The debate over VOA's Future

Excerpts from news, statements, and commentary

February 2006 - March 2007

USIAAA logo
UPDATED 17 March 2007 ...

Christian Science Monitor's view on cuts at VOA

If you care about the future of U.S. public diplomacy, join us at the USIA Alumni Association

Return to Public Diplomacy home page

Christian Science Monitor: "The costs of winning hearts and minds"

Excerpts from the Monitor's 15 March 2007 editorial ...

The [BBG] wants to improve the reach to "critical audiences" in places such as the Middle East and North Korea. And it wants to move away from its mainstay technology of shortwave radio, which it says is declining in global use, to increasingly popular but vastly more expensive television, Internet, and FM.

To help do that, it's proposing controversial cuts at its largest network, Voice of America, which reaches 115 million people weekly. That's sparked protest from a bipartisan group of 11 former VOA directors (including John Hughes, a columnist for this paper and a former Monitor editor).

The ex-directors implore Congress to ignore the board's suggested cuts at VOA, which got its start when it broadcast via shortwave to Nazi Germany in 1942. "The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth," the announcer declared. Its charter says it must deliver accurate, objective, and comprehensive news – the only credible way to project US values.

Now on the VOA chopping block: Its main English-language news and feature service, which feeds VOA radio and TV worldwide; all services in six other languages, including Cantonese; and VOA radio (but not TV) in languages that serve the Balkans, India, and Russia.

VOA's budget overseers are right to think about new markets and technologies.

But in the scheme of things, the ex-directors' request that lawmakers preserve $26 million in proposed cuts is not a lot to keep an estimated 18 million listeners in the VOA fold; to retain its main service in English (spoken by a quarter of the world's population, after all); to continue native language services in still shaky democracies such as Georgia and Ukraine; and to keep VOA radio going in Russia, which could easily pull the plug on VOA TV. Meanwhile, about 300 million people, many in Asia, still listen to shortwave radio....

The full text of the article is found on the Christian Science Monitor Web site.

Online petition posted:
"Save Voice of America Programs to Russia and Other Media-at-Risk Countries"

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), "U.S. International Broadcasting 'harming American interests rather than helping'"

9 February 2007 -- Today Senator Coburn sent a letter to the President regarding Voice of America (VOA) Persian Service, U.S. broadcasting to Iran. Referencing the English transcript of VOA coverage of the President's State of the Union address, Dr. Coburn illustrates how VOA failed to provide Iranians a clear and effective presentation of U.S. foreign policy but provided another platform for its critics. In a July 2006 hearing on U.S. Iran policy chaired by Dr. Coburn, a leading Iranian student leader who had recently escaped imprisonment in Iran testified that U.S. broadcasts do more to undermine U.S. interests than help it. As Dr. Coburn investigated the content of U.S. international broadcasting, he found evidence that broadcasts to Iran give a significant amount of airtime to guests and content that undermine U.S. policy, often even supporting the propaganda of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In the letter, Dr. Coburn references similar problems in other broadcasting services and urges the President to pursue management and accountability reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Related Resources:

Tomlinson withdraws his name, but not himself, from BBG

On 9 January 2007, Ken Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), sent a letter to President Bush asking that he nominate a successor to take over the post he has held for four years. The letter, "I have concluded that it would be far more constructive to write a book on my experiences rather than to seek to continue government service," and asks President Bush to withdraw his name from further consideration.

Now it seems Ken Tomlinson may not be leaving, at least not anytime soon. Washington Post columnist Al Kamen reports on 12 January, "As it turns out, everyone on the eight-member BBG (there's one opening) is serving on an expired four-year term: Their terms expired in the past few years, but the law lets them continue until replaced. On Tuesday, Bush nominated for new terms his former media adviser, Mark McKinnon, and Washington lawyer D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, but neither is to replace Tomlinson."

Radio, TV Martí face a congressional investigation

A congressional investigation of TV and Radio Martí is slated for early 2007, a Massachusetts Democrat said.

Christina Hoag and Oscar Corral, Miami Herald
20 December 2006

Congress early next year will investigate allegations of mismanagement and political cronyism at taxpayer-funded Radio and TV Martí, a ranking Democrat said Tuesday.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. -- slated to chair the oversight and investigations subcommittee for the House International Relations Committee -- said he will move to hold hearings on the Martís in late January or early February. His comments came a day after Radio Mambí, WAQI-AM (710), and Azteca América, WPMF-TV 38, each began carrying an hour of Martí programming daily for payment.

"This will be a priority," said Delahunt, who was in Cuba this week as part of a congressional delegation. "There's mismanagement . . . that really demands a thorough review."

