Cutbacks at VOA prompt critical chorus

Mission relevance and budget shortfall force tough choices.

Most layoff announcements in the US don't prompt responses from Turkish politicians and newspaper readers in Thailand.

But news that the Voice of America plans to eliminate 36 positions has created controversy in Washington and sparked comment from around the world.

Cuts to the government-funded news organization, announced on Jan. 19, will eliminate VOA radio service to Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Brazil. Service will also be reduced in Turkish, Armenian, Slovak, Romanian, and Bulgarian.

The money from the cuts will be redirected to broadcasts going to areas such as the Middle East and India. But critics inside and outside the organization argue the reductions will weaken an important foreign-policy tool.

Overseas, listeners and diplomats who've heard of the changes bemoan the loss of a source of accurate information about US policies and culture, and world news. In the US, the decision has raised the ire of some conservatives, who say it was made in the waning moments of the Clinton presidency -and reflects faulty foreign policy.

"I don't think it's a plot on the part of the outgoing administration. It's just another example of their carelessness," says John Hulsman, senior European analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The right-leaning Washington Times criticized the VOA's director and "Democrat-run" governing board in an editorial last week, saying it needs leadership "with a greater understanding of the organization's current and future contributions."

Now that the cold war is over, the VOA's targets have changed, says the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, which currently has a Republican majority. It made the cuts in areas where its research indicates fewer people are listening to the VOA -and in an effort to support new media ventures.

Board members have made little public comment, but in a letter published Feb. 2 in The Washington Times, they wrote: "We are charged with using the public's resources wisely and efficiently, not to broadcast to regions where the very success we worked to achieve for so long has been realized."

Kevin Klose, head of National Public Radio, was in charge of the government's international broadcast operations between 1997 and '98. He says the budget cycle and the board's vision preclude attempts at partisanship.

"I worked for that board and its predecessor," and what impressed him, he says, "was their absolute commitment to the most effective use of the resources they had. That's the standard that they always supported, without regard to where they were in the domestic political camp."

The layoffs and moves to new media make for tense times at the VOA, which got its start in 1942 and found its niche during the cold war, when it helped bring about change in struggling countries.

Today, the VOA broadcasts in 53 languages to 91 million listeners around the world. But like many commercial organizations, it is also trying to compete with other news media while balancing its traditional formats with the Internet and a greater TV presence. Its budget of about $160 million -less than half the price of a B-1 bomber, quips VOA Director Sanford Ungar -has remained largely the same in recent years. Last year the board also made reductions, and 26 people were laid off.

Internally, union leaders are skeptical about how effective Internet service is in some of the countries VOA is targeting, especially when some parts of the world are struggling to get electricity, let alone pay phone bills. Still, Mr. Ungar says, the Internet is helping to reach more people in some countries where local stations can download radio broadcasts off the Net.

Although he doesn't agree with all the board's choices, Ungar says he understands why they have to be made. "It's inevitable that unless the budget increases significantly, VOA will have to broadcast in fewer languages."

That doesn't keep union members from wondering if there isn't a better way to implement change. "If you're moving to eliminate services, you don't have to do it in a lightening strike. You could come up with a plan where you phase them out," says Tim Shamble, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812.

He and his colleagues argue that reductions should be well thought out. "We're supposed to ... be America's voice to the world," he says. "And if we're not doing it, someone else is going to fill that void. They're going to define America to the rest of the world."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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