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Radio Liberty Pals, by Saint-Aniol

Giving New Life to America's Voice with Conviction

Jan 25, 2016

by

The Voice of America and the U.S. international broadcasting community as a whole could use structural reform and more money.

But that’s not why they appear to be failing miserably.

No. The real failure is that they lack conviction. And without that, they will continue to appear irrelevant.

What do I mean by conviction?

It is not a question of mission. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA and the other U.S.-financed stations, has a perfectly fine mission statement: “To inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

Nor am I referring to the VOA Charter, which calls for objective news, diverse American opinion, and explanations of U.S. policy. 

No. What I mean is that VOA and the other institutions lack leadership that truly believes in the mission and the Charter and conveys to employees the importance of doing so consistently and enthusiastically.

During the Cold War, this was done. The language services needed little prodding. Journalists staffing the English-language central newsrooms understood how to select news items of the most relevance to target audiences.

When I worked at Radio Free Europe, there was also a policy director who, on a daily basis, pointed out the most compelling commentaries from a variety of reputable global sources for adaptation for target audiences.

The key was that everyone worked together for a single goal – delivering news and information ignored or distorted by the audiences’ domestic media.

But those days are gone.

Over time, bureaucratic interests have begun to reign supreme. Since the creation of the BBG, a group of part-time political appointees, the senior permanent staff has taken control. And that control has lacked conviction. Why? Because these senior staffers spend most of their time trying to appease Congress and interest groups with irreconcilable differences – an impossible task. Thus the main priority of executives has been preserving their own positions, even increasing their numbers at the expense of journalistic and programming staff.  And those workers, lacking proper guidance, have been left rudderless, often producing inferior material while their immediate managers fight for dollars and survival.

At the same time, VOA and the other broadcasters have faced the challenge of moving beyond simple shortwave and mediumwave transmissions to reach audiences. They have had to add television, FM, cellular, and online applications. This focus on technology has occurred at the expense of good journalism and innovative programming.

Now, critics lament the sorry state of official U.S. international media. They maintain that we are losing a supposed information war, and failing to meet the challenges of ISIS and Putin and China’s great censorship wall.

Debates rage about what to do: re-arrange the bureaucracy, create a CEO, whether to have one governing board or two, whether the State Department or some new agency should take over.

I remain convinced it is time to consolidate all the outlets under a single roof to eliminate duplication of services and to avoid the competition that goes on between the entities for dollars and political support. In the past I believed this would be best done under the umbrella of VOA, the oldest and largest of the institutions.


I support the idea of a new, unified non-governmental organization that operates under the same principles as the VOA Charter.

But I now have to agree with those critics who argue that centralization under government control will only exacerbate the current problems.

Unlike many of these critics, however, I do not think the solution lies in the reform legislation proposed by Congressmen Royce and Engel.

No, in my view the time is right to shut down VOA and the other Federal (Radio and TV Marti) and non-Federal entities (RFE-RL, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Network). I support the idea of a new, unified non-governmental organization that operates under the same principles as the VOA Charter. Since such an organization would be unlikely to receive commercial backing, it must be funded by Congressional appropriations.

Would Congress do this? I can’t be certain. But legislators have never shown any reluctance in financing the non-Federal outlets. Even the proposed Royce-Engel measure would continue to fund them.

Who would run such a new organization? Here’s an idea: have the Deans of the country’s top journalism schools recommend qualified candidates for its director, much like the American Bar Association vets potential Supreme Court nominees. The President would nominate and the Senate would confirm this director, who would serve for a five-year term, renewable one time only. There would be no Board with executive powers like the BBG, but there could be an advisory panel of international affairs, public diplomacy, and journalism experts.

But no entity will have any chance of success if it does not have leaders with conviction who hire staff who share their sense of mission in today’s challenging environment. And even then, the result may not be all that political leaders want. Today’s global media market is rife with disinformation. And as Anne Applebaum noted in a recent Washington Post column, disinformation “creates cynicism and apathy… There’s so much garbage information out there, it’s impossible to know what is true.”

Still, as Public Diplomacy Council President Adam Clayton Powell III suggested last October at a meeting of the BBG, this does not mean we should simply give up:

To state the obvious, not everything is true; some things are provably false. Not everything is equivalent; some things are repulsive to humanity… Your challenge and your opportunity is to state this clearly and forcefully, every day, every hour.”

That is what I mean by conviction! It isn’t partisan. It isn’t subjective. And it doesn’t conflict with the principles of ethical journalism.

