Published March 18th, 2022 at 12:01 PM
Tune into 1140 AM or 102.9 FM in Kansas City and you might hear Jarmarl Thomas pontificating about the motives of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on his show Fault Lines.
The week of March 7, Thomas spent a large portion of the three-hour program painting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the instigator of the Russian invasion, pinning responsibility for it on Ukrainians and the United States.
“Zelenskyy isn’t the brimming, shining hero the West has made him out to be,” Thomas said. ”That’s the narrative that’s required in order to solidify this idea this is unprovoked.”
Fault Lines is a show featured on Radio Sputnik, broadcast programming produced in Washington D.C. and funded by the Kremlin. The show regularly airs on KCXL, a small station in Liberty, Missouri, that can be heard for miles in any direction.
Radio Sputnik’s narrative on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in stark contrast to most coverage of the ongoing conflict, described largely as an unprovoked attack on Ukrainians led by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
KCXL and Washington D.C. station WZHF-AM air Radio Sputnik daily. A handful of other stations pick up those broadcasts, as well.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, scrutiny of Kremlin-sponsored media like Radio Sputnik continues to mount. And for KCXL owner Pete Schartel, that scrutiny comes in the form of renewed pressure for him to stop broadcasting programming that keeps the radio station in business.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, businesses from around the world have steadily halted dealings with Russia. Roku and DirecTV last week dropped Russian state-controlled RT, formerly known as Russia Today. That caused RT to close its U.S. branch and lay off most American staff members.
In Russia, outlets like CNN and the New York Times are pulling journalists out of 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 any state-sponsored programming with ties to the Russian government.
NAB’s chief legal officer, Rick Kaplan, said it was an “extremely unusual” but necessary move.
He said the broadcasts produced by Radio Sputnik amount to nothing more than propaganda that spreads misinformation from a foreign government about the invasion onto U.S airwaves.
“It’s different than discourse, which is very important to have — open, all views on the table. There is a line between that and straight propaganda.”Rick Kaplan, National Association of Broadcasters
“(There’s) a lot of misinformation going on, generally speaking, in our country and around the world — I think this is an important statement.”
Schartel called the NAB’s request a “knee-jerk reaction” that trampled KCXL’s freedom of speech and led to a maelstrom of angry calls to the station, labeling Schartel and his wife Jonne as “traitors.”
“If I did (cut the program) we’d be doing exactly the primary thing we criticize the old Soviet Union and other communist regimes of doing where they don’t allow free speech,” Schartel said.
And it’s not just free speech Schartel worries about. He said without the monthly income from the Radio Sputnik deal, the station most likely wouldn’t be able to remain open.
In exchange for airing Radio Sputnik programs, Schartel nets $5,000 a month to air six hours of Radio Sputnik in two blocks, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily on 1140 AM, 102.9 FM and 104.7 FM.
Before the 2020 deal with the Russian government, Schartel said he struggled to keep his small radio station on the air on a shoestring budget.
“It struck me as something we could live with,” Schartel said. “Especially if they could pay us and keep the rest of the station on-air.”
U.S. Justice Department Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) filings show RM Broadcasting has paid Schartel’s company more than $160,000 to air Radio Sputnik programs in 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 shopped the programming to 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 under FARA.
Congress first enacted FARA in 1938 to fight Nazi propaganda in the run-up to World War II.
At the time, Ferolito told KCUR 89.3 he was a businessman who was “caught in the middle of a political issue.” He fought the Justice Department’s order in court without success.
After U.S. District Court Judge Robin L. Rosenberg upheld the decision, the Justice Department said in a statement that the information Ferolito and RM Broadcasting brought to U.S. airwaves lacked important transparency.
“The American people have a right to know if a foreign flag waves behind speech broadcast in the United States,” the statement read. “Our concern is not the content of the speech but providing transparency about the true identity of the speaker.
Still, Ferolito continues to profit from the deals between Rossiya Segodnya and the radio stations, as long as the stations continue to air Radio Sputnik. According to FARA filings, Ferolito has made a small percentage of the more than $1.6 million the Russian government has paid KCXL and WZFH.
Ferolito did not grant an interview to the Midwest Newsroom, but in a statement said RM Broadcasting “stands with Ukraine and victims of oppression and aggression worldwide” and argued halting programming of Radio Sputnik in the U.S. would be a blow to free speech.
Radio Sputnik isn’t the only controversial programming on KCXL, owing to what Schartel said was his love of “alternative radio.”
KCXL also airs TruNews, a show the Anti-Defamation League says regularly features antisemitic, Islamaphobic and anti-LGBTQ messages and in 2018 Schartel gave airtime to Steve West, a Clay County Republican candidate for the Missouri House of Representative who has been denounced by his party and family for espousing bigotry.
The station has supporters like Kevin Phillips, a listener of KCXL for the last 20 years.
The self-described conspiracy researcher said he listens because Schartel airs programs other stations avoid.
“Whenever people were trying to get their information out and couldn’t be heard anywhere else, he (Pete) would allow them the space on air,” Phillips said. “Pete never did restrict the topics.”
Phillips said he gets a good amount of his news from sources like Radio Sputnik and RT. He said the Russian funding of the programming doesn’t bother him.
“If you follow this Ukraine thing for the last 20 years like I have, you’re going to find way more truth on Russian paid for radio than you will on American radio,” Phillips said.
Schartel plans to continue running broadcasts of Radio Sputnik for as long as they’re available, but his contract with RM Broadcasting and Rossiya Segodnya ends in Dec. 2022. He doesn’t expect it to be renewed.
This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR. KCUR 89.3 is a member of the KC Media Collective.