Government-funded media such as the Martís cannot broadcast on U.S. airwaves because their mission is to present the U.S. viewpoint to foreign audiences. However, there are loopholes in the law: Time on an AM transmitter can be leased to circumvent signal-jamming, and TV Martí can be ''inadvertently'' picked up by U.S. viewers as long as it reaches Cuba.

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees the Martí operation, portrays the contracts as just another way to reach Cubans on the island. Radio Mambí's signal can reach Cuba under certain circumstances, and WPMF-TV is carried on DirecTV, which some Cubans can receive via a pirated signal....

The full text of the article is found online (registration required).

Bush Reappoints Overseas Broadcast Chief

Associated Press/New York Times
14 November 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush on Tuesday renominated the chairman of the agency that directs U.S. overseas broadcasts even though the nomination has been stalled in the Senate amid allegations of misconduct.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson was nominated again as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and for a term on the board expiring Aug. 13, 2007. The board oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, broadcasting initiatives in the Middle East and other nonmilitary U.S. broadcasting overseas.

In September, a spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said senators did not plan to act on Bush's nomination of Tomlinson in January 2005 while a government investigation of his activities was under way. The law that created the board in 1994 allowed Tomlinson to remain as chairman until a successor was confirmed.

A report by the State Department's inspector general, released Aug. 29, said Tomlinson misused government funds for two years as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Tomlinson disputed the allegations in the report....

The full text of the article is found online (registration required).

VOA Director appointed

International Broadcasting Bureau press release

Washington, DC., October 25, 2006--The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is pleased to announce the appointment of Danforth W. Austin as the Director of the Voice of America (VOA). He will have the overall responsibility for the planning, organization, direction and policy application of all VOA broadcasting activities. Austin will replace David Jackson who will be returning to the private sector. The BBG also announced the appointment of Russell Hodge as Director of VOA Television....

Austin is a news media executive with a business and journalism background. He has served as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc., the community media subsidiary of Dow Jones & Co., with 3,000 employees in nine states, overseeing both operating and support functions, including news, advertising, circulation, Internet development, production, technology, finance and human resources....

Hodge is the Founder and President of 3 Roads Communications, Inc., a television programming, video production, and strategic communications firm. He is also the President of Three Roads Media Partners, LLC, an affiliated company that focuses on domestic and foreign acquisition and distribution. Hodge is an Emmy Award-winning producer with more than two decades of experience in news, public affairs and documentary production and programming....

The full text of the is found on the International Broadcasting Bureau Web site.

Pentagon study claims U.S. broadcasts to Iran aren't tough enough

Warren P. Strobel and William Douglas
McClatchy Newspapers/San Jose Mercury-News
Posted 26 September 2006

WASHINGTON - In another indication that some in the Bush administration are pushing for a more confrontational policy toward Iran, a Pentagon unit has drafted a report charging that U.S. international broadcasts into Iran aren't tough enough on the Islamic regime.

The report appears to be a gambit by some officials in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office and elsewhere to gain sway over television and radio broadcasts into Iran, one of the few direct tools the United States has to reach the Iranian people.

McClatchy Newspapers obtained a copy of the report this week, and it also has circulated on Capitol Hill. It accuses the Voice of America's Persian TV service and Radio Farda, a U.S. government Farsi-language broadcast, of taking a soft line toward Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime and not giving adequate time to government critics.

U.S. broadcasting officials and others who've read the report said it's riddled with errors. They also see it as a thinly veiled attack on the independence of U.S. international broadcasting, which by law is supposed to represent a balanced view of the United States and provide objective news....

The full text of the article is found online (registration required).

10 Miami journalists take U.S. pay

Oscar Corral, Miami Herald

At least 10 South Florida journalists, including three from El Nuevo Herald, received regular payments from the U.S. government for programs on Radio Martí and TV Martí, two broadcasters aimed at undermining the communist government of Fidel Castro. The payments totaled thousands of dollars over several years.

Those who were paid the most were veteran reporters and a freelance contributor for El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language newspaper published by the corporate parent of The Miami Herald. Pablo Alfonso, who reports on Cuba and writes an opinion column, was paid almost $175,000 since 2001 to host shows on Radio Martí and TV Martí. El Nuevo Herald freelance reporter Olga Connor, who writes about Cuban culture, received about $71,000, and staff reporter Wilfredo Cancio Isla, who covers the Cuban exile community and politics, was paid almost $15,000 in the last five years.

Alfonso and Cancio were dismissed after The Miami Herald questioned editors at El Nuevo Herald about the payments. Connor's freelance relationship with the newspaper also was severed. Alfonso and Cancio declined to comment. Connor was unavailable for comment.

