It was a first for international broadcasting. When President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia closed Belgrade's most popular independent radio station earlier this month to muzzle news about the biggest protests he has ever faced, the Voice of America stepped into the void.
The US government-funded overseas radio service took over from B92's silenced transmitter, rebroadcasting on its own short-wave and European frequencies dispatches and analysis from the station's staff. VOA's sister station, Radio Free Europe, then began doing the same. Not only were B92's reports on the protests once again heard in Belgrade, to which its signal is restricted, but also throughout former Yugoslavia.
The impact was greater than anticipated. In addition to allowing B92 to resume operations on Dec. 5, just two days after ordering it shut, Mr. Milosevic agreed to upgrade its temporary license to a 10-year permit.
Never before has a state-funded broadcaster like VOA provided the means for a private station suppressed by the autocratic regime of another country to return to the air. But the action also underscores the innovative ways that VOA and similar services are employing as they battle doubts about their relevance in today's world.
"Everybody thinks international broadcasting is dead and has no use anymore. But as this shows, that's far from being true," says Frank Shkreli, director of VOA's Southern Europe Division.
Run by the US Information Agency (USIA), VOA and its sister stations - Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Marti - were founded to beam the gospel of American democracy into the communist world. In addition to presenting alternatives to state-controlled news programs, they were used to propagate "significant American thoughts and institutions" and official US policies.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union provoked questions about the further need for the stations. At the same time, the GOP-controlled Congress began moving to balance the federal budget. In the post-Soviet era, budgeteers have gone after USIA.
Since 1994, USIA's broadcasting budget has been cut from $487 million to $350 million, resulting in more than 1,500 lost jobs. Broadcasting hours have shrunk by about 30 percent. Republicans in Congress plan to cut further, calling for a complete end of federal financing for Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) after 1999.
To conserve resources, the two services moved in June 1995 from Munich, Germany, to the less expensive Czech capital of Prague, reducing their annual overhead from $170 million to $68 million, says RFE/RL director Kevin Klose. They are also now soliciting donations from foundations and corporations.
Other Western countries have been cutting back on their foreign radio services as well, says Prof. Don Browne, an international broadcasting expert at the University of Minnesota. "It's a fairly widespread phenomenon," he notes.
Advocates decry the loss of support, saying the need for unadulterated news and diverse information sources is as acute as ever for peoples in crises, emerging democracies, and closed societies. "The Balkans, the crisis in central Africa, and other areas of information denial like Iraq, Iran, and China vividly illustrate a clear need for international broadcasting in the post-cold-war era," says Alan Heil, acting VOA director. "We can never tell when new Serbias will appear."
Carla Johnson, a media expert and author of the book "Winning the Global TV News Game," agrees. "The airwaves are replacing the sword and the pen as a way of reaching the hearts and minds of people in situations of turmoil."
VOA's effectiveness is further underscored by Beijing's renewed efforts since August to jam its broadcasts, which reach an estimated 16 million listeners in China. Croatia's authoritarian president, Franjo Tudjman, also railed this month against the VOA. He accused it of working with Croatia's most popular independent radio station to subvert his government.
The service's efforts at post-cold-war innovation are not restricted to the crisis in Serbia. Working with the Justice Department, VOA launched a program last fall that publicizes in almost 50 languages the names and descriptions of Americans and foreigners wanted by US law-enforcement agencies.
Programs being beamed from VOA's African language services are attempting to rejoin the families of Rwandan refugees separated in the massive exodus from eastern Zaire.
VOA has also turned to other techniques and technologies. Last week, it began beaming into Serbia by satellite a half-hour television show entitled "America Calling Serbia" that covers different facets of the political crisis. The show is produced in conjunction with Worldnet, the USIA's global TV service.