The man responsible for broadcasting Russian state programming in the Kansas City area says he always dreamed of owning a radio station.
Today he owns two, plus a small fleet of radio transmitters across the Kansas City metro.
But money remains tight, he laid off his staff years ago and the stations sell airtime to local residents and religious organizations at cut-rate prices. He hasn’t given himself a paycheck in months.
So Pete Schartel’s ears perked up a while back when he heard that Radio Sputnik pays $30,000 a month to broadcast its programming in Washington, D.C.
“I’m going, ‘Oh my Lord, that’s twice what my whole budget is,’” he told KCUR in a two-hour interview at his flagship station, KCXL, last week. “They must have some money. Let’s investigate this.”
Schartel found Arnold Ferolito, the broker who negotiated the 2017 deal to broadcast Russian programming 24 hours a day in Washington, and made his pitch: “We’re right in the middle of the country. This would be a good test market.”
Ferolito agreed. Late last year, Schartel began broadcasting Radio Sputnik for a couple of hours each morning on KCXL, an AM radio station based in Liberty, Missouri.
The English-language broadcast is produced by the U.S.-based branch of Rossiya Segodnya (“Russia Today”), an organization created in 2013 by Russian President Vladimir Putin to promote Russian interests abroad.
Schartel’s listeners — accustomed to eclectic programming that ranges from music to Bible study to far-right conspiracy theorist and talk show host Alex Jones — seemed to react positively.
“And I’m going, ‘Hmm, I think we’ve got something that some people like here,’” he said. “And if they’ll pay me for it, that’s even better.”
In January, Schartel and his wife, Jonne, agreed to broadcast Radio Sputnik for six hours a day for three years on three frequencies: 1140 AM, 102.9 FM and 104.7 FM.
In return, Schartel said they get $27.50 per hour.
As news of the broadcasts has spread, the couple have received nasty messages and phone calls. One person threatened to burn down the station, Schartel said. But the couple say they have no regrets. They cite the value of free speech, even when that speech comes from an organization forced last year by the U.S. government to register as an agent of a foreign country.
The slickly produced programming isn’t burdened by “big corporate sponsors” and offers “a very good forum,” Schartel said.
Mindia Gavasheli, who heads Radio Sputnik’s bureau in Washington, told KCUR he’s working to expand the organization's original programming. In recent weeks, he said, he’s received “a few” offers from other radio stations and brokers eager to broadcast Radio Sputnik in the United States.
‘I was very naive’
When Schartel bought an abandoned radio station in 1993, he said it wasn’t a business decision so much as a dream come true.
The Small Business Administration, which owned the building and the 10 acres it sat on, was eager to sell. With $21,000 in the bank and about $55,000 in additional financing, Schartel had himself a radio station.
The small brick building didn’t have a ceiling, and the lot was overgrown with weeds. But 26 years later it’s still standing, albeit with stacks of audio and electronic equipment strewn all over the place.
Behind the front desk sits a picture of Schartel as a boy, standing on the roof of his home alongside a toy radio tower. In the background looms the 425-foot Armstrong Tower, built in Alpine, New Jersey, for early experiments in FM radio broadcasts.
“I think being able to see that tower out of my bedroom window, and the lights on it at night, kind of did something to my brain,” Schartel recalled with a chuckle. “I wound up having the advantage of being able to listen to a lot of different college stations as well as normal commercial stations. I just loved radio… They all had different ideas and they all had different things I could learn from.”
Schartel studied radio broadcasting and business management at Northwest Missouri State University, but afterward failed to land a job at a radio station. When he bought his own station, he struggled to make it work financially.
At first he ran the business as a traditional station. It played oldies music, with promos recorded by Wolfman Jack, and had a full staff to manage the station’s programming and advertising.
“I was very naive on how much money people should have before they get into the business,” Schartel said. “There was a point in time where I wouldn’t let anybody sell a contract for more than a month because I wasn’t sure we were going to be around.”
A weekend show called “Tradio” — people called in to the radio to buy and sell things — proved popular. It was also profitable.
“If somebody is listening to talk, it’s not on in the background,” he said. “Your (advertisement) is going to be heard a lot easier.”
So, to keep his dream alive, Schartel laid off his staff and shifted most of his programming from music to talk.
‘One plus one is four and a half’
Today Schartel spends much of his time on bookkeeping and paperwork, although he says he’s most passionate about the engineering aspects of radio, or what he calls “the wires and the dials.”
KCXL’s AM license requires the station to power down from 4,000 watts during the day to a mere six watts at night because of the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to protect clear channel stations from interference — in this case, the 1140 signal from WRVA in Richmond, Virginia.
The FCC allows some AM stations to rebroadcast their signals on FM frequencies, so Schartel also broadcasts KCXL using two translators at 102.9 and 104.7.
He also set up translators to rebroadcast Christian music from K-LOVE, a radio programming service. Two more translators rebroadcast a signal from KCTO, his other AM frequency. That station, also called La Mega, broadcasts in Spanish — mostly Catholic programming from Radio Maria, another radio programming service.
