Military sets up Army FM, but the trick is making it cool enough so soldiers will listen
By JULIAN E. BARNES
May 26, 2016 10:55 a.m. ET
KIEV—Ukraine’s army is searching for its own Robin Williams.
Specifically, it is looking for a charismatic army disc jockey like the one Mr. Williams played in the film “Good Morning, Vietnam” three decades ago.
Alexey Makukhin, an adviser to Ukraine’s military who is helping set up the station, wants a Robin Williams to help with his “big problem.” Troops facing Russian-backed separatists in the east hear a steady barrage of radio and TV broadcasts that seem crafted to sow doubts about their mission.
His solution is Army FM, a radio station for Ukraine’s soldiers. To make it a success he needs a DJ—a great DJ.
Dozens of résumés poured in when word about the plan got out. Mr. Makukhin interviewed about 50 DJ applicants. They were an almost complete bust.
“A lot of candidates just do not fit to the role of presenter—poor voice, cannot keep up a discussion or stop themselves,” he says.
“Some candidates have a fixed mind-set and are not ready to work in our format of entertaining and friendly radio.”
Mr. Makukhin, a 35-year-old former TV sitcom producer, dispatched old colleagues from the military and television worlds to hunt for undiscovered talent.
One military colleague, scouring the front lines where the army faces breakaway provinces, found Lidiya Huzhva.
With dyed blue hair and a mischievous look, Ms. Huzhva has both personality and a knowledge of the fighting. She spent 18 months as a freelance reporter interviewing Ukrainian soldiers.
She also has a good voice and understands what the station’s vibe should be, a blend of “Daily Show” style humor and serious purpose like that of an armed-forces newspaper. She says Army FM should respond to pro-Russian broadcasts not with indignant rebuttals but with jokey dispatches.
“The people here need to laugh,” she says. “They love comedy.”
There was just one problem. Ms. Huzhva, 38 years old, doesn’t really want to be a host sitting in the studio. She would rather report from the front.
She also has the wrong taste in music. She likes jazz. Ukraine’s soldiers like rap, hard rock and metal. For Mr. Makukhin, it was back to the search.
Two years into a conflict with Russian-backed separatists, Ukrainian soldiers have a new weapon against Russian propaganda: Army FM.
The music that Ms. Huzhva doesn’t like, but that many soldiers do, is what they get from the Russian and separatist-province radio stations, sometimes with lyrics slamming Ukraine’s government.
A separatist heartthrob named Gleb Kornilov dominates the charts at Radio Novorossia in Donetsk, in the heart of the breakaway Ukrainian region the separatists dub Novorossia, or New Russia. When the rebellion got going two years ago, he sang about the Ukrainian armed forces’ alleged burning of Donetsk. More recently, he has sung of Novorossia planning to go on the offensive against the West.
“We believe in the empire with the new vigor/Our song is a military crusade/ Our music is the finger on the trigger,” Mr. Kornilov sings in Russian.
Reached by phone in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Kornilov said his songs weren’t about criticizing Ukraine, just the oligarchs he says took it over. He said he was both pro-Ukraine and pro-Novorossia.
“We are fighting not against the people, but against the powers that be,” Mr. Kornilov said. “One person fights with a weapon, another with their art.”
News on the separatist-controlled radio and television stations presents a grim picture of Ukraine, frequently accusing the Kiev government and its supporters of a range of atrocities. One broadcast said pro-Ukrainian militias had kidnapped journalists.
The stations, say Ukrainian officials, have grown adept at mirroring the actual news, quickly issuing reports about mortar strikes, artillery barrages or buses hitting land mines. While Ukrainians say rebels are responsible for the attacks, the pro-separatist radio stations assign blame to Kiev.
Other reports on channels such as Novorossia TV and Radio Free Novorossia highlight true, but unflattering, news about the Ukrainian government, particularly corruption accusations from the International Monetary Fund or the European Union. Novorossia TV and Radio Free Novorossia didn’t respond to a request for comment. Ukrainian officials say they are working on addressing concerns but add that pro-separatist stations exaggerate the problem.
One common theme from the separatist broadcasting is that the Ukraine government does nothing while its soldiers sit in the mud on the front lines.