Jesús Díaz Jr., president of the Miami Herald Media Co. and publisher of both newspapers, expressed disappointment, saying the payments violated a ''sacred trust'' between journalists and the public....

The full text of the is found on the Miami Herald Web site.

Head of VOA agency defends his record

Barry Schweid, Associated Press/SeattlePI.com

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the agency that oversees Voice of America and other U.S. overseas broadcasts defended his record Friday against allegations of misconduct and vowed to stay on the job.

A summary of a report by the State Department's inspector general, released Tuesday, said Kenneth Tomlinson misused government funds as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

On Wednesday, Andy Fisher, spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the panel had taken no action to recommend approval or disapproval of President Bush's renomination of Tomlinson in January 2005 while the investigation was under way "and does not intend to now." ....

"I am very proud of my record," [Tomlinson] said.

Among accomplishments he cited were obtaining funds for U.S. satellite television broadcasting to Iran and expanded broadcasts to Afghanistan....

The full text of the letter is found online.

Study suggests Radio Sawa, Alhurra exposure have no impact on Arab attitudes

David E. Kaplan, U.S. News and World Report, 17 July 2006

A new study by Mohammed el-Nawawy, a communications professor at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., surveyed 394 Arab college students in five Arab countries on the credibility of the two networks. Nawawy found that once students began watching and listening to the networks, their attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy, in fact, worsened slightly.

The study, "U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab World: The News Credibility of Radio Sawa and Television Alhurra in Five Countries," is in the August issue of Global Media and Communication, an academic journal. Nawawy surveyed students in Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and the Palestinian territories, and he concluded that U.S. officials face a tough time changing Arab hearts and minds. The bottom line, he writes: "No matter how savvy its public diplomacy efforts ... they will be ineffective in changing Arab public opinion if that public is dissatisfied with U.S. policies on the ground."

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the two networks, issued a blistering response to U.S. News about the study. "It is astonishing that a flawed study such as this would appear in a peer-reviewed journal and looks more like a conclusion in search of a reinforcing study instead of the other way around," he wrote. "It does not meet the universally accepted standards of international media research. Its sample is too small, it is skewed by population with nearly half the respondents identified as Palestinian, and some of the respondents were not even listeners or viewers."

Full text of the story is found on the USNews.com Web site.

Vello Ederma: Bring Back Public Diplomacy

Letter to the Editor, Washington Times, 15 July 2006

It is about time that Russia is understood for what it is ("Dissenters aim to expose repression to G-8 leaders," World, Thursday). It is not a democracy and never has been. Most likely, it never will be. Vladimir Putin has indicated as much. The 1990s, as the Soviet system was destroyed, may have been a bit messy for Russia, but all such efforts toward human freedom are messy. The former KGB operative is now engaged in trying to restore the former Russian/Soviet empire, using new economic and energy-related methods to re-devour its neighbors and extend its influence into a new type of domination. All these reasons and many more are enough to make us think seriously about public diplomacy, America's image, and, ultimately, our national interests. This is no time to wallow in the politics of illusion....

Congress and the administration must begin immediately to restore funding for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the U.S. Information Agency. USIA does not have to be a carbon copy of its past, but the concept must be there if we are to help the world understand what we are about. The great radios that helped bring victory in the Cold War must again be in the forefront, not the teeny-bopper music that listeners can buy in a corner store. That means English and Russian, as well as most of the languages of the Russian periphery. It takes time to reconstitute the services, so there is no time to lose....

Vello Ederma is a former deputy chief of VOA's European Division. The full text of the letter is found online.

Senate Committee approves administration request for VOA cuts

The Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended $617,338,000 for FY 2007 for international broadcasting operations, including $170,760 for VOA. Unlike its counterpart in the House, the Senate report (109-277), ratifies proposed cuts in Worldwide English and other language operations proposed by the Bush Administration.

VOA cuts bring together Greek, Turkish communities

Apostolos Zoupaniotis, Greek News Greek News Online, 26 June 2006.

When few months ago the Broadcasting Board of Governors decided to terminate most of the European languages programs of the Voice of America, including Greek and Turkish, many prominent members of Congress, reacting on protests by Greek and Turkish American community organizations, predicted the rejection of those plans from the US Congress, because the VOA broadcasts for these sensitive areas are considered crucial for the image of the United States.

"It is awkward that while the proposed fiscal year 2007 budget for U.S. international broadcasting calls for an overall increase of 4.3% from fiscal year 2006, Bush administration is cutting all Balkan programming of VOA", a prominent Greek American lobbyist has told the Greek News, back in February.

