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Retired VOA Veterans and BBG Manager Talk About Challenges Ahead for US International Broadcasting


The recently published book, Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media, explores the challenges facing U.S.-funded international broadcasting. Its authors, nationally known broadcasters and scholars, call for urgent action by the Administration and Congress if U.S. public diplomacy is to compete in the ever-changing global marketplace of ideas.

Discussing the anthology recently on VOA's Press Conference USA were its editor, Alan L. Heil Jr., and two contributing authors, Barry Zorthian and Jeffrey Trimble. Mr. Heil and Mr. Zorthian are retired VOA veterans and members of the Board of Directors of the Public Diplomacy Council of Washington, D.C., a non-partisan advocacy group for America’s overseas information and cultural programs and publisher of Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media.

Alan Heil is a former Deputy Director of the Voice of America and the author of The Voice of America: A History (published in 2003 by Columbia University Press). Barry Zorthian is a former Program Manager at VOA, a retired Foreign Service Officer, and former Vice President of Time, Inc., the largest magazine publisher in the United States. He also served on the board of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) during the administration of George H. W. Bush. Jeff Trimble is currently Executive Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and a former Acting President at Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an independent federal agency responsible for all five non-military U.S. broadcasting entities: the Voice of America (VOA), a global network of radio and television reaching an audience of more than 115 million people each week in 45 languages; Alhurra (Arabic for "The Free One"), a commercial-free Arabic-language, satellite television channel for the Middle East devoted primarily to news and information; Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language network, broadcasting a mix of Western and Arabic pop music, along with news and features; Radio Free Asia, shortwave radio to China, Burma, and seven other Asian countries with news and information programs that seek to promote the right of freedom of opinion.

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting uses Radio and TV Marti to reach a Cuban audience with accurate and objective news and information. Also, the BBG oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a private but government-sponsored broadcaster to audiences in Central Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

VOA broadcasts news about the world, the United States, and the countries it reaches, and is, therefore, what Mr. Heil calls “a full service network.” The Voice of America’s first overseas broadcast – in German, in February 1942, during the Second World War – made the following pledge to its listeners: “Daily at this time, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.” Mr. Heil called it a “covenant” with the listener – that VOA would “tell it straight … in a context that reflected our society” as well as major events of the day around the globe. And he says it led in 1976 to the enactment into law of VOA’s long established Charter. The Charter requires Voice of America news to be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” During the Cold War years, VOA was a leading international broadcaster to Russia, and many believe its large audience there was a reflection of the fact that it was seen as trustworthy.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, the BBG decided a change in U.S. international broadcasting was needed. Mr. Trimble says the BBG decided to move away from the “broader” and “more comprehensive service” of VOA, to services that targeted “younger audiences and news seekers of all ages.” It also decided to target Arabic-speaking audiences, especially in the Middle East. Mr. Trimble says that decision has been responsible for much of the audience growth in U.S. international broadcasting in the past five or six years – from 100 million listeners or viewers to 155 million listeners or viewers. He also credits the “spectacular success” of Radio Sawa and Alhurra television.

Mr. Heil disagrees. He calls the decision to eliminate VOA broadcasts in Arabic in favor of so-called “surrogate” broadcasts on Radio Sawa and Alhurra television, “one of the tremendous blows in the history of U.S. international broadcasting.” He says, in the view of many of the authors of Local Voices/Global Perspectives, discarding the VOA “brand name” in the Arabic-speaking world, and replacing it with Sawa and Alhurra was a “serious mistake.”

Today the Voice of America disseminates its programming not only via radio but also through television and the Internet. That, too, is part of the BBG’s stated strategy of using technologies that are becoming more widely available around the world. The VOA website, for example, makes many kinds of delivery systems available – for example, “podcasts,” news feeds, mobile phone feeds, webcasts, an e-mail news letter, and even online chats such as “T2A,” a new Web version of the former radio call-in show, Talk to America.

Mr. Heil says in order to strengthen its capabilities in television and the Internet, while creating new broadcasts targeted at Muslim audiences as part of the Administration’s Global War on Terror, the BBG realized something had to be cut. What has been cut, he says, are shortwave radio broadcasts on VOA. He says the BBG has worked to eliminate or greatly reduce VOA broadcasts in a number of languages, including English, Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Uzbek, Serbian, Albanian, Croatian, Cantonese, Greek, and Hindi. Mr. Heil argues that the “core” language services of VOA remain “absolutely essential” in any global broadcast strategy. He says they are also indispensable in times of crisis, noting that VOA increased its shortwave broadcasts during recent unrest in Burma and Tibet. And in future crises, Mr. Heil says, shortwave will continue to be the “backup emergency delivery system because it is difficult and expensive to jam.”

Mr. Trimble says it is unfortunate that, given limited resources, “difficult decisions do need to be made about broadcasting.” But he counters that shortwave radio remains – and will remain for the foreseeable future – an “absolutely vital and indispensable delivery platform.”

He notes as an example that shortwave radio is the only way U.S. international broadcasting can reach into China. He says Iran is “another place where you can’t get local signals in,” and he adds that, in many areas of Africa, shortwave radio is “crucial.” But Mr. Trimble argues that research shows shortwave radio is not a medium that is likely to attract large, new audiences.

Mr. Zorthian says U.S. decision-makers need to take a serious look at why America is losing its friends around the world and how U.S. publicly funded international broadcasts can be reorganized to meet the demands of a new generation of multi-media users. And while Mr. Zorthian agrees that the BBG goal of having a large audience is desirable, he says it is also important to reach those people who form opinion in their societies and who make decisions. To be an effective international communicator, he says, those who produce the programs must understand other cultures.

There’s one thing about which all three of our guests on Press Conference USA can agree. The BBG, the Administration, and the U.S. Congress must do the best job possible to project U.S. political and diplomatic objectives and to attract audiences around the world through the delivery of credible, fiscally responsible, and effective broadcast programming. How that should be done is something these three and dozens of other contributors explore in the book Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media, which is now available on the web through PDI410@GWU.edu or on Amazon.com.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.click here.

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