Live, From New York, It's ... UN Radio? World Body Tries PR
United Nations considers shortwave programming it says can win it support and help others. But who'll pay?
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — We may be living in the Internet Age, but the United Nations thinks there's nothing quite like old-fashioned radio to get its message out.
"The basic audience for shortwave is in developing countries, and radio is ... very cheap compared to television or the Internet," says Mian Qadrud-din of the UN Information Committee, which is studying a proposed expansion of UN radio service.
According to a study conducted by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, only 2 of every 100 people in Bolivia have telephones, whereas 60 own radios.
But who would listen to the day-to-day affairs of the UN? Back in the early 1980s, when the Voice of America used to carry some UN programs on a pro bono basis, UN Radio had almost a captive audience. Television journalist Nebolisa Ajide avidly listened to UN Radio when he was a university student in Nigeria.
"In the States, you are overfed with information," he explains. "Well back in some African countries, like Nigeria then, there were few radio stations and TV stations."
But in 1985, the UN's relationship with Voice of America terminated when transmission costs sharply rose. So the UN has been distributing its programs mainly on tapes to 180 countries in 15 languages. They are mailed free to broadcasters without any assurance that the content will air in its entirety.
Now the UN is considering live short-wave broadcasts to reach a larger audience - at a time when the UN is experiencing a heightened public-relations problem.
Violence against UN staff has increased in the past few years. And 70 percent of the 400 international broadcasting experts surveyed by Deutsche Welle said women in developing countries are inadequately aware of UN activities or have a negative view of the UN.
One UN move to help boost awareness of its work was last month's naming of pop star and former member of the Spice Girls group Geri Halliwell as goodwill ambassador for the UN Population Fund in Britain. Radio would serve the same cause.
"We assume that getting to know the work of the United Nations would generate more understanding and therefore more support," says Mr. Qadrud-din. His committee is considering setting up a pilot project to broadcast live in Africa. Programs could include updates on peacekeeping.
Meetings at the UN may also be aired - a sort of radio C-Span for the UN.
"The question is whether people will listen," says one programming director for an international broadcaster. "Even people in really ... awful places don't listen if they think it's propaganda. They've got enough of that in their own countries." Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he stresses that UN Radio's problem is that it will not be seen as an unbiased news source.
But UN members insist that they are not creating a "Radio Free UN" to encourage democracy. UN Radio staff insists that people would want to follow UN activities.
"With the UN being involved in a lot of crisis situations in Africa, a sort of radio beforehand, during a crisis, and afterward" would likely be helpful and well received, says Michael Behrens, the head of Deutsche Welle's English program and one of the authors of the study.
But no UN member nation or independent broadcaster has offered UN Radio air time. The BBC as a policy does not carry other organizations' programs, says Barry Langridge, the head of the Africa and Middle East division of the BBC. He notes, however, that the BBC already works with UN agencies. "We have great respect for UN personnel on the ground. They know a lot and they can help us," he says.
Yet the UN may not be satisfied playing the role of a source for journalists. "A global organization in a global world needs instruments to make itself heard directly and uncensored," said the Deutsche Welle report. Some UN members agree, if only they had the money, they say.