Rebel Radio: New Station Challenges Oligarchs’ Media Monopoly in Ukraine

“We do not feel any pressure from the government,” says Vitaly Sych, the chief editor of Ukraine’s most ambitious independent media holding. “Sometimes we have a dialogue with the authorities, but that is healthy. We recently published a lead article that was highly critical of Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. He contacted me personally and we met for a long discussion about his work and his background. I do not see anything wrong in that. He didn’t send men in balaclavas after me.”

Forty-two-year old industry veteran Sych speaks with authority when it comes to the rough and tumble of the Ukrainian media scene. He first cut his teeth in the late 1990s as a reporter at the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper, before rising to national prominence as chief editor of Russian-language weekly Korrespondent magazine. Since 2014 he has headed up the Novoye Vremya (literally “New Time”) holding, a new and expanding post-Maidan multimedia platform backed by Ukraine’s leading investment bank that aims to set the standard for professional journalism in the country while serving as a flagship for the values that drove the Revolution of Dignity.

Sych is busy preparing for the launch of a nationwide talk radio station that will join Novoye Vremya’s existing portfolio of weekly Russian-language current affairs magazine and bilingual news website. This expansion into radio is part of a conscious effort to chip away at the dominant position enjoyed by the handful of oligarchs who control the lion’s share of Ukraine’s media market.

The Novoye Vremya project is a child of the Maidan, conceived at a time when Kyiv was in flames and launched as a print publication while Russian hybrid forces fanned out across eastern Ukraine in late spring 2014. The first magazine cover featured a machine-gun toting Vladimir Putin in full combat gear with Ukraine’s fugitive ex-president Viktor Yanukovych depicted as his crouching street thug accomplice. This baptism of fire set the tone for the coming three-and-a-half years of no-holds-barred coverage that has left nobody on Ukraine’s political Parthenon unscathed.

All this is possible thanks to the financial backing of Dragon Capital, a Kyiv-based international investment bank headed by Czech national Tomas Fiala. Dragon Capital is the sole owner and investor in the Novoye Vremya media holding, providing the project with the kind of ownership clarity that is often lacking in the Ukrainian media industry. Virtually all of Ukraine’s leading mainstream media outlets are associated with individual oligarchs, while second-tier platforms are frequently characterized by opaque ownership structures and hidden agendas. There is no such mystery surrounding Dragon Capital. As Sych points out, few stakeholders stand to benefit more from the strengthening of Ukraine’s independent media than the country’s most prominent investment bank.

Despite approaching its fourth anniversary, the Novoye Vremya project retains the dynamic air of a startup. Its offices are located in a former administrative building nestled among the factories cluttering the Kyiv riverbank as picturesque Podil gives way to the rust belt of the Ukrainian capital. In a neighborhood full of smokestacks and nondescript Soviet facades, the Novoye Vremya headquarters is a pocket of unlikely hipster cool signposted by the Banksy-style satirical street art decorating the building’s courtyard entrance. Inside, construction teams add an additional layer to the usual newsroom buzz as they install radio station equipment and recording booths.

Sych’s no-frills office on the second floor is devoid of decorations except for a large map of Ukraine covered in pins indicating the forty cities where his new radio station will begin broadcasting later this spring. In late 2017, the media holding acquired Radio Era, Ukraine’s oldest talk radio station. The purchase was purely to secure the existing station’s nationwide reach and frequencies, a process that could have otherwise taken years to conclude. When it goes live, the rebranded Radio NV will have nothing in common with its predecessor. Instead, it will bring the journalistic values espoused by its sibling print and online platforms to the airwaves.

This has led to some revealing and entertaining interviews as Sych looks to recruit a new editorial team. “Numerous candidates have asked me who will be on our blacklist, while others assume we will pursue our own political agenda. The culture of paid political content is everywhere in the Ukrainian media but it is not something we can afford to engage in. If we did, our audience would notice immediately and our reputation would suffer accordingly.”

There is ample evidence of this adherence to ethical journalism. Back in 2013, Sych walked away from Korrespondent following its purchase by Yanukovych-linked oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko. Despite offers of a major payday and veiled threats about difficulties finding alternative employment, Sych refused to continue under the new owners and left the post he had held for more than a decade. Within days of his departure, the protests that would lead to the Revolution of Dignity began, paving the way for the emergence of the Novoye Vremya project and allowing Sych to rehire many of the staff members who resigned alongside him.

Looking back at the situation, he now sees the incident as indicative of the corrupted thinking that underpinned the ousted Yanukovych regime. “They seemed genuinely shocked that I could reject their offer. Their first reaction was to offer more money, but some things are simply out of the question, regardless of the price,” he said.

Sych says the decision to enter the radio segment of the Ukrainian media market reflects the realities of the market. “The TV market is too expensive to enter and is simply not profitable,” explains Sych. “All the major oligarchs lose huge money on their TV stations, so we decided to opt for the talk radio format instead.”

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution marked the end of Kremlin-style direct control over Ukraine’s national media, but the country’s biggest TV channels remain the property of oligarchs who manage them as “loss leaders” and tools of influence within broader business empires. The result is a media market where the biggest brands routinely operate at a loss and sell advertising space at dumping rates, thereby eroding the economic argument for honest competition and restricting membership of the mainstream media owners club to likeminded billionaires ready to pay for the privilege.

Radio NV should allow Sych to reach entirely new audiences across Ukraine. He also sees scope for considerable synergy between Novoye Vremya’s print, online, and radio platforms, giving the media holding considerably more clout when it comes to approaching big name studio guests and potential commercial partners.

Looking ahead, this commercial component is central to the sustainability of Novoye Vremya. Despite all the crusading talk of promoting ethical journalism, the project ultimately aims to become financially self-sufficient. Sych says the post-2014 crash has set back plans to break even by several years, but believes this remains a realistic objective. Over the coming twelve months, he plans to branch out further into branded events and hopes this segment can eventually account for a significant slice of the media holding’s revenues.

If he succeeds in building a profitable media empire without compromising his journalistic ethics, Sych could find himself serving as pathfinder for a whole new generation of Ukrainian journalists. It is a role he is acutely aware of, having recently begun lecturing undergraduates in Kharkiv as part of a new training initiative. “They are simply amazed that it is possible to practice honest journalism in Ukraine,” he reflects.

Such cynical perceptions of the media reflect broader public skepticism toward an outwardly democratic system that remains dominated by the narrow business interests of competing clans. Ukraine’s media industry may no longer be subject to state censorship, but it is widely perceived as a core component of an oligarchic system that continues to hold Ukraine back.

“We want to move the country forward,” Sych says of his media endeavors. “We want to promote the kind of values that have allowed the countries of Central Europe to succeed. This means promoting the basic principles that the Western world has long since adopted. Our goal is to help introduce them to Ukraine.”

Peter Dickinson is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He tweets @Biz_Ukraine_Mag.

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Image: Novoye Vremya, Ukraine’s most ambitious independent media holding, is expanding into talk radio this spring. Vitaly Sych is the chief editor. Credit: Courtesy Photo