Photo by Saint-Aniol | CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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5 COMMENT(S)

Giving New Life to America's Voice with Conviction

I work in Africa as a Radio Technician. Because of my tradecraft, the number one question I hear regularly from Locals is what happened to VOA. Because radio doesn't produce the metrics that the Internet does, managers love metrics, we stopped focusing on our best tool for influencing world opinion and China (even ISIS) has filled the gaps. Radio is still a viable medium; it requires no infrastructure so it’s versatile at meeting quickly changing challenges. It’s hard for Governments to track radio listeners, so it can reach deep into suppressed societies. A problem with Government bureaucracy is that they love to spend large amounts of money on new and unproven technologies, then having spent that much money, they can’t abandon that technology for market accepted technology that works. Consider things like Satellite Radio, World Space was a great idea, but no longer exist. Satellite Radio in a car has never really caught on. Both suffer from the fact that broadcast radio is still the most cost effective technology for reaching the masses. VOA Shortwave Radio still has a place in the world and needs to return to the robustness it had 25 years ago touching little 3rd World villages in every corner of the world with programming relevant to all age groups in the region and letting the would know that America is a presence in the world not to be taken for granted. We should not only keep VOA, but expand it. Congress should fully fund VOA and mandate that all points on the America political spectrum have access to providing its programming. VOA radio is the most cost effect method of influencing minds around the world. When things happen in the world, people everywhere need to be reassured that America is still there and cares.

A Very Bold Idea...

A commend my former boss for advancing the boldest idea I have read on reforming U.S.-funded overseas broadcasting. I think it is worthy of consideration. Because it is so bold, many will find much to criticize. Who knew. There are many other paths to reform -- such as consolidation of the broadcasters to avoid redundancy, sharing content, and getting rid of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and replacing it with a director and staff to oversea these "entities" (similar to the Director of National Intelligence, I suppose, except on a much, much smaller, doable, cost-effective scale). Alex does have a point about technology though: radio still works in many places and too much video on the website makes it hard to download in many target countries overseas.

Having lived and worked in

Having lived and worked in Africa for VOA for nearly eight years, I agree with Mark Lukinovich that radio is the most effective medium for reaching many audiences there. But with larger populations in major cities, VOA embraced local FM over shortwave for reaching bigger audiences. And with cellphones and TV increasingly popular in many urban centers of Africa, VOA has moved to feed those media. But with the same budget and the same (or smaller) staffs, it's tough to be all things to all outlets and not lose out on quality and consistency.

I also thank my former colleague Mike Moravitz for his comments. It's an interesting question: would VOA have been better off remaining radio and web only and not delving into TV and online video? NPR seems to have thrived as a radio and web operation in the U.S.

A thought provoking proposal worthy of consideration

Alex Belida is right when he says that VOA and other U.S. international broadcast outlets have lost their sense of purpose, their motivation and thus their reason for being. Having worked at VOA for nearly four decades including, until recently, as director of the VOA Newsroom, I can attest to the fact that senior managers that I encountered at VOA and the non-governmental entities seemed more intent on vying for influence and budgets than focusing on the overall purpose of international broadcasting and how best to achieve it. In my last years at VOA there was a growing sense of being under siege and of floundering over what to do to survive.

I used to believe it was possible to be a news organization and also a government entity. Now, I am not so sure and maybe it is time to dismantle it all and start fresh. However, I am not sure the political establishment cares enough to take bold action. Still, the idea is food for thought and worthy of further discussion.

Bold Action is What We Need

Sonja Pace writes: “…I am not sure the political establishment cares enough to take bold action.” And another former VOA colleague, Dan Robinson, in a comment on my call for radical change for USIB (on Kim Elliot’s recent CPD Blog post on impact), asserts: “there is little to zero chance of this happening anytime soon.”

They are probably right. But at a time when there seems to be uniform agreement that U.S. government financed media like VOA are failing, is it really worthwhile engaging in mere organizational tinkering with the same old entities? Or letting things remain the same, perhaps with a few new leaders?

Given that a certain segment of our Congress is in favor of closing down government agencies and privatizing the services they provide (FAA, for example), isn’t this in fact the best time to consider privatizing USIB? By doing so, the way would be cleared for what I hope would be a whole new team dedicated to serving the information needs of foreign audiences and the interests of the United States. As I envision it, this new team and new non-governmental entity would do so by reporting not just the basic news of the day and features on life in the U.S., but by engaging in serious journalism that exposes political corruption, human rights abuses and propaganda lies worldwide.

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