Radio programs articulate US values to the global community
The message that all people have the right to liberty is as important as ever.
SALT LAKE CITY — When I was a foreign correspondent in Africa and Asia, the most valued part of my kit after my portable typewriter was a little shortwave radio. It was my link to the outside world in the remotest parts of those continents. Across the static over thousands of miles, I would tune in each night, when reception was better, to the news from Voice of America - its rousing familiar introductory chords momentarily stirring pangs of homesickness - to get a trusted briefing on what was happening in America and elsewhere in the world.
Years later, when I served as director of VOA, my admiration for it was only heightened by my association with the talented journalists, foreign service officers, and expatriates from various lands who so carefully gathered the news and broadcast it around the globe in a multitude of tongues. Though it was not directed internally to an American audience, Scotty Reston, the famous New York Times columnist, told me that it was his favorite newscast and that he listened to it every night on a shortwave radio.
Today the typewriter is an anachronism, supplanted by the laptop computer, and many have abandoned shortwave radio in favor of television and more modern methods of communication such as Internet websites.
There is a question as to whether there is any longer a critical mass for shortwave listening, and whether VOA and the other government radio stations have outlived their usefulness. Their heyday was in the cold war, and that is long since gone.
The methods of delivery may change, but the subversive message sent to not-yet-free nations - that all men and women have the right to liberty - is as important as ever.
We are engaged in a war against terrorism that, since 9/11, President Bush has warned will be long. It requires force of arms but is also a war of ideas. With the lands of Islam as the heartland of this war, it is understandable that the focus of institutions like VOA, whether the message be delivered by satellite television, or shortwave, or FM radio, should be directed at them. Sadly this means that language services beamed elsewhere are being cut or abandoned, so that broadcasting to Iran and the Arab countries of the Middle East in their own languages can be increased.
One of the casualties is English- language broadcasting to many parts of the world (except Africa). This is unfortunate because even in countries whose native language is not English, English is often the language used by the elite and the leadership, who are especially desirable targets for VOA's programming.
Other language broadcasts by radio to be cut are Croatian, Turkish, Thai, Greek, and Georgian. Radio broadcasts to go, but which will be continued on TV, are Albanian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Serbian, Russian, and Hindi.
The budget proposed for US international broadcasting in the coming financial year is $671.9 million, actually about 4.3 percent more than the budget in fiscal year 2006. This is a pittance compared to the billions being spent on military operations against terrorists. The ideal would be a budget that could encompass the needs for broadcasting to Islamic lands but still maintain English programs for lower priority but nonetheless important regions. Ironically, China Radio International has just cranked up a new FM transmitter in Kenya beaming Chinese, Swahili, and English to African audiences. Also broadcasting in English is the Voice of Iran. Al-Jazeera has a round-the-clock TV channel in English.
The New York Times reports that "with the retreat of Voice of America from the international market for news delivery in English," a Berlin radio station long used by VOA will be taken over in April by National Public Radio, broadcasting programs like "Car Talk" and "Fresh Air." The Times says NPR seeks to become a respected global voice.
If the war of arms against terrorists is likely to be long, so is the war of words. As we have seen in Iraq, the terrorists have mastered the most modern technology for disseminating their message. We must look beyond the suicide bombers of today, who may be beyond reason. We must reason with the next generation now undergoing brainwashing in the madrassahs, or schools of the Islamic lands.
Nor can the US ignore the rest of the world. Even America's friends must not be taken for granted. They, as well as foes, must hear American policies explained, and America's values and principles reasserted.
In these challenging times, America's voice to the world should be strengthened, not diminished.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as a director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration.