When Washington officials set up a shortwave German-language broadcasting operation in 1942 to combat Nazi propaganda, few could have imagined that over the next 70 years it would grow into one of the world’s most prestigious broadcasting operations.
After its birth in World War II to combat fascism, Voice of America (VOA) shortwave radio went on to confront communism in the cold war and now Islamist extremism in the Al Qaeda era, spreading the gospel of freedom and remaining true to its founding promise: “The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.”
With specially targeted sister radio broadcasts all over the world, VOA has become the jewel in America’s public diplomacy effort. The US government’s international broadcasting operation is estimated to reach 187 million people in 59 languages.
But many Americans are unaware of it – and of proposed changes that are in prospect.
These days, radio, especially shortwave, is not only facing the competition of television in countries around the world but also the challenge from the Internet and social media. Western government-supported radio services such as the British BBC have been having a hard time of it with budget cuts and staff layoffs, while countries like Russia, Iran, and China have been spending millions of dollars to expand their state-sponsored media. Little Qatar has made great audience inroads with its Al Jazeera TV operation.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the part-time board headed by distinguished journalist Walter Isaacson that oversees US government broadcasting, believes all this demands a major shake-up and streamlining. The BBG’s strategic plan calls for “innovation and integration,” and reaching an audience of 216 million by 2016. The BBG has hired Deloitte consultants to work out the details.
There has been understandable questioning from some of the 4,000 journalists and foreign-language broadcasters and technicians who man the radio operation.
An earlier BBG decision to shut down VOA’s Mandarin and Cantonese services to China, in favor of TV and social media, produced a firestorm not only among VOA staffers but also with members of Congress who support VOA and preside over its budget (and who temporarily blocked the move). Though shortwave radio may be in eclipse, there are still remote areas of the world dependent on it.
A critical question to be resolved is the overlap between the worldwide VOA and some of the other government radio services.
VOA offers global news, explains US policy, and highlights American culture. The other services are designed to give news of their own nations to people still living in lands without a free press.
The US government’s Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa provide tailored coverage to the Islamic world, which is clearly vital. Radio and TV Martí to Cuba have been less successful and might reasonably be considered for downsizing or closure. Radio Free Europe and Liberty were products of the cold war, but many aspects of Eastern Europe and Russia are still hardly glowing examples of democracy.
Radio Free Asia was the brainchild of now-Vice President Biden, long a supporter of the radio broadcasts. I chaired a joint presidential and congressional commission set up in 1991 to consider the project. We reported: “The United States should do this because it is in its national interest.” Given China’s current muscle-flexing and other developments in Asia, stifling Radio Free Asia’s broadcasts seems unwise.
The major changes being planned should get the careful attention of legislators, journalists, and practi-tioners of public diplomacy. Retuning America’s voice may be desirable. It should be handled with care.
John Hughes, former editor of the Monitor, was director of Voice of America in the Reagan administration and later chaired two presidential and congressional commissions recommending the direction of US government international broadcasting. He writes a biweekly column.