Many prominent Greek Americans approached the Chairpersons of the Greek Caucus, Michael Bilirakis and Carolyn Maloney and among the ideas they suggested was a joint campaign by both Greek and Turkish Caucuses (with approximately 200 members in the House of Representatives).

After negotiations behind the scenes, the leaderships of Greek and Turkish Caucuses singed a joint letter, sent on June 7 to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice and Commerce, asking for the restoration of the funds for the International Broadcasting for the Balkans. On June 20, 2006, the House Appropriations Committee decided to provide $659 million for International Broadcasting, including funding to continue expanded broadcasting to the broader Middle East.

It was the first time ever, friends of Greece and Turkey in Congress acted together.

Full text of the story is found on the Greek News Web site.

House Appropriations Committee demands report on BBG/DoD collaboration

House Report 109-520 - Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, FY2007, 22 June 2006.

The Committee remains concerned about a potential blurring of the distinction between the international broadcasting conducted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and that conducted by the Defense Department. While the Committee continues to strongly support all necessary efforts to provide for national security, close collaboration with the Defense Department may foster misunderstanding among foreign audiences as to the principles and goals of BBG broadcasting. Within sixty days of enactment of this Act, the BBG shall report fully to the Committee on the nature and duration of any cooperative efforts with the Defense Department over the last year. In addition, the BBG shall notify Congress in writing of any projects or programs to be undertaken with the Defense Department within seven days of the beginning of such activities. Both reports should include a description of services provided and any financial arrangements between the entities.

Full text of the report is found online.

House Appropriations Committee restores some VOA cuts

House Report 109-520 - Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, FY2007, 22 June 2006.

Voice of America (VOA).--The Committee recommendation provides $172,897,000 for VOA. The Committee recommendation restores proposed reductions to VOA broadcasts and radio, as well as Worldwide English. The Committee recommendation includes $6,071,000 for the Worldwide English Division, an increase of $1,048,000 above the request.

The Committee continues to support the creative efforts of VOA broadcasting to the continent of Africa. The Committee notes that forty-five percent of VOA's listenership is in Africa and expects VOA to create radio formats to ensure information is available to young audiences. Nearly 45 million listeners have access to VOA's objective, balanced and accurate news. VOA fills the information void with daily targeted and credible coverage of sub-Saharan Africa often not available from any other media. The Committee supports the use of radio broadcasts as a component of sustained HIV/AIDS prevention efforts undertaken by many African governments, African countries, humanitarian organizations, and U.S. assistance programs. VOA's Africa Division continues to incorporate thousands of broadcasts about HIV/AIDS into its regular programming for broadcasting to Africa. The Committee recommendation does not include funding for VOA to assume budget responsibility for a popular USAID program for Zimbabwe.

The Committee supports broadcasting to respond to the crackdown on press freedom by the government of Venezuela, but the Committee questions the viability of locating an affiliate to carry new programming. Therefore, the recommendation does not include funding for this effort, but the Committee would entertain a reprogramming of funds for this purpose should affiliate commitments be secured.

The recommendation includes $1,900,000 for broadcasting to North Korea in accordance with the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-333), as proposed.

Full text of the report is found online.

BBC World Service hits new record

Audience figures for the BBC World Service have reached a record 163 million a week.

The figure is 14 million higher than last year and beats the previous record of 153 million listeners in 2001....

The number of people listening in English has risen by three million to 42 million a week, according to the figures from independent surveys....

Areas showing a particular increase included Nigeria, Indonesia, Kenya, India and Nepal.

Two countries showing big falls were Pakistan and Bangladesh. Audiences in the latter fell by 4.4 million to 8.6 million in the last year. The BBC said the losses were due to lack of FM frequencies....

Full text is available from the BBC Web site.

Proposed Cuts Would Eviserate English-Language Voice of America,
Georgie Anne Geyer, Universal Press Syndicate, 6 April 2006.

WASHINGTON -- My first reaction, when I heard that the Voice of America is going to abolish most of its English-language programs to the world, was how downright stupid such a move is.

Since President Eisenhower founded organizations like the Voice after World War II as instruments to defend the United States by broadcasting fair and accurate news to the world, the Voice has been an inexpensive treasure house to the nation. It has influenced countless leaders, often when they were young, standing in the fields and back alleys of dictatorships and autocracies for whom the very word "news" is subversive.

Today, English has blossomed as the common language of the world. One-third of the world's population speaks English, and more than half will speak it by 2050. I was recently surprised to hear that big French oil companies -- the French, with their hubristic pride of language! -- speak English on a commercial basis. The United Nations speaks in English, as do most other world organizations.

Two weeks ago, Al-Jazeera, the fearsome TV network that has challenged American news across the Middle East, flamboyantly announced its new 24-hour broadcasts in English. The Russians and the Chinese are right behind, again with 24-hour broadcasts or Web casts.

