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The Incredible Shrinking Voice of America

Mar 23, 2006


In the classic 1957 film "The Incredible Shrinking Man," the character played by actor Grant Williams is enveloped by curious fog while anchored on his small boat. Within days, his clothes begin to loosen and he gets smaller by the hour. "I was continuing to shrink, to become…what? Would others follow me?" he wondered.

Yes, others would follow. The Voice of America would follow.

The VOA is shrinking almost by the hour, from an odd cloud in the Cohen Building in downtown Washington, D.C. The molecule-shrinking mist is identified by today's technology as coming from down the hall in the Cohen Building, wafting into the VOA's studios from the nearby offices of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the VOA, and wants to cut its English language "News Now" program service.

"For what?" the Voice of America might ask.

"To help pay for a new VOA television service for Iran," is the answer.

"Can you imagine the BBC cutting its English language news?"

"Of course not. The BBC will go on the air next year with its huge new Arabic television service to the Middle East, but it will cut ten other language services to help pay for it, not English. The World Service radio in English won't be touched."

"So why can't the VOA pay for its new television service to Iran and keep me, its English service, like the Brits have theirs?"

"The BBG thinks the audience for English language shortwave broadcasts is too small. They feel it's obsolete and a relic of the Cold War, and something's got to go to pay the Middle East broadcasting bill."

"Well, isn't the BBG a relic of the Cold War? Why not eliminate the BBG too, since it's a relic of the Cold War like me?"

"You have a point, VOA. But some would say that the BBG really came into being only in 1999, to oversee all U.S. non-military broadcasts when they were thrown together after the U.S. Information Agency was disbanded. Others would argue that it's just another acronym to replace the Cold War era Board for International Broadcasting, which administered grants and acted as a firewall to protect Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty from government influence."

"Let me get this straight. The firewall is to keep me protected. And if the BBG is to administer grants and act as a firewall, why are they making program decisions? Does it really make sense to eliminate the flagship service of the VOA, while others, like Russia, China, and even France, are just starting English television news channels so they can tout themselves to the world in English? Have I left anyone out?"


"Of course. And after several delays, it looks as if Al-Jazeera's English news channel will finally start broadcasting in May. It has a big new help wanted ad in The Washington Post listing a bunch of jobs it needs to fill for its Washington, D.C. bureau."

"So when the VOA's English "News Now" program service goes dark, some of its staff may wind up across town working for Al-Jazeera?"

"You can bet on it. Now let me make another point. Some decisions don't stand the test of time. You mentioned the U.S. Information Agency that went belly up after the Cold War. Things would have been a lot different after 9/11 if that old war horse had been around to communicate abroad. Like the USIA, it took decades to build VOA English, and once it's gone, it will take another decade to build it up again. And next month National Public Radio replaces the VOA in Berlin, Germany, so folks can drive the Autobahn and listen to "Fresh Air" and "Car Talk," and not to me, "News Now." My old boss, Kevin Klose, heads up NPR, and pretty soon he'll own Berlin. I've been broadcasting in Berlin since after World War II, and now I'm stuck in the Cohen Building. I'm getting misty."

"Cheer up. I just thought of something. Now that satellite radio is becoming so popular in the U.S., why does VOA "News Now" have to be shortwave, or medium wave or FM? Why can't it be satellite radio in cars, on iPods and all that?"

"Right, and that's not even thinking out of the box, which is what the BBG ought to be doing. But listen, I don't think I want to be in this movie any more. The incredible shrinking man wound up living in a doll house, then a match box, and was chased by his cat.”

“Not to worry, VOA. You give the master class in winning wars of ideas. Just wait them out.”


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My eulogy for Voice of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy retreats, Mr. Harb wins by Raid Mohammad

This death sentene invoked bitter-sweet memories. I was first introduced to VOA by my father sometime between late 1968 and early 1969. These were very turbulent years for my family and countless many other Iraqi families. The Baath party had just taken over the government. I had just finished elementary school.

It was always my dream to attend Baghdad College (a Jesuit 7th through 12th secondary school). BC was a stone�s throw from my home. It was by far the most prestigious school in Iraq. I couldn�t wait to finish elementary school so I could enroll in BC. I still vividly remember playing for hours on the lush soccer fields and the many other sports fields. And I also can vividly remember how pleased I was when my father informed me that I had passed the admission test and that I was accepted at BC.

However, this joy was very short lived. By July 17, 1968, there was a new regime and my father had just lost his job. I was old enough to figure out that my mother�s teaching salary was not enough to support us and also pay my tuition at BC. But my parents assured me that they would do whatever it takes to keep me in the school of my dream. And a dream it still is. Because not all the money on this earth was going to make it happen. Before the school year had even started, the Baath government decided to take the school over. The new government ordered that the Jesuits were to be deported from Iraq.

