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A radio station in Missouri continues broadcasting Kremlin-funded Radio Sputnik

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, a radio station outside Kansas City continues its daily broadcasts of Radio Sputnik. That is a Kremlin-funded news service which critics call Russian propaganda. Kavahn Mansouri of the Midwest Newsroom reports.

KAVAHN MANSOURI, BYLINE: Tune in to AM radio stations across the country and you'll likely hear a variety of political talk shows. But Liberty, Mo.'s KCXL airs a program that's especially controversial.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FAULT LINES RADIO")

JAMARL THOMAS: Live from the divided states of America, precipitously perched at the edge of this resilient and exploited globe, welcome to your context lens very needed for this American perspective.

MANSOURI: The program is called "Fault Lines," and it's featured on the Russian state-funded Radio Sputnik, a news service out of Washington, D.C., producing news for Americans with a Russian tilt. One recent episode spent a full 3 hours painting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the aggressor in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FAULT LINES RADIO")

THOMAS: You are the one who's making a decision not to negotiate. You are the one who dragged your country into this conflict and continuously keeps your country in this conflict.

MANSOURI: Twice a day, "Fault Lines" and other Radio Sputnik shows take over KCXL's airwaves for a three-hour block. In return, the radio station has earned more than $160,000 since 2020. Before getting that money from Radio Sputnik, owner Pete Schartel says he was struggling and considered shutting down the station.

PETE SCHARTEL: It struck me as being something we could live with, especially if they would pay us and help keep the rest of the station on the air.

MANSOURI: The money comes from Rossiya Segodnya, a media arm of the Kremlin that critics say spreads Russian propaganda. The programming airs daily on KCXL and a handful of stations around the country. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Schartel has faced backlash.

SCHARTEL: My wife and I really did discuss whether we should pull this programming. If I did, we'd be doing exactly what we're - the primary thing that we criticize - well, the old Soviet Union for sure, and other communist regimes of doing, where they don't allow free speech.

MANSOURI: And Schartel insists the programming on Radio Sputnik has value - offering a different perspective. Kevin Phillips has listened to KCXL for the last 20 years. He describes himself as a conspiracy researcher and says he gets a good amount of his news from Russian sources like Radio Sputnik. He says the Kremlin funding doesn't bother him at all.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: If you followed 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 are on American radio.

MANSOURI: The National Association of Broadcasters recently took the unprecedented move of urging broadcasters to stop airing shows like Radio Sputnik. NAB official Rick Kaplan says broadcasts like Radio Sputnik are simply propaganda.

RICK KAPLAN: You know, it's different than discourse, which is very important to have - open, all views on the table - but there is a line between that and, you know, straight propaganda from a - again, from a foreign government.

MANSOURI: But Pete Schartel argues his station is being attacked for offering a different perspective, even if it is funded by the Russian government. He pledges not to take the service off the air, even as irate callers use words like treason when they call to complain.

For NPR News, I'm Kavahn Mansouri in Saint Louis.

SUMMERS: The Midwest Newsroom is a collaboration among NPR and public radio stations in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.