Full text of the column is found online.

Radio and TV Martí: Washington Guns after Castro at Any Cost

A report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 29 March 2006, Executive Summary

In the face of a sweeping debt and budgetary crisis currently afflicting the U.S. economy, the passage of the FY 2006 budget witnessed a brutal bloodletting of vital domestic programs from education and child welfare to Medicaid. At the same time, Congress, at the White House’s passionate urging, allocated an additional $10 million to purchase a specially equipped aircraft to transmit the broadcasts of the long-standing anti-Castro media project, Radio and TV Martí. This figure comes on top of the $27 million the media operations already receive annually. Since its founding, the Martí concept has been a “bridge to nowhere.” Nevertheless, almost half a billion dollars have been thrown away in the project.

As in the past, this year’s funds were routinely granted despite what have proven to be fatal weaknesses in the daily operations of Radio and TV Martí, namely no audience, no legitimacy, no professionalism – with the whole enterprise representing a colossal waste of taxpayer funds. The Martí operation’s most hard-hitting critics, including highly regarded neutral specialists, have not been able to persuade Congress to shut it down. In their evaluations, these critics allege that the whole venture is little better than a glaring boondoggle, which mainly serves as a propaganda machine spewing its tendentious product to a miniscule audience. It must be seen as little more than a custom made product to service the radical rightwing fringe of the Miami Cuban community, and a act as job-bank for unemployed ideologues within its fold.

As mentioned above, over the past 20 years, the highly criticized Martí operations have absorbed close to $500 million of public funds. This huge figure has generated a number of spirited attempts in Congress to cut – if not completely eliminate – Martí’s funding. But such initiatives have been stifled by thunderous recriminations and even open threats from Miami’s lethal politicians, led by Miami and Dade county’s rabidly rightwing Congressional delegation composed of the Diaz-Balart brothers and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The South Florida exile community has been able to purchase such pervasive influence as a result of years of working a brilliant strategy based on significant, but still relatively modest, financial largesse to both Republican and Democratic politicians. By means of this alchemistic process, hundreds of thousands of dollars in private campaign contributions to the White House and members of Congress are converted into hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds for programs enacted by Congress that are used to bankroll anti-Castro groups and which are aimed at destroying the Castro regime.

Thus, the continued funding of such a certifiably questionable project as the Martís in many ways reveals the long reach of Miami’s Cuban community into the U.S. legislative agenda. The political process has already witnessed its uncanny ability to convert carefully targeted campaign contributions into raw ideological, ineffectual hard-line projects aimed at deconstructing a Cuban society that is perpetually in Miami’s cross-hairs.

The shameful willingness of local and national politicians to bend their knees to South Florida’s financial backing, while egregiously pillaging the public treasury on its behalf, results in the squandering of hundreds of millions of dollars on worthless enterprises like Radio and TV Martí, while at the same time much-needed domestic social welfare programs are slashed or eliminated. This should be cause for national outrage.

Full text of the report is available from the Council's Web site.

A Public Diplomacy Council Commentary, 24 March 2006.

Is the US about to silence its own radio voice in English? Incredibly, it is.

Unless Congress or the Administration reverse course, in most of the world the English service of the Voice of America will be off the air forever this October. The sole survivor would be a few hours of Africa-focused news in English for that continent. This is truly unthinkable, in the view of many inside and outside of government, because English is:

… The universal language of international politics, trade, entertainment and the Internet, spoken by more than a billion people

… The primary tongue of the world’s only superpower and largest predominantly English-speaking country;

… The language of choice for new around-the-clock services of Al Jazeera, Russia and China, as even Iran ramps up its English broadcasts to the world.

At a recent panel of the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Queen of Jordan engaged in a discussion about change and challenge in each of their countries. To no one’s surprise, the leaders of four countries pivotal in the anti-terrorism struggle of ideas were conversing in English.

The Voice of America is the nation’s official overseas network, the largest civilian publicly funded U.S. multimedia outlet overseas, with an audience of more than 100,000,000 listeners, TV viewers and Internet users each week. About one out of six listens in English. The Wall Street Journal quotes former VOA directors as being “shocked”, “horrified” and “appalled” at a budget-driven decision to silence “an invaluable national strategic asset: America’s ability to communicate globally (in its own language) about its culture, values and foreign policy.”

The members of the Public Diplomacy Council strongly agree. The Council consists of more than 70 veteran professionals and scholars who advocate strengthening the nation’s overseas information, cultural and educational exchange programs. Most have served abroad. Like millions around the world, Council members have often depended on VOA hourly newscasts and in-depth analysis as their daily window on America and the world.