“If I watch or listen to it for an hour or two, it hits you in the head,” said Lt. Col. Oleksandr Vasylenko. “Whether you want it to or not, it just influences you. Even though you know it is propaganda.”
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, called the information war in eastern Ukraine part of a larger struggle. “The point of this Russian propaganda is not to win the argument and it is certainly not to illuminate the truth,” he said. “It is to confuse. It is part of their arsenal.”
Soldiers facing Russian-backed separatists in the east hear a steady barrage of separatist-backed radio and TV broadcasts.
Russian officials such as Moscow’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Alexander Grushko, say Russia has no direct role in the fighting in Ukraine. Separatist and Russian officials say the reports Westerners call propaganda are factual broadcasts, not controlled by Russia, about Ukrainian government incompetence or corruption. It is the U.S. and Ukraine that are misleading the public, Russian officials say.
In setting up the Ukraine army radio station, Mr. Makukhin has had help from a U.S. nonprofit called Spirit of America. Unlike many nongovernment organizations in war zones that pledge neutrality, this one tries to align its efforts with U.S. objectives.
In Afghanistan, Spirit of America’s workers were stationed in the field, helping provide nonlethal equipment to local police forces working with U.S. special operation forces. In Ukraine, it is providing $200,000 to outfit Army FM’s studio and put up transmitters, including one just 36 miles from Donetsk.
“The entrepreneurial, venture-capital approach is something that’s rarely applied in these situations overseas,” said Jim Hake, the NGO’s founder. “The core of that is to support the initiative of people closest to the problem…see what works, do more of what works, and if it doesn’t work stop it.”
Spirit of America has no direct hand in the programming, but Mr. Hake has offered advice and said Mr. Makukhin understands that Army FM can’t fight propaganda with propaganda. “Trust and credibility are more important than transmitters or radio equipment,” he said.
The station’s plans include airing frank interviews with Ukrainian officials to show soldiers the government is willing to address hard problems. It is important for Army FM, which is owned by the Defense Ministry, to avoid a stuffy official military style, said Yana Kholodna, a TV producer hired as an adviser.
“The challenge is to make a cool radio station,” she said. After the blue-haired Ms. Huzhva didn’t work out as host, Mr. Makukhin’s colleagues brought him another potential find, Pvt. Oleksandr Bezsonov, a young front-line soldier who had started a pirate radio station to entertain troops at his base.
Unfortunately, his tryout didn’t go well. He had technical wizardry but not the right on-air personality, Mr. Makukhin said. Army FM hired him as a sound engineer instead, and then made him sound director for several of the shows.
On March 1 the station went on the air in beta form, without a morning host. Even so, its opening words were a nod to Mr. Makukhin’s quest for a soldier-DJ: “Good Morning, Ukraine.”
He hasn’t given that quest up, but in late March he turned to a veteran civilian radio presenter, Philip Boiko. In its early form, Army FM’s morning show is a mix of front-line news (Ukraine’s use of MiG 29 jet fighters), pop culture ( Axl Rose’s turn as frontman for AC/DC) and long tales of historical Ukrainian war heroes. In one, Mr. Boiko celebrated the ingenuity of a volunteer who made a mobile sauna for soldiers out of an old military truck.
Refuting “fake news and announcements” from the occupied east will be part of his show, he said. Bands whose music he has played include a Russian one called DDT that was founded by a Kremlin critic.
Mr. Boiko, 38, doesn’t pretend to have the manic energy of the DJ star of “Good Morning, Vietnam.” But he figures that good rock music and his mix of sarcasm and humor can keep the soldiers listening.
Mr. Makukhin, while still keeping his eye out for the military service member he can put on the air, says he can’t complain about his civilian DJ.
“Eight a.m. in Kiev. ‘Soldiers, wake up!’ ” Mr. Boiko boomed on a recent broadcast as he as greeted the troops. “Morning infotainment show starts its second part, and I, Philip Boiko, greet all the listeners of Army FM. Especially our heroes in the military zone who diligently fight with separatist and occupying bastards, protecting their motherland.”
Write to Julian E. Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org