In contrast, my father was ordered not to leave Iraq; he was put under house arrest. My father had always enjoyed traveling. As a journalist, he also traveled for living. He was always in the air traveling to cover events and to interview kings and presidents. Now, in a cage, his short-wave radio became his only window to the world. With more time to spend with me, he introduced me to VOA. I literally used to stay up until dawn listening to VOA broadcasting in English. The broadcast in Arabic from Beirut concluded at around midnight and then immediately the English broadcast out of D.C. began.

Although my father was a night person, very often I outlasted him listing to VOA into the early hours of the morning. Through VOA, I came to know America better than my native-born American wife before I even stepped foot on American soil. I was the youngest person who traveled in many European countries in 1972 at the age of 14 and by myself. People used to think that I was an American tourist when I conversed with them in English.

As I was growing up in the midst of the Baath indoctrination of the seventies, one question always nagged at me; why do I think differently than the majority of my peers? Was there something wrong with me, or is it the other way around? I have no doubt that my father played a major role in influencing the way I think. I have no doubt that my extensive travel abroad also played a big role in shaping me. I also strongly believe that VOA played a big role in shaping me too. VOA was the only antidote to Baath indoctrination available to me during my growing years in Iraq.

The closure of BC had a big impact on me. But my new find had no less of an impact on me. Voice of America became my father�s solace just as it became mine. VOA's Arabic broadcast is only just another radio station in a very crowded spectrum. I believe that nothing echoes like the sound of "This is the Voice of America."

Twenty-five years ago I was only able to say God bless your soul, Dad, while eight thousand miles separated us. Tonight I found my self sobbing just the same for the loss of another mentor that I left behind twenty-five years ago in Iraq. God bless your soul, VOA.

Raid Mohammad
1417 Rosewood Ave
Austin, TX 78702
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USC and Mr. Snyder: Let's not

USC and Mr. Snyder: Let's not play fast and loose with the facts. The BBG initially came about in 1994, not 1999, as it replaced the Board for International Broadcasting. It was a product of a 1994 congressional act that reorganized USG international broadcasting and which brought it under one roof for the first time. The politics of this act were hugely important, and can teach us all lessons.

Yes, beforehand, VOA had been part and parcel of USIA. The 1994 law -- the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 -- provided for a BBG (overseeing, inter alia, VOA, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe) nominally under USIA but in practice virtually independent. This was a political deal that allowed USIA to save face but effectively lose authority. For this reason, the USIA leadership of the time opposed broadcasting reorganization: By weakening USIA, the 1994 Act made it even more vulnerable to the congressional hatchet, which is exactly what happened.

Still, the abolition of USIA in 1999 was a separate event. The Foreign Affairs Reform Restructuring Act of 1999 folded USIA into State and left BBG on its own. Sen. Helms and Sec'y Albright struck their deal, and the BBG's powerful constituency acquiesced because they saw more independence for the radios in the demise of USIA.

Don't let public diplomacy's "friends" try to rewrite this history. USIA disappeared in part because it lacked a leadership that failed to perceive, much less act on, these now seemingly obscure events of more than a decade ago. They treated the BIB and its successor, the BBG, as the enemy, not as allies in the common task of public diplomacy.

Those calling for a revitalization, a rethinking, of public diplomacy risk making the same mistake again. Start by getting the facts straight, and then do the politics. See the reality that was, and then we can begin to understand what is happening now. See the box first before proposing to think outside it.

Regarding the origin of the

Regarding the origin of the modern- day BBG, I stated ��some would say the BBG really came into being only in 1999, to oversee all U.S. non-military broadcasts when they were thrown together after the U.S. Information Agency was disbanded,� as opposed to the BBG's earlier more limited role. Most seem to agree that America�s public diplomacy efforts would have been better off with the USIA, than without it.

Mobile transmitting stations

Mobile transmitting stations broadcasting in the 550kHz to 1700kHz standard AM and 85mHz to 110Mhz FM bands would reach more people than those large, high-power shortwave stations do. Logic asks which kind of radio receiver can more people afford to own? And, by the way, who out there in the desert or jungle has a TV to watch USIS/Voice of America broadcasts?

I couldn't even imagine that

I couldn't even imagine that something like that could happen to VOA. I always watch their broadcasts though in Ukrainian. But how can it be that they don't have English service? It's a kind of nonesense, but from the article I see that it really took place.
And The Increadible Shrinking Man is a great movie. I found it at . but I forgot its title. Thanks for reminding of it. It's worth watching it over and over again.


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