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Media : The King of Rock? In Russia, It's Radio : Western-style stations broadcast Beatles, Genesis and Public Enemy. It's a pre-MTV pop scene.

June 02, 1992|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Balalaika players and opera singers--once sources of the main musical fare on the radio in the Russian capital--have been pushed aside by electric guitars, rap singers and rock 'n' roll.

At least seven Western-style music radio stations, with big-name partners in places like Los Angeles and Paris, are filling the city's airwaves with everything from the Beatles to Genesis to Public Enemy. More stations are expected to start broadcasting this spring.

"The first pop station started broadcasting in Moscow two years ago and since then the radio business has been booming," said Alexander Kasparov, the program director of Radio Maximum, a new Russian-American commercial rock 'n' roll radio station.

"It's hip. It's happening. It has the idea of newness and freshness. Maybe when MTV comes, it will push us aside, but at the moment, radio is the big thing."

The emergence of music radio stations is one of the many ways that life in post-Communist Moscow is becoming more like life in major Western cities.

As recently as five years ago, someone who wanted to listen to popular Western music on radio in Moscow had to wait around for one of the rare contemporary music programs on a state-run station.

Rock 'n' roll, both home-grown and Western, was denounced by the Soviet authorities during the 1960s, 1970s and most of the 1980s. Oleg J. Vakulovsky, 31, the program director of a station called Radio Roks, has saved Soviet newspaper clippings from the early 1980s in which the CIA is accused of corrupting Soviet youth through Western rock music.

"When I was growing up, there was only one radio--state radio--and about the only so-called popular music it played was hymns to the Soviet army and Russian folk songs," Vakulovsky recalled.

Like many Russians of his age, Kasparov, 30, grew up listening to the scratchy music programs on shortwave radio from Voice of America and BBC, or to poorly recorded cassettes from friends lucky enough to get hold of recordings from abroad.

"Before perestroika and even during the first years of perestroika , there was a strong taboo against foreign music," said Kasparov, who has hosted rock and jazz music programs on state radio for 3 1/2 years. "Gradually, after 1985, state radio started playing foreign music."

But those few Western songs that hit the Soviet airwaves were carefully selected by state radio's music department.

"They were always very neutral," Kasparov said. "The performers were usually unknown in the West or else bubble gum stars like (the Swedish group) Abba. It was boring."

In contrast, the new radio stations seem to do everything possible to mimic their Western counterparts. Radio Roks broadcasts the American Top 40 every Sunday--thanks to Los Angeles-based Radio Express, which supplies the programming, and Pepsi Cola Co., which pays for the program in return for advertising time.

Europa Plus, a French-Russian joint venture that was the first Western-style station to start broadcasting in Moscow, has a giveaway contest reminiscent of American stations. Listeners send cards with their telephone numbers to the station, and each day, disc jockeys pick cards and call would-be winners. When the listeners name the current amount in the jackpot, they win it.

Radio Maximum promotes itself by hosting elaborate parties in Moscow. One such party was held in the Olympic velodrome and thousands of people--in micro-minis, torn jeans and head-to-toe Lycra--danced to booming "acid house" music until 5 a.m. The motif for another party sponsored by Radio Maximum this spring was inspired by a popular 20th-Century Soviet novel by Mikhail Bulgakov--Master and Margarita--which has a famous costume ball scene.

Radio Maximum also has a two-hour morning show in English to appeal to Moscow's vast foreign community and to the advertisers who want to attract foreigners' money. The show has international news, Moscow restaurant reviews and shopping tips. Since one of the partners in Radio Maximum is Los Angeles-based Westwood One, it even features American radio favorites like the Larry King Show.

But it's the music, not the promotions, listeners say, that makes them tune in.

"I like it best when the disc jockeys don't talk at all," said Oleg Chernyayev, 23, a medical student and daily listener to the new rock radio stations.

Since the entertainment industry is in its fledgling stages here, program directors have no dependable studies to show them which music appeals to which age group, so designing "play lists" calls for a lot of guesswork. Unlike American stations, most of the Moscow stations play more oldies than new releases.

"Our music is for those who have something to remember but still have something to look forward to," said Andrei Anissenko, the general director of Europa Plus, which plays Western easy-listening or pop--and no Russian music.

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