A Virginia company registered as a foreign agent of a Chinese Communist Party media outlet and that owns a radio station paid millions to broadcast CCP propaganda got $100,000 from the U.S. government last year.
Potomac Radio Group, which registered this month under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for its work for Chinese state-run China Global Television Network, received a loan for $106,228 through the Small Business Administration in April 2020, according to ProPublica, with the loan forgiven last year. Potomac reportedly spent $79,673 on payroll, $17,835 on utilities, and $8,720 on rent.
Potomac owns WCRW AM 1190, which is heard in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. The company said it has been paid close to $4.4 million by CGTN and CCP-affiliated China Radio International throughout 2019, 2020, and 2021. WCRW launched The Bridge podcast in August 2020, with the show co-hosted by Chicago-based John St. Augustine and CRI’s Zhou Heyang. St. Augustine has been a producer for Dr. Oz, while Beijing-based Zhou is a prominent Chinese host.
Episodes of the podcast have featured St. Augustine and Zhou praising China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, while St. Augustine has repeatedly attacked Americans and the U.S. response and said he does not care where COVID-19 originated.
At the urging of the Trump Justice Department, CGTN registered as a foreign agent of China in 2019. The Trump State Department designated CGTN and CRI as “foreign missions” of China in 2020.
Potomac acquired WUST and WCRW stations in 2019, with WUST broadcasting religious Spanish content and WCRW broadcasting CRI programming for many years.
“We applied for the loan for both our stations. The Spanish pastors were having difficulty with maintaining their churches during COVID and were unable to come into the studios to do their shows,” Potomac co-owner Brian Lane told the Washington Examiner, adding that the loan was only used for WUST. “Business dropped significantly. … After the sale of WUST, we did not apply for the second round of PPP loans.”
Potomac said it received $527,627 from CGTN in July 2019, $804,119 in August 2019, and $259,872 in September 2019 — before the loan.
SBA did not respond to a request for comment.
“The majority of content is about cultural differences between East and West, such as music and entertainment and opportunities to learn the Mandarin language,” Lane said. “We have ended some of our business with them and are reviewing our options at the moment, including the sale of the station.”
The description of the first episode of The Bridge in August 2020 included “observations on differences in culture and how the Covid-19 response [is] different between the two countries.”
In a December 2020 episode titled “The Angry American," St. Augustine ranted about America's response to the virus.
“I’m not a fan of the American people today,” he said as he vented about U.S. policies toward COVID-19, in contrast to Zhou touting China’s policies. “I’m embarrassed. It shouldn’t be this way. We’re doing this to ourselves now — no matter how this happened, how it started. ... Unbelievable to me.”
The filing said the “foreign principal” is CGTN, the international division of the Chinese state-owned China Central Television, which is under control of the CCP’s Publicity Department.
Potomac said it “leases the air time” on WCRW to CGTN "to broadcast the English content produced by CGTN." Potomac said it purchased the station in January 2019 and "has continued to air the programming materials prepared for broadcast by CGTN.”
The filing said that from July 2019 to August 2021, it received millions from CGTN for social media, broadcasting, and the podcast, including $268,033 in May 2020, $199,087 in July 2020, $736,619 in August 2020, $307,811 in November 2020, $491,076 in May 2021, $350,250 in July 2021, and $409,228 in August 2021.
Potomac said it spent roughly $1.29 million related to CGTN in 2020 and 2021, including for CGTN subcontractors. Potomac agreed the broadcasts would be “identical” to what China wanted.
“We are not agents of the CCP,” Lane insisted. "The previous owners consulted with the Department of Justice in 2015 and were not required to register. ... However, the views of the DOJ have evolved since then, and we have been having a cordial dialog with their attorneys. … Though we continue to believe that we did not need to register, we did.”
DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told the Washington Examiner that the Justice Department “will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.”