Tune in to 11:40 a.m. or 102.9 FM in Kansas City and you might hear Jarmarl Thomas pontificate about the motives behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine on his show Fault Lines.
The week of March 7, Thomas spent much of the three-hour show painting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the instigator of the Russian invasion, blaming the Ukrainians and the United States.
“Zelenskyy is not the overflowing, brilliant hero that the West made him out to be,” Thomas said. “It’s the narrative that’s needed to solidify that idea, it’s unprovoked.”
Fault Lines is a show featured on Radio Sputnik, broadcast programming produced in Washington DC and funded by the Kremlin. The show airs regularly on KCXL, a small station in Liberty, Missouri, which can be heard for miles in all directions.
Radio Sputnik’s account of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to most reporting on the ongoing conflict, portrayed largely as an unprovoked attack on Ukrainians led by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
KCXL and Washington DC station WZHF-AM Air Radio Sputnik daily. A handful of other stations also pick up these broadcasts.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, scrutiny from Kremlin-sponsored media like Radio Sputnik continues to intensify. And for KCXL owner Pete Schartel, that scrutiny comes in the form of renewed pressure to stop airing programs that keep the radio station going.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, companies around the world have regularly ceased their relations with Russia. Roku and DirecTV last week, Russian state-controlled RT, formerly known as Russia Today, was dropped. This prompted RT to close its US branch and lay off most US staff.
In Russia, outlets like CNN and the New York Times withdraw journalists from the country following a censorship law signed by Putin that threatens up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false information”.
Earlier this month, in response to the invasion, National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) chief executive Curtis LeGeyt called on all U.S. broadcasters to cease all state-sponsored programming with ties to the Russian government.
NAB’s chief legal officer, Rick Kaplan, said the move was “extremely unusual” but necessary.
He said the broadcasts produced by Radio Sputnik amounted to nothing more than propaganda that disseminated misinformation from a foreign government about the invasion of the United States.
“It’s different from the discourse, which is very important to have — open, all points of view on the table. There’s a line between that and direct propaganda.”
Rick Kaplan, National Association of Broadcasters
“[There’s] there’s a lot of misinformation going on, generally speaking, in our country and around the world – I think that’s an important statement.
Schartel called NAB’s request a “gut reaction” that trampled on KCXL’s freedom of speech and led to a maelstrom of angry calls to the station, calling Schartel and his wife Jonne “traitors.”
“If I did (cut the program), we would be doing exactly the main thing that we criticize the former Soviet Union and other communist regimes for doing where they don’t allow free speech,” Schartel said. .
And it’s not just free speech that worries Schartel. He said that without the monthly revenue from the deal with Radio Sputnik, the station would probably not be able to stay open.
In exchange for airing Radio Sputnik’s programs, Schartel earns $5,000 a month to air six hours of Radio Sputnik in two blocks, 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily at 11:40 a.m. 102.9 FM and 104.7 FM.
“Something We Could Live With”
Ahead of the 2020 deal with the Russian government, Schartel said he was struggling to keep his small radio station on the air on a shoestring budget.
“It felt like something we could live with,” Schartel said. “Especially if they could pay us and keep the rest of the station on the air.”
U.S. Justice Department Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings show RM Broadcasting paid Schartel’s company more than $160,000 to carry Radio Sputnik programming over the past two years .
Arnold Ferolito of Florida-based RM Broadcasting brokered the deal between Rossiya Segodnya, a Kremlin-run media agency in Russia, and KCXL in 2020.
In 2017, Ferlito brokered a similar deal with WZHF-AM and unsuccessfully purchased programming from stations in larger markets like New York and Los Angeles.
Two years later, as investigations continued into foreign influence in the 2016 election, the Justice Department ordered Ferolito to register as a foreign agent with FARA.
Congress first passed FARA in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda in the run-up to World War II.
At the time, Ferolito told KCUR 89.3 that he was a businessman “caught in the middle of a political problem.” He fought the Justice Department’s order in court without success.
After U.S. District Court Judge Robin L. Rosenberg upheld the ruling, the Justice Department said in a statement that the information Ferolito and RM Broadcasting transmitted to the U.S. airwaves lacked transparency.
“The American people have a right to know if a foreign flag is flying behind speech broadcast in the United States,” the statement said. “Our concern is not the content of the speech but the transparency of the true identity of the speaker.
Yet Ferolito continues to profit from the agreements between Rossiya Segodnya and the radio stations, as long as the stations continue to broadcast Radio Sputnik. According to documents filed by FARA, Ferolito earned a small percentage of the more than $1.6 million the Russian government paid to KCXL and WZFH.
Ferolito did not give an interview to the Midwest Newsroom, but in a statement, RM Broadcasting “stands with Ukraine and the victims of oppression and aggression around the world” and argued that shutting down Radio Sputnik’s programming in the United States would be a blow to freedom of expression.
Radio Sputnik isn’t the only controversial programming on KCXL, due to what Schartel has said is his love of “alternative radio.”
KCXL also airs TruNews, a show The Anti-Defamation League says regularly features anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ messages and in 2018 Schartel gave airtime to Steve West, a Clay County Republican candidate for the Missouri House of Representatives who was denounced by his party and family for espousing bigotry.
The station has supporters like Kevin Phillips, a KCXL listener for 20 years.
The self-proclaimed conspiracy researcher said he was listening because Schartel airs programs that other stations avoid.
“Whenever people tried to get their news out there and couldn’t be heard anywhere else, he (Pete) would give them space on the air,” Phillips said. “Pete never limited the topics.”
Phillips said he gets a good deal of his news from sources such as Radio Sputnik and RT. He said he didn’t mind the Russian programming funding.
“If you’ve been following Ukraine’s history for 20 years like me, you’ll find a lot more truth on Russian pay radio than on American radio,” Phillips said.
Schartel plans to continue broadcasting Radio Sputnik shows for as long as they are available, but his contract with RM Broadcasting and Rossiya Segodnya ends in December 2022. He does not expect it to be renewed.
This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative reporting collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.