Full text of the commentary is found online.

Don't Let America Lose its Voice Around the World, Ed Warner, Baltimore Sun 23 March 2006 ...

The enemy media fire hard and fast, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a recent speech, and we must return the fire just as fast. As an example, he cites the extensive coverage of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Why not respond, he asks, by reporting on the mass graves of Saddam Hussein's victims - torture answering torture, as it were. And non-journalists may have to paid to do the job. It is a kind of shock and awe of the media, a crucial part of the war on terror.

The Voice of America, to be sure, does not do this, and therein lies the problem. Dismissed as old-fashioned, stodgy and slow-moving, it is slated for drastic cuts by the supervising Broadcast Board of Governors.

Broadcasts in their own language to Turkey, Greece and Thailand, among others, are to be cut in 2007. Also on the chopping block is, surprisingly enough, English. The world's pre-eminent language is not really needed, says the board, because it can be heard elsewhere.

That is true, but will it be in the best of hands?

While VOA opts out, China, Russia and the Arabic station Al-Jazeera are cranking up global English radio and TV broadcasts. They will convey America to the world instead of the voiceless Voice of America. Is this in the national interest?

Full text available from the Baltimore Sun Web site.

Ed Warner is a recently retired broadcaster-editor of Voice of America.

Alvin Snyder: The Incredible Shrinking Voice of America, from the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, 23 March 2006.

Chirac's dream of TV à la française suffers in the (English) translation,
Daily Telegraph, London, 16 March 2006.

Colin Randall

France's television dream of mounting a challenge to CNN and the BBC has suffered an embarrassing setback after claims that the new channel would broadcast most of its output in English.

Starved of realistic funding for a 24-hour news station, CII is due to be launched in December for transmission initially to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Its annual budget, met by the French taxpayer, will be £50 million, about an eighth of CNN's.

President Jacques Chirac promised a "CNN à la française" in the 2002 election campaign and is committed to a station that will "spread the values of France and its global vision throughout the world".

It was always known that part of the channel's output would be in English and Arabic but champions of the French language were appalled at suggestions that its output in the language be less than four hours a day.

Full text of the story is found online.

The Future of America's Global Voice: the Debate Surrounding the New VOA Budget, a special report from the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

Excerpts from a memorandum to VOA staff, sent by George Moore, Director, Office of Engineering and Technical Services, 24 February 2006 ...

The history of U.S. international broadcast transmitting stations in Greece stretches back to the early 1950's and is deeply rooted in the atmosphere of mutual cooperation and respect between our countries.

During the Cold War, the shortwave broadcasting stations in Greece served as the central focus for our network operations to key regions. These important broadcast transmitting stations clearly helped end the Cold War and to shape the world that we live in today.

Over the past decades there have been tremendous changes in communications, broadcast media and technology. Our transmitting stations in Kavala and Rhodes rely primarily on shortwave and medium wave radio transmission, formats that are expensive to operate.

Although shortwave was the focus of international broadcasting for many decades, shortwave broadcasting stations have declined in importance as traditional audiences have shifted to more popular local media such as FM radio, the Internet and television.

The realities of funding, technology and audience preferences have made it impossible to continue our shortwave and medium wave radio transmissions from the facilities in Greece. ...

Kim Andrew Elliott: Is VOA still a global broadcaster? 25 February 2006.

.... Why, in 2006, when modern media technologies abound, is it necessary to maintain worldwide shortwave capability?

These days, when people obtain information from abroad, they prefer to do it via cable or satellite television, or from a local FM station, or from a website, rather than put up with the difficulties shortwave.

But local television and radio relays of international broadcasts can be interrupted at any time, for political or commercial reasons. In recent months, FM or medium wave relays of BBC or VOA in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Cote d'Ivoire, Russia, and other countries have been interrupted. Indonesia, one of the largest and most important of target countries, might be next if broadcasting regulations are enforced.

Satellite transmissions can be jammed. In September 2005, Libya blocked an opposition radio station on Eutelsat Hotbird and took out several major television channels in the process. More typically, offended governments take content off satellites by exerting pressure on the satellite company, in the way that China compelled Star-TV to remove BBC Mandarin broadcasts in 1994. Furthermore, the sale of satellite dishes can be made illegal, and already purchased dishes confiscated.

Websites are blocked in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Burma, Uganda, and growing number of other countries. A small industry is devoted to software that can work around internet censorship. A much larger and more profitable software industry provides those filtering products to governments, companies, and institutions wanting to keep certain content from their internet users.

