and say, 'Where's the radio station? I've got better stereo equipment in my home.' "

From the beginning, he invested in legal CDs. Most Russian stations, he says, made the mistake of investing in pirated cassette tapes. As international anti-piracy laws catch up with those stations, they have to reinvest in legal recordings and CD equipment.

When he established the station, Kaliningrad was flush with thousands of German travelers returning for "nostalgia tourism," curious foreign investors and foreign imports.

There was a sense that economic prosperity was imminent, says Alexei Shabunin, political editor of the Koenigsberg Express, a German-language weekly.

"We thought we'd be like Germany in two years," he says of the old talk of obtaining some sort of independence for Kaliningrad. Maybe there would be just a simple name change, or the !B establishment of a free-trade zone. Or maybe the establishment of a separate republic, like the neighboring Baltic states.

Most of that excitement has sputtered out. The free-trade zone failed in various incarnations, and investment has been only sporadic.

Even the Russian army fails to pay bills here for its soldiers, who account for half of Kaliningrad's population.

Aloshin believes that even if Kaliningrad's economic progress stalls, its residents would be ready for a more free-wheeling, Western-style station, compared with those that stuck to a purely Russian format of stilted newscasts and Russian pop music.

"We exclude Russian news agencies because they're biased, not honest, not clear," Aloshin says of his hourly newscasts.

"We use our own correspondent in the Duma [the Russian parliament] and our own local reporters, and Voice of America and BBC for everything else."

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