KIEV â The Ukrainian Army is looking for its own Robin Williams.
Specifically, he is looking for a charismatic military disc jockey like the one Mr. Williams played in the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam” three decades ago.
Alexey Makukhin, a Ukrainian army adviser who is helping set up the station, wants a Robin Williams to help him solve his “big deal.” Troops facing Russian-backed separatists in the east hear a constant barrage of radio and television broadcasts that seem designed to cast doubt on their mission.
Its solution is Army FM, a radio station for Ukrainian soldiers. To make it successful, he needs a DJ, a great DJ.
Dozens of resumes poured in when news of the plan broke. Mr. Makukhin interviewed around 50 DJ candidates. They were an almost complete bust.
âA lot of candidates just don’t fit the role of presenter – poor voice, they can’t carry on a discussion or stop themselves,â he says.
“Some applicants have a fixed mindset and are not ready to work in our entertaining and user-friendly radio format.”
Mr Makukhin, a 35-year-old former TV sitcom producer, sent out former colleagues in the military and television world in search of unknown talent.
A military colleague, browsing the front lines where the army faces the separatist provinces, found Lidiya Huzhva.
With dyed blue hair and a playful look, Ms. Huzhva has both personality and a knack for fighting. She spent 18 months as a freelance journalist interviewing Ukrainian soldiers.
She also has a good voice and understands what the vibe of the station should be like, a mix 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 outraged rebuttals but wacky dispatches.
âPeople here need to laugh,â she says. “They love comedy.”
There was just one problem. Ms. Huzhva, 38, doesn’t really want to be an animator sitting in the studio. She preferred to report from the front.
She also has bad taste in music. She loves jazz. Ukrainian soldiers love rap, hard rock and metal. For Mr. Makukhin, it was a return to research.
The music that Ms. Huzhva doesn’t like, but that many soldiers like, is the music they receive from Russian and separatist radio stations in the province, sometimes with lyrics that criticize the Ukrainian government.
A separatist idol by the name of Gleb Kornilov dominates the charts at Radio Novorossia in Donetsk, in the heart of the separatist region of Ukraine that separatists call Novorossia, or New Russia. When the rebellion erupted two years ago, he sang about the alleged burning of Donetsk by the Ukrainian armed forces. More recently he sang Novorossia considering going on the offensive against the West.
âWe believe in empire with new vigor / Our song is a military crusade / Our music is trigger finger,â Mr. Kornilov sings in Russian.
Reached by phone in eastern Ukraine, Kornilov said his songs were not meant to criticize Ukraine, but that the oligarchs, he said, had taken over. He said he was both pro-Ukraine and pro-Novorossia.
“We are not fighting against the people, but against the powers that be,” Kornilov said. “One person fights with a weapon, another with his art.”
Reports broadcast by separatist-controlled radio and television stations paint a grim picture of Ukraine, frequently accusing the Kiev government and its supporters of a series of atrocities. One broadcast said pro-Ukrainian militias kidnapped journalists.
The stations, Ukrainian officials say, have become adept at reflecting actual news, quickly publishing reports of mortar strikes, artillery barrages or buses hitting landmines. While Ukrainians say the rebels are responsible for the attacks, pro-separatist radio stations put the blame on Kiev.
Other reports on channels such as Novorossia TV and Radio Free Novorossia shed light on true, but unflattering, information about the Ukrainian government, particularly accusations of corruption by the International Monetary Fund or the European Union. Novorossia TV and Radio Free Novorossia did not respond to a request for comment. Ukrainian officials say they are working to address concerns, but add that pro-separatist stations are exaggerating the problem.
A common theme of separatist broadcasting is that the Ukrainian government does nothing while its soldiers sit in the mud on the front lines.
“If I watch it or listen to it for an hour or two, it hits you in the head,” Lt. Col. Oleksandr Vasylenko said. âWhether you like it or not, it only influences you. Even if you know it’s propaganda.
US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt called the information war in eastern Ukraine a larger struggle. “The point of this Russian propaganda is not to win the argument and it is certainly not to shed light on the truth,” he said. âIt’s to confuse. It’s part of their arsenal.
Ukrainian troops at the front
Soldiers facing Russian-backed separatists in the east hear a constant barrage of separatist-backed radio and television broadcasts.
Ukrainian troops at the front heard only separatist broadcasts until Kiev built a radio station for them.
Arthur Bondar for the Wall Street Journal
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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 claim that the reports Westerners call propaganda are factual, unchecked by Russia broadcasts about the incompetence or corruption of the Ukrainian government. It is the United States and Ukraine that are deceiving the public, Russian officials say.
To set up the Ukrainian Army Radio Station, Mr. Makukhin received help from an American non-profit organization called Spirit of America. Unlike many non-governmental organizations in war zones that promise neutrality, this one tries to align its efforts with US goals.
In Afghanistan, Spirit of America workers were stationed in the field, helping to deliver non-lethal materiel to local police forces working with US special operations forces. In Ukraine, it is providing $ 200,000 to equip the Army FM studio and install transmitters, including one just 56 kilometers from Donetsk.
âThe entrepreneurial approach to venture capital is rarely applied in these overseas situations,â said Jim Hake, the founder of the NGO. âThe heart of it all is supporting the initiative of those closest to the problemâ¦ see what works, do more of what works, and if it doesn’t work, stop it. “
Spirit of America does not have a direct hand in programming, but Mr. Hake has offered advice and said that Mr. Makukhin understands Army FM cannot fight propaganda with propaganda. âTrust and credibility are more important than transmitters or radio equipment,â he said.
The station’s plans include airing candid interviews with Ukrainian officials to show soldiers the government is ready to tackle tough issues. It is important for Army FM, which is owned by the Defense Ministry, to avoid a stifling official military style, said Yana Kholodna, a television producer hired as an advisor.
âThe challenge is to make a cool radio station,â she said. After blue-haired Ms. Huzhva failed to work as a host, Mr. Makukhin’s colleagues brought her another potential discovery, Pvt. Oleksandr Bezsonov, a young frontline soldier who had started a pirate radio station to entertain the troops at his base.
Unfortunately, his trial did not go well. He had technical magic but not the right on-air personality, Mr. Makukhin said. Army FM hired him as a sound engineer instead, then appointed 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, his first words were a nod to Mr. Makukhin’s quest for a soldier-DJ: âHello, Ukraine.
He didn’t give up on this quest, but at the end of March he turned to veteran civilian radio presenter Philip Boiko. In its initial form, Army FM’s morning show is a mix of frontline news (Ukraine’s use of MiG 29 jet fighters), pop culture (in Axl Rose’s turn as leader from 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 from an old military truck.
Refuting the “fake news and announcements” from the busy east will be part of his show, he said. Bands whose music he has performed include a Russian group called DDT which was founded by a critic of the Kremlin.
Mr. Boiko, 38, doesn’t claim to have the manic energy of the star DJ of “Good Morning, Vietnam”. But he thinks good rock music and its mix of sarcasm and humor can keep soldiers tuned in.
Mr. Makukhin, while keeping an eye on which military service member he can air on, says he can’t complain about his civilian DJ.
âEight in the morning in Kiev. âSoldiers, wake up! “Mr. Boiko growled on a recent broadcast as he saluted the troops.” The morning infotainment show begins its second part, and I, Philip Boiko, greet all Army FM listeners Especially our heroes in the military zone who are fighting diligently with separatist and occupying bastards, protecting their homeland. “
Write to Julian E. Barnes at [email protected]
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