Will VOA extend its reach?

Voice of America struggles to redefine itself in a multimedia world

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When Rwandan President Paul Kagame was a guest earlier this month on a new call-in show called "Straight Talk Africa," the phone lines lit up at Voice of America.

For the first time, VOA was offering Africans a chance to directly ask questions of a head of state. His answers were broadcast simultaneously on TV, radio, and streamed on the Internet.

It's just one example of how the government-funded VOA is moving into the future -losing its cold-war focus and embracing new technology.

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At VOA headquarters in Washington - a stone's throw from Capitol Hill - the organization now broadcasts in 53 languages and in three different mediums. Though the building's architecture is dated, the thinking going on inside reflects an attempt to evolve an old-fashioned radio network into a modern multimedia organization.

"It's no longer good enough to deliver programs that only go one direction," says Gwen Dillard, director of VOA's Africa division. Africans in particular, she says, see media like CNN, and it fuels their expectation of what citizens can expect under a democracy -like a give and take with politicians.

This summer, VOA simulcast its first live coverage on radio, the Internet, and TV from the political conventions. Next month, it plans to roll out its second Web site - voa.com - as the service aims to broaden its weekly audience of an estimated 91 million listeners. The majority of its listeners are in China, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh.

Once communism was a primary obstacle for VOA. Today it must battle an ever-growing field of media players -keeping pace with international competitors like BBC World Service (151 million listeners) and now also local challengers in countries it serves.

"They have a very complicated transition to make from essentially a cold-war agency ... to a broadcaster that lives in the new economy," says Everette Dennis, a professor of media management at Fordham University in New York.

He says in an increasingly commercial world - and with VOA's expenses - the question becomes, "What's the role of this enterprise?"

VOA contributed to the free flow of information during the cold war, beaming transmissions to closed countries. Observers say it can play a similar role now, reporting on how a democracy works.

"They have a unique contribution to make in the post-cold-war era because people are [asking] 'How do we do this?'," says Kevin Klose, head of NPR and former CEO of US International Broadcasting. He says there is little commercial programming that could substitute for VOA's product.

"What we do would never be commercially viable for CNN or anybody else," says Sanford Ungar, VOA director since June of 1999. "I mean, you are not going to get an investor to say, 'I just can't wait to get this Uzbeck service on the air.'"

Mr. Ungar is spearheading VOA's technological change - and doing some housecleaning. In February, he and the VOA's governing body cut 51 positions in the European and East Asian divisions.

Ungar calls these "tough choices," but says that audiences in some areas had been declining since the end of the cold war a decade ago and no adjustments had been made. In 1994, for example, 23 percent of VOA's audience was in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and 23 percent was in Africa. Now, those numbers have shifted to 10 percent and 40 percent respectively.

VOA's first radio broadcast was in 1942 during World War II. In 1976, its 16-year-old charter was signed into law. Under it, the VOA is required to report news reliably and accurately, and to represent American culture and US policies. Since last fall, it has been overseen by a bipartisan board of governors.

A 1948 law prohibits the VOA from broadcasting in the US (to protect citizens from propaganda - though its now available on the Web), but it is well known overseas. Villagers in Central Africa use it to tell how close rebels are, and bellhops in Hanoi use it to learn English. In Iran, people disguise satellite dishes as birdbaths.

While radio -particularly shortwave -continues to be the backbone of VOA, audience preferences are influencing its decisions in other media, like TV. To further its television presence, VOA is asking Congress to merge it with with the government's television and film service, WORLDNET, whose resources it is already sharing.

Meanwhile, it is looking for ways to stretch its $160 million budget, which has remained flat in recent years. Its new multimedia newsroom -originally scheduled to be finished by the November election -sits unfinished, waiting for more funds, among other holdups.

"We don't have a domestic constituency - there's not a single member of Congress who would say that he or she will be elected or defeated on the basis of VOA appropriations," Ungar says. "This is a terrible dilemma for us, because at the same time, you get editorials in major newspapers saying the free flow ... of information across boundaries may do more to sustain the peace than the dispatch of American battleships."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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