Shortwave radio has been jammed since before World War II. But shortwave is rarely jammed with complete effectiveness. This is because shortwave, uniquely among all the media available to international broadcasting, is granted by the laws of physics immunity from interdiction. On shortwave frequencies, signals from distant transmitters are often stronger than those from closer jamming transmitters. If an international broadcaster transmits on as many frequencies as possible, from as many sites as possible, there is a good chance at least one frequency will get through the jamming.

Until another medium comes along that is less interdictable, a global shortwave capability is vital to U.S. interests. Those shortwave transmitters may be needed for VOA Indonesian, Russian, Bangla, etc., if the television or FM rebroadcasting outlets inside their target countries suddenly become unavailable. ...

The IBB Kavala and Rhodes relays will be missed. I don't mean this in a sentimental way. I mean that when there is a major global crisis, the United States will need to get accurate information to foreign populations and to Americans abroad. Modern means of international mass communications will be blocked, destroyed, or swamped from overuse. That is when a global shortwave network will become the failsafe. We reduce that network at our peril.

Kim Andrew Elliott, expressing his own views, is an audience research officer in the International Broadcasting Bureau. His personal website is http://kimandrewelliott.com .

Save America's Voice, Web log on VOA English broadcasts now online.

From the Broadcasting Board of Governors Announcement, 6 February 2006

.... For fiscal year 2007, the budget proposal calls for a 13% increase for Middle East Broadcasting Networks and a 5.3% increase for Voice of America.

The Board of Governors' proposed $671.9 million budget includes a number of new initiatives, enhancements and a continuation of initiatives begun in '06. They include:

  • Expanding service to Iran with a daily four-hour prime time VOA Persian television lineup and enhancing the Radio Farda website.
  • Increasing Middle East television news coverage (Alhurra) from 16 to 24 hours a day and adding customized local news content and coverage for Radio Sawa.
  • Adding a one-hour television program for Afghanistan in both Dari and Pashto, and enhancing transmission for VOA Pashto programming to the people of Afghanistan along the border region while adding additional FM and medium wave capability.

Faced with the increased costs of expanding critically needed television and radio programming to the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, the Board has had to make some painful choices. As a result, the budget proposes reductions in English language programming, by eliminating VOA News Now radio while maintaining VOA English to Africa, Special English and VOA's English website.

The budget reflects the Board's commitment to English language programming in the medium of the future, the Internet, and for excellence in Special English programming. Research shows that millions more are benefiting from Internet programming than from shortwave transmission, which VOA News Now relies on.

Martin Schramm, Scripps Howard News Service: VOA is DOA in Bush Budget, 7 February 2006.

.... This just in: According to a little-noticed line in its 2007 budget, the Bush administration has proposed pulling the plug on just about all of the Voice of America's English-language broadcasting and telecasting. Unless smarter heads in Congress intervene, this means the United States will be taking a giant step in the wrong direction - at the worst possible time.

A world of listeners will be losing a group of English-language programs that provide them with a chance to hear for themselves perhaps the best example of what American-style democracy is all about.

.... At a time when al Jazeera and China Radio International are adding English programming, the United States is going the other way. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. international broadcasting agencies, announced increases of 13 percent for funds for Middle East broadcasting networks and 5.3 percent for the overall VOA. Then, "faced with the increased costs of expanding critically needed television and radio programming to the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, the Board has had to make some painful choices," the broadcasting board's announcement went on to say.

.... So, if millions of English-speaking people in Muslim countries and other places in the emerging world are watching the Internet, what English-language programming will there be for them to watch? Precious little - if it is all being scrapped in a shortsighted (see also: short-listened) effort to save a few bucks ($9 million) in the interim. They will not be able to see the living demonstration of what democracy in action is all about - brought to them by a government that is in power, but not above listening to the views of its critics on all matters of war and peace.

Helle Dalle, Heritage Foundation: Spreading the Word, 15 February 2006

.... Not all the news is bad, though. The good news is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has started thinking strategically about its resources, deciding to increase the focus on the Middle East broadcasting services. This is a rational choice, since anti-Americanism has given rise to the only real, physical threat to the United States in decades, as we saw on September 11, 2001. The 13 percent increase in funding for broadcasting to the Middle East proposed by the board makes sense, particularly if accompanied by a thorough review of broadcasting to the Arab world, which frankly needs some strategic thinking of it own.

The really bad news is that the cuts to fund the shift in emphasis proposed by the board on Feb. 6 (ironically enough the birthday of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator) will be terribly counterproductive. While an overall budget increase of 5.3 percent for Voice of America is being proposed by the board, cutting English will effectively shrink the reach of U.S. international broadcasting. These cuts come at a time when al Jazeera is ready to launch its own English-language service and Radio China International is adding English-language programming.

Unless Congress steps in, VOA's English-language service in short-wave radio will effectively be eliminated. Its primary, hourly news broadcast, "News Now" and its discussion show "Issues in the News," will disappear. There will be a few exceptions, i.e. VOA English to Africa, Special English (vocabulary less than 1,500 words) and VOA's Web site in English. If adding more money to VOA's budget is needed, then we must make this investment, so as not to destroy a highly valuable asset.

.... So, what is it the Chinese and al Jazeera know that we seem to have forgotten? It could be that of all the world's languages, English has the widest reach. More than one-third of the world's population speaks English today, and that number is projected to be more than half in 2050. English is overwhelmingly the language of international commerce and of the Internet -- making it a phenomenally cost-effective medium.

Furthermore, while the Broadcasting Board of Governors justifies its cuts by saying that short-wave is the way of the past, and the Internet and television are the way of the future, but most of the world we are trying to reach does actually live in the past. There is nothing wrong with Internet and television, but wide swaths of rural populations throughout the world have no access to the Internet or even television. Yet, they, too, benefit from learning English by listening to VOA.

Raid Mohammad, Letter to the Washington Post: My Eulogy for Voice of America, 17 February 2006.

.... I was first introduced to VOA by my father sometime between late 1968 and early 1969. These were very turbulent years for my family and countless many other Iraqi families. The Baath party had just taken over the government. I had just finished elementary school.

It was always my dream to attend Baghdad College (a Jesuit 7th through 12th secondary school). BC was a stone’s throw from my home. It was by far the most prestigious school in Iraq. I couldn’t wait to finish elementary school so I could enroll in BC. I still vividly remember playing for hours on the lush soccer fields and the many other sports fields. And I also can vividly remember how pleased I was when my father informed me that I had passed the admission test and that I was accepted at BC.

However, this joy was very short lived. By July 17, 1968, there was a new regime and my father had just lost his job. I was old enough to figure out that my mother’s teaching salary was not enough to support us and also pay my tuition at BC. But my parents assured me that they would do whatever it takes to keep me in the school of my dream. And a dream it still is. Because not all the money on this earth was going to make it happen. Before the school year had even started, the Baath government decided to take the school over. The new government ordered that the Jesuits were to be deported from Iraq.

In contrast, my father was ordered not to leave Iraq; he was put under house arrest. My father had always enjoyed traveling. As a journalist, he also traveled for living. He was always in the air traveling to cover events and to interview kings and presidents. Now, in a cage, his short-wave radio became his only window to the world. With more time to spend with me, he introduced me to VOA. I literally used to stay up until dawn listening to VOA broadcasting in English. The broadcast in Arabic from Beirut concluded at around midnight and then immediately the English broadcast out of D.C. began.

Although my father was a night person, very often I outlasted him listing to VOA into the early hours of the morning. Through VOA, I came to know America better than my native-born American wife before I even stepped foot on American soil. I was the youngest person who traveled in many European countries in 1972 at the age of 14 and by myself. People used to think that I was an American tourist when I conversed with them in English.

As I was growing up in the midst of the Baath indoctrination of the seventies, one question always nagged at me; why do I think differently than the majority of my peers? Was there something wrong with me, or is it the other way around? I have no doubt that my father played a major role in influencing the way I think. I have no doubt that my extensive travel abroad also played a big role in shaping me. I also strongly believe that VOA played a big role in shaping me too. VOA was the only antidote to Baath indoctrination available to me during my growing years in Iraq.

The closure of BC had a big impact on me. But my new find had no less of an impact on me. Voice of America became my father’s solace just as it became mine. VOA's Arabic broadcast is only just another radio station in a very crowded spectrum. I believe that nothing echoes like the sound of "This is the Voice of America."

Twenty-five years ago I was only able to say God bless your soul, Dad, while eight thousand miles separated us. Tonight I found my self sobbing just the same for the loss of another mentor that I left behind twenty-five years ago in Iraq. God bless your soul, VOA.

Mr. Mohammad lives in Austin, Texas. He was born and raised in Baghdad, where his father was a journalist and his mother a teacher. Mr. Mohammad came to the United States in 1981, studied engineering at University of Massachusetts-Boston, married an American, and has what he calls, "a bi-cultural family". He is active in Austin's inter-faith dialogue, and recently served as an interpreter on Department of State International Visitor and anti-terrorism programs.

We welcome comments on the Public Diplomacy Web site; send to admin@publicdiplomacy.org

Return to Public Diplomacy home page

This page:
http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/60.htm

Updated: 17 March 2007.
Copyright © 2006-2007. USIA Alumni Association

[TOP]