Eduard Rusu made his American dream come true. Not everyone is on board with it.
"My own mom doesn't support me with this format," says the 29-year-old founder of Portland's KXRU-FM 105.5, which is apparently the only all-Russian pop station in the United States. "My sister says, 'Mom, listen, listen!' But then, when a song comes on she doesn't like, she switches the station."
You can't please everybody, a fact Rusu— a project manager for a local construction company by day—was well aware of when he embarked on his passion project seven years ago. He knew that playing secular Russian music in a city like Portland, where the immi- grant population is overwhelmingly religious, was a risk. But no one else was doing it—at least not without also mixing in English-language songs. If the station was going to be successful, it had to have a hook. So far, it's working out.
"People at the beginning were saying, 'What are you thinking? Are you out of your mind? People will not listen to you,'" Rusu says from the station's one-room studio at the back of a church in a deep Southeast Portland strip mall. "But now we're seeing that another station is actually copying us. They changed their format. They're playing exactly what we're playing."
As a child growing up in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Rusu listened to the radio obsessively, even though his village picked up only three stations. After immigrating to Portland with his family in 2005, he studied broadcasting at Mount Hood Community College, with visions of one day running a station of his own. When President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act in 2010, opening up low-power FM signals across the country, he leapt at the opportunity.
Following a protracted licensing process with the Federal Communications Commission, KXRU went on the air earlier this year, playing the same hits currently on the airwaves back home. Much of it might seem a bit schmaltzy to American ears. Romantic ballads dominate. As Rusu puts it, "Russian pop music is drama," and the emoting is often soap opera-level. But in a market where the other radio options are all religious, the station has succeeded in drawing listeners from the coveted 18-to-34 demographic.
For that reason, Rusu doesn't take the station's influence lightly. He won't play songs that glorify drinking or partying, and says he considers carefully before adding anything to the rotation that might alienate older audi- ences. In the wake of the crisis in Crimea, which divided Russians and Ukrainians, he also treads lightly with the top-of-the-hour news reports, making sure the stories are delivered without any trace of bias. Even his mother listens to those.
He's also beginning to incorporate talk shows addressing the concerns of the community—a provision of the station's FCC license. But while it may be compulsory, Rusu says it's part of his long-term vision for the station, to be not just a center of Russian culture but of Russian life.
"If this was only about music, how would we be doing this?" he says. "There has to be some benefit to this. I could always download some files on my phone or computer and listen all day long. But we're thinking about making the world a little bit better."