Keep the Voice of America speaking loud and clear
BOSTON — These are challenging times for the various government broadcasting entities charged with telling the American story abroad.
First, there is plenty of competition for the ears and eyes of targeted audiences. Britain's BBC is a primary international broadcaster. A string of other governments from Germany to France and China to Iran are in the business of explaining their policies and cultures over the air waves to the widest audience they can reach.
Second, the technology for communicating is changing. Though short-wave radio still reaches millions, there is greater use of much more costly television, and the Internet, to reach mass audiences.
Third, US government broadcasters are beset by budget problems as they are called upon to ramp up programs to newly-important audiences such as those in Iran and throughout the Arab world.
Here I must proclaim some loyalties that do not make me an entirely dispassionate commentator.
I have long been an admirer of the Voice of America (VOA), the flagship of the family of US government broadcasting operations. While a foreign correspondent, VOA was a personal informational lifeline for me in many countries where the truth was difficult to come by. In Africa I watched peasant farmers cluster around their village's single short-wave radio to tune in to VOA from America. In China I marveled as hotel workers listened earnestly to the VOA's "special English" programs – English spoken slowly and with a limited vocabulary – that taught large numbers of Chinese to use the English language.
Years later, while serving as VOA director, I was moved by the messages that reached me from listeners living in dictatorial countries pleading to keep the VOA's uncensored news of America and the world coming to them, even though they sometimes listened at great peril.
Afterward, I chaired a presidential commission to weigh the post-cold war utility of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the government radio programs that produced unique programs for Eastern Europe and Russia, respectively. The commission decided their mission should continue. Still later, I chaired a bipartisan congressional commission that launched Radio Free Asia. And, as a final disclosure of any conflict, I must record that my wife was a senior staff member at Radio Martí, the US government radio that broadcasts to Cuba.
Confession complete, I can now freely urge Congress to be bold and imaginative about the work of the government radios as it currently considers the $668 million requested annual budget for them, $178 million of it scheduled for VOA. Clearly, the image of America is sullied in various countries around the world today, particularly in Islamic lands. So surely the projection of an accurate picture of America, its people, and its policies should have high priority. The funds requested to keep the radios telling America's story is a pittance compared with the enormous spending on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Specifically at risk in the budget requested is VOA's broadcasting in English and in other languages to several countries. These cuts, amounting to $26 million, have been made to enable redirection of programming to Iran and the Middle East. Nobody can question that need, but it should not be undertaken at the cost of other programming that has proved effective. There is still a huge English-language audience for VOA, not the least among leaders and elites who speak English in countries where it is not the predominant language. That is why I have joined with other former VOA directors to petition Congress to restore the eliminated funding. While it is also true that the audience for shortwave broadcasting may be declining with the advent of new technologies, officials point out that more than 300 million people, particularly in Asia, still listen to shortwave radio.
Public diplomacy, in which the radios play a significant role, requires that the United States communicate with its friends who have stood by it, as well as audiences more hostile in time of crisis.
Thus Congress should restore the cuts that have been made in the radios' budget for the coming fiscal year. However it would not be unreasonable for Congress to order an examination of the five government radio services to see whether there are economies of scale that might be made and overlapping functions that could be streamlined.
Bureaucratic rivalries should not hinder the mission prescribed for VOA when it was launched in 1942 to broadcast to Nazi Germany: "The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth."
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as VOA director in the Reagan administration.