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John Hughes

Don't let Voice of America broadcasts go static

Voice of America (VOA), the jewel in America's public diplomacy effort abroad, is set to be streamlined. Some programs can be downsized. But VOA is in the national interest, especially as Russia, China, and Iran expand state-supported media. Cuts should be handled with care.

By John Hughes / December 12, 2011

Protesters gather in Moscow on Dec. 10 in a mass demonstration against alleged fraud in Russian parliamentary elections. Russia has been expanding its state-sponsored media, which makes VOA services even more necessary.

AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel

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When Washington officials set up a shortwave German-language broadcasting operation in 1942 to combat Nazi propaganda, few could have imagined that over the next 70 years it would grow into one of the world’s most prestigious broadcasting operations.

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After its birth in World War II to combat fascism, Voice of America (VOA) shortwave radio went on to confront communism in the cold war and now Islamist extremism in the Al Qaeda era, spreading the gospel of freedom and remaining true to its founding promise: “The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.”

With specially targeted sister radio broadcasts all over the world, VOA has become the jewel in America’s public diplomacy effort. The US government’s international broadcasting operation is estimated to reach 187 million people in 59 languages.

But many Americans are unaware of it – and of proposed changes that are in prospect.

These days, radio, especially shortwave, is not only facing the competition of television in countries around the world but also the challenge from the Internet and social media. Western government-supported radio services such as the British BBC have been having a hard time of it with budget cuts and staff layoffs, while countries like Russia, Iran, and China have been spending millions of dollars to expand their state-sponsored media. Little Qatar has made great audience inroads with its Al Jazeera TV operation.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the part-time board headed by distinguished journalist Walter Isaacson that oversees US government broadcasting, believes all this demands a major shake-up and streamlining. The BBG’s strategic plan calls for “innovation and integration,” and reaching an audience of 216 million by 2016. The BBG has hired Deloitte consultants to work out the details.

There has been understandable questioning from some of the 4,000 journalists and foreign-language broadcasters and technicians who man the radio operation.

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