A Dj's Personal Link To Russia

His broadcast studio in London's Soho district is small, but Yegor Shishkovsky's reach is huge and far-flung: at least as many as 1.5 million radio listeners across Russia's 11 time zones. The Russian DJ's weekly hourlong program, "Live From the West" ("Napryamuyu S Zapada"), keeps Russians in touch with the latest music, news and showbiz gossip, drawing 2,000 fan letters a week to his Moscow post-office-box address. The 30-year-old has interviewed pop stars like Robbie Williams and Boy George; some, like Celine Dion, and Robert Smith of The Cure, have even taped endorsements for him--in Russian. On the air for five years, "Live From the West" has been supported by various patrons, the most recent being the British Tourist Authority (until last autumn) and Angell Sound, which owns the sound studios Shishkovsky works out of. But unless he can find another sponsor soon, he's going to be dead air. For the time being, Shishkovsky, a Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike, says his show is "running on love," as he put it in an interview with NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell in London. Excerpts:

BROWNELL: What is the appeal of the "Live From the West"?
The show is quite different, unique. I know that lots of listeners are tuning in especially to listen to this radio show. Maybe the rest of the week they do not listen to the radio at all. It is the only program from the West playing the latest releases--by a Russian, for Russians--and it is like a window to the British and American music market. The other thing is that they probably see me as a Russian guy in London. So Russians can relate to me. I also provide a local angle--what happens in the West through Russian eyes. I think this is quite important--this human aspect.

What's your show like?
We obviously knew that Russians want to listen to the latest new music, and they do want to know what is going on with the charts. My producer [Paul Leaper] and I knew it would be silly just to play music; we needed to add content and have showbiz news and celebrity interviews. We also knew that people would enjoy descriptions of what was happening in London--just very basic things like the weather and things like traffic jams--things you would talk to a friend about. We have not really gone off that format, [but getting celebrities is very time consuming] and we can't do our [showbiz trivia] competitions anymore because we can't pay for the prizes. So for financial reasons we have had to change some of the format.

It must be difficult to continue the show without backing.
There was a stage when we thought, "What are we going to do now?" And there was an option either to stop doing the show straight away or try to find another company. It is not easy because of the economic situation out there in Russia. Because of the economic crisis, a lot of Western businesses closed and they no longer wanted to deal with Russia. That has made it difficult to try and sell a radio show because lots of companies do not want to invest in such a volatile market. I am hopeful that with the presidential elections, things will be more settled.

How did the idea for the show come about?
During the time of Gorbachev, I went to Moscow State University, where I studied journalism. I began working for Radio Yunost [Radio Youth]--they were a megapopular and progressive new station. It was quite amazing because it was the first radio show to play Western music. I was in London on holiday in 1992, and my father [a TV reporter] and I went on a tour of the BBC. I met Paul, who gave us a tour, and we started talking. He said, "Wouldn't it be great to do a show for Russians transmitted from London?" We kept in touch when I went back to Moscow and eventually we decided to do it. So from 1993 to 1995 we had to get everything together--the technology, the money and a station.

Is it frustrating to see radio shows that have so much money and support behind them and you have to do your show on £250,000 a year?
Actually it doesn't frustrate me because I am very used to the situation in Russia, probably because I grew up there. It is a huge country but quite frankly a very poor country. People cannot afford lots of things, and that is the same thing with the radio stations. They do not have much of an advertising budget and they are struggling to pay their own staff, so I am more or less privileged compared to what is going on over there.

Why do you continue to do the program?
We do carry on doing the radio show because we think about the listeners. We have received so many supportive e-mails and letters and every time you receive a letter like that, you think, well, it is worth doing it. We have not given ourselves a deadline, but the next few months will be quite important. [Angell Sound] cannot keep doing this as a charity. Even after five years I am still enjoying it. I love radio and this is my personal link to Russia. Plus my mother likes it as well.