In the war of ideas, Uncle Sam’s voice must be heard

With a new board, government broadcasters like Voice of America could thrive again.

During the cold war, radio networks like the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe (RFE), and Radio Liberty (RL) played an important role in communist nations’ march to freedom. 

Today, in the war of ideas against Al Qaeda and other disciples of Islamist extremism, the US government’s international broadcasting operation is targeting Muslim and other audiences in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a host of other lands where terrorists breed. 

The new age demands new technology, not only the latest forms of radio transmission, but TV, and Internet platforms delivering content, like President Obama’s address to Muslims last June, in real time to computers and mobile phones.

In earlier years, the government radios came under the loose mantle of the United States Information Agency. When USIA was dismantled in 1999  and its remnants transferred to the State Department, the radios came under the authority of a new entity, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG provides oversight for all the government’s nonmilitary international broadcasting. Today the lineup includes not only VOA and RFE/RL but also Radio and TV Martí to Cuba, Radio Free Asia to a slew of Asian countries, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa to Arab countries, and Radio Farda to Iran.

Though the BBG has had some successes, it has in recent years become highly controversial. Established as a nonpartisan entity, it has at times been highly partisan. Not satisfied with mere oversight, it intruded like a collective CEO, shifting budgets and dictating which language services should run and not run. VOA’s longtime Arab-language service was canceled on grounds that Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, broadcasting mainly pop music, covered the Arab world effectively. VOA’s Russian language service was canceled 12 days before Russia invaded Georgia. VOA’s English-language broadcasting was sharply curtailed. Eventually, membership of the eight-person board dwindled to the point where reaching a quorum, and thus the board’s utility, was problematic. Clearly, a shake-up was desirable. 

The good news is that the Obama administration recently opted for a clean sweep. It has nominated a new, fully bipartisan board with eight members. The chairman is to be Walter Isaacson, a respected former CEO of CNN and editor of Time magazine. The Senate must confirm them.

The Senate recently approved a budget of $746 million for all broadcasting in the board’s coming financial year, $204 million for the flagship VOA. But the Senate and House, in a report accompanying approval, spoke sharply of the need to maintain key language services, especially VOA English and various other language services, which the outgoing board had wanted to cut. 

Once confirmed, the new board faces some unenviable challenges:

•It must determine whether, with the rapid growth of private Arab TV networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the government’s troubled Alhurra is an effective competitor. 

•It must decide whether, in the light of small audiences in Cuba, Radio Martí and TV Martí should continue to exist in their present form. 

•It must tackle the problem of overlapping broadcasting with other government entities. The State Department is pursuing its own radio programming to counter Taliban inroads in Afghanistan. The much better financed Department of Defense has a huge “strategic communication” plan – public diplomacy. 

•It must determine the appropriate balance between radio broadcasting, which is still the informational lifeline for millions, and television, which has become the new provider for many in the Arab world. There is also the powerful technology of the Internet’s social media to engage in a dialogue with a vast audience of friends and foes around the globe.

With new voices on the BBG, it should be given a chance to succeed.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was director of the VOA in the Reagan administration. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's print weekly edition.

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