KCXL came under fire in 2018 for giving airtime to Steve West, a businessman who espoused anti-Semitic and Islamophobic views under the name “Jack Justice.” West won the Republican primary that year for a Clay County seat in the Missouri House of Representatives but lost in the general election.
Another KCXL personality, Rick Wiles, who hosts a program called TruNews, recently described the impeachment of President Donald Trump as a “Jew coup.”
The Anti-Defamation League describes TruNews as a “fundamentalist Christian streaming news and opinion platform” that frequently discusses “extreme conspiracy theories.”
Schartel acknowledged that KCXL has at times given platforms to people who “seem anti-Semitic."
But Schartel said he thinks his listeners are well-informed and should be able to “decide for themselves whether they think something is anti-this or anti-that — whether it’s based upon prejudice or upon someone’s wrong interpretation of the facts.”
Both Schartel and his wife — she spoke briefly to KCUR via speakerphone during KCUR’s interview of her husband — stressed their belief that Radio Sputnik offers value with its depth of information.
“They are more informative than ABC News,” she said. “These Americans on Russian radio are definitely trying to get more information. We (as a society) are coming to a point where we don’t want information anymore.”
Schartel said he likes that Radio Sputnik’s morning show, “Fault Lines,” is co-hosted by both a former Breitbart News reporter, Lee Stranahan, and an ACLU National Board member, Garland Nixon.
A recent episode featured a discussion about the control by the “deep state” over President Trump, and whether Hillary Clinton is “setting herself up to come in to a brokered (Democratic) convention and become the nominee.”
“Some of (the program’s guests) in your opinion, and probably in my opinion, are kind of out there,” Schartel said. “And you just wonder how they've taken ‘one plus one’ and they've come up with ‘four and a half,’ or something. But do we go the opposite way and say that unless you have every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, should we withhold something? … I’d say, give them a forum.”
And while Schartel disputed the notion that Radio Sputnik’s weekday programming is Russian propaganda, he acknowledged the organization’s tendency to broadcast “filler material” from Radio Sputnik’s sister television network RT can sometimes cross the line.
For example, he said he believes documentaries on Russian culture and cuisine have a clear Russian bent.
“They've got me wanting to visit Volgograd,” he said. “I've never been to Volgograd, and they're there talking about how wonderful it is. That's propaganda, clear and simple. And I think people can see through that. Is it really hurting anybody? I don't think so.”
‘Let Moscow handle it’
In 2017, reporter Andrew Feinberg chronicled his tenure at Sputnik News — a sister organization of Radio Sputnik also based in Washington — for Politico Magazine.
Sputnik editors spoon-fed him questions to ask American officials, Feinberg wrote, and pressed him to inquire about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee who was accosted and killed on a Washington street in 2016 and whose slaying has since become the subject of various right-wing conspiracy theories.
“I realized that it didn't matter how hard I worked or how aggressively I pushed back at the strictures my bosses were putting on me — as long as I was working at Sputnik I'd be contributing to the spread of disinformation and propaganda,” he wrote.
And in 2018, PBS NewsHour reported on the experience of Jeff Stanton, another former Sputnik journalist, who discussed Sputnik’s efforts at disinformation and told PBS, “They mix real with unreal, use dubious sources.”
Stanton also released a lengthy document chronicling his time at Sputnik. “Moscow calls the shots,” he wrote. “Editors will bark out frequently: ‘What is Moscow doing?’ ‘Let Moscow handle it.’”
“Russia plays the blame game,” Stanton continued. “It is “always the victim, takes no responsibility for actions and denies any charges leveled at it.”
‘The taste of caviar’
Radio Sputnik’s broadcasts have been contentious in part because the federal government in 2017 forced Rossiya Segodnya to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. A federal judge later upheld that decision.
The 1938 law requires people lobbying for, or otherwise acting on behalf of, a foreign government to register with the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent.
Gavasheli, the man who runs Radio Sputnik’s Washington bureau, told KCUR that multiple radio stations have backed out of agreements to broadcast Radio Sputnik because the Justice Department was “harassing” the stations, and threatening to force them to register under FARA.
The department, which acted as U.S. intelligence agencies were investigating Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, “never fully explained to us what happened,” Gavasheli said.
Gavasheli also echoed Schartel’s insistence that Radio Sputnik is harmless.
Midway through an occasionally combative phone interview with KCUR, he asked whether cultural documentaries can influence listeners: “You are concerned, yes, that Russian cuisine might subvert American democracy?”
Gavasheli dismissed the idea that some Americans would reject Radio Sputnik programming simply because it is funded by the Russian government.
“Let’s discuss the taste of caviar without trying it,” he said. “Because I know in advance it must be disgusting, right? And I don’t need to taste it to tell you that it is disgusting. That is what you guys do.”
Schartel’s response to the numerous complaints he and his wife have received was more muted.
“I applaud them for being concerned enough to try to leave some information and try to influence things that way,” he said. “That's their free speech. And I think that's wonderful.”