In PR war, US gets ready to turn up volume

But more radio networks abroad may not reach large numbers.

WASHINGTON

America's movie stars may be universally known, and toes may tap the world over to American music. But when it comes to the US government getting out its message - especially to the Arab and Muslim populations - the star-spangled know-how looks more like can't-do.

The Voice of America's Arabic service reaches a paltry 2 percent of the Arab population. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admits the US is not doing a very good job of telling the world about the war. And surveys indicate that little US-government broadcasting - call it objective news or plain-old propaganda - reaches the crucial under-30 audience among the world's 1 billion Muslims.

But look out, world: Uncle Sam has decided he wants you as a listener. The idea is to take what Americans supposedly do well - communications and the media - and get back in the PR war that the US seems to have lost so far in the terror war.

The US military is believed to be broadcasting propaganda messages (and Taliban-banned music) from EC-130 planes over Afghanistan. But shortly, Congress is expected to approve creation of Radio Free Afghanistan, and then approve up to $30 million to create the Middle East Radio Network.

The Pentagon, too, has awarded a four-month, $400,000 contract to a PR firm to present the US side of the war to 79 countries.

"There's the war of bombs and guns, and then there's the ... war for the hearts and minds in that part of the world," says Norman Pattiz, a board member of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the State Department entity that manages Voice of America. "Of course our enemy is winning it, because we're not even there."

The US can do better just by getting into the game, most officials and media experts agree. But it's not going to be a quick fix. The Pentagon's wartime PR firm, the Rendon Group of Boston and Washington, can work quickly with focus groups and local media to get out the US word. But it will confront often antagonistic media and suspicious audiences.

The task to get new radio broadcasting up and running is even trickier. The lead time to lease transmitters or build new ones is such that, a year from now, US officials hope at best to reach 5 percent of the population in Arab countries.

"We're playing catch-up," says Tom Korologos, a longtime radio journalist and another IBB board member. "Al Jazeera [the dominant Arab news network] has an audience of 300 million, but when we go over there, people ask us, 'Where are you guys? Where has the USA been?' "

What happened is this: At the end of the cold war, the US decided it could dismantle much of its PR machinery. "Everybody said we're out of business if the Berlin Wall falls, and it did, and we thought these [services] were relics of the cold war," says Mr. Korologos. "But now, it's needed more than ever."

In the post-cold-war years, national leaders took their cue from an American public showing less and less interest in the world, despite intensifying globalization. "I've been trying to convince the former administration, and now this one, to go with Radio Free Afghanistan, but until Sept. 11, it was all uphill," says US Rep. Edward Royce (R) of California, who first called for the service's creation in 1996. "If the people of Afghanistan had been given access to the truth, I don't think the Taliban could have taken the country."

In the new climate, $14 million in funding for Radio Free Afghanistan over the next two years is expected to sail through Congress. Royce aides say the service is "ready to roll" as soon as funding for new transmitters and other items comes through. Many who broadcast from Radio Free Europe to Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion are still at the service, and can quickly pick up broadcasts.

Start-up won't be quite so fast at the Middle East Radio Network. Plans for the proposed $30 million network call for building or leasing a series of transmitters at strategic sites around the region, with capabilities of reaching listeners on AM, FM, and satellite waves - and in more than a dozen languages.

Some of the transmitters have been negotiated for countries where the governments don't want the deals publicized, officials say. Such difficulties demonstrate the sensitivity over bringing US-style reporting to a region of mostly government-controlled media.

But US broadcasters say they see a hunger for the services the new network would provide - especially among young people. "We want to diversify to reach all [the youths], from the kids throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank to college students and tomorrow's leaders," says Mr. Pattiz.

Not only do people under 25 make up about 60 percent of the population in the Arab region, but US broadcasters know that it is young Arab men who embraced virulent anti-Americanism and became terrorists.

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