Media Magnate Makes Waves on Perm Radio

PERM, Ural Mountains -- Alexander Tatarenko resembles a Russian emigr? in Paris after the revolution - convivial, dreamy-eyed, nonchalantly fatalist and a lover of long poetry recitations from the heart.

But the Perm native's occupation seemingly belies his intellectual mien. Tatarenko runs the popular radio station Evropa Plus Perm, part of the Evropa Plus network that caters to a mass audience and publishes the local edition of Moskovsky Komsomolets, a digest of tabloid news from "politics to pornography," as Tatarenko calls it.

Dubbed "the grandfather of Perm rave" for organizing the first techno parties in town, he is also now a gig promoter who has brought many of Russia's most popular and expensive pop stars to this town of 1 million in the Urals.

The media magnate - who boasts an eclectic background in theater, construction and advertising - sees "no shame in serving the philistine." Tatarenko, 41, says he is proud to be doing something "hot."

Most people of his generation are consumed by beautiful dreams but too tired or passive to realize them, he says. His own dream has always been "entertaining the public."

Nevertheless, Tatarenko took his time before starting his involvement with the media business. After graduating from Perm Polytechnical College as a civil engineer, he worked in the local agricultural sector, supervising the building of cow sheds, grain silos and kindergartens at collective farms for 12 years. Joining the Communist party boosted his career, allowing him to scale the heights in the agricultural construction sector.

"I used to feel an important person, and don't anymore," he says with a sigh of comic disappointment. "I enjoyed stability and lots of rights and privileges."

He did, however, cultivate his entertaining side all those years. Tatarenko founded a comic theater, Lyuk, while still a student, and he continued to direct the theater even as he was forging his since-abandoned career in agricultural construction.

When he quit that sphere after perestroika, Tatarenko's comic talents stood him in good stead as he used them as a joke-teller to write skits for performances at public celebrations such as April Fool's Day and Maslenitsa, the Russian Mardi Gras marked every spring and best known for the mandatory consumption of massive piles of Russian pancakes, or bliny. Meanwhile, he continued to run Lyuk.

In 1991, Tatarenko, together with longtime friend and business partner, Veronika Bekarevich, founded ATVV, one of the first advertising companies in town. ATVV was able to capitalize on the wave of new banks and private firms that were popping up by the thousands, all of them eager to splash out on ad campaigns to make themselves known.

Cash flowed in generously to ATVV until 1996, when orders dried up as customers began deciding that they were better off going straight to the mass media to place their ads rather than going through high-priced agencies.

So the failed ad mogul decided to look for a mass-media outlet of his own, borrowing $100,000 from a bank to buy a radio-broadcasting license and a production studio. He paid the loan back in two years.

These days Tatarenko, realizing that he is a bit too laid back to run a business effectively himself, leans on the energy of youth. Of the 30 employees at Evropa Plus Perm radio, almost all of them are under 25, and Tatarenko appreciates their drive.

"They want to be stars and they do become stars," Tatarenko muses.

Evropa Perm has a large following, but it's not top of the pops, coming in at third out of the city's nine commercial radio stations according to ratings. It's a tough, even saturated market when you consider that Perm's 1 million residents have half as many commercial radio stations as the 18 stations that serve 9 million Muscovites.

Topping the charts in Perm is Avtoradio, a Russkoye Radio clone playing exclusively Russian pop. Close behind is Radio Maximum, where Tatarenko's own wife Alyona is a leading DJ. Evropa, aimed at younger listeners, is perhaps the most upbeat, playing a lot of dance music and some alternative pop.

"All three of us are trying to please large audiences," says Tatarenko. "Life is very difficult, competition is fierce, advertisers are few."

It has been especially hard since August. As a regional branch of Evropa Plus Moscow, Tatarenko's station has to pay a retransmission fee it can no longer afford. "After the crisis we became three times poorer," says Tatarenko.

If he doesn't get a discount for retransmission of Evropa Plus programs, he'll have to look for a cheaper umbrella or go entirely independent.

The last option could well be the more attractive one, allowing his station to tap into the essential independence of spirit of the people of Perm.

"Perm listeners want to hear about themselves and have their own heroes," is the lesson Tatarenko says he has drawn from.

But if local news works best on the radio, Perm residents seem to prefer reading news that comes out of the national capital - hence the success of Tatarenko's other main venture: MK v Permi, a weeklydigest that combines the juiciest bits of the latest editions of Moskovsky Komsomolets with local tabloid news. The 30,000 copies of MK v Permi are snapped up within hours of hitting the streets, says Tatarenko, who is so encouraged by demand that he is planning to expand his print run to 60,000 and start selling MK v Permi in the surrounding region.