1. How does U.S. broadcasting advance public diplomacy priorities for the U.S.?
U.S. international broadcasting was established on a simple idea – that the objective truth serves the national interest and is central to democracy and freedom. That idea continues to underlie our work. Today, U.S. sponsored broadcasts on radio, TV, the Internet and mobile devices allow populations to learn the facts, share their experiences, and become participants in a global community.
We give citizens in China, Vietnam, Iran, Burma and elsewhere access to news and information about what’s happening in their own countries and overseas. We fight those who attempt to jam our signals or censor the Internet, with aggressive circumvention efforts.
U.S. international broadcasting also provides the kinds of stories that are censored or distorted within domestic media outlets. In the case of the political events in Egypt and the Middle East, for example, Radio Free Asia focused mainly on China’s reaction to the demonstrations, including the government ban on news of the unrest as well as Chinese cyber activists’ calls for similar demonstrations.
There are daily examples of local coverage that supports democratic ideals. RFA’s Tibetan service provided extensive coverage of the exile elections beginning last year in May with broadcasts via the Internet, satellite television, and shortwave radio of a Kalon Tripa candidates’ forum. Tibetans living within China’s Tibetan regions also posed pre-recorded questions to the candidates during the forum. The event was part of a series of seven town-hall-style debates in Dharamsala and Bylakuppe, India, with general exile candidates, capping off eight months of interviews, profiles, and discussions about the race.
2. What do you perceive to be the biggest challenge to U.S. international broadcasting today?
The speed of the changing communications platforms. We need to do more with less. We need to take a fresh look at the complicated organizational structure. Establishing a rational organization of our five networks would help us better use our limited resources. It is critical that we maximize our transmission resources, to build up our multimedia capability, in order to overcome the numerous external challenges of distribution to inhospitable countries, online censorship, threats to press freedom and jamming.
The rapid rise of cell and mobile phones is nearly equal to the drop in shortwave. We need to actively rethink our broad use of shortwave and use a greater mix of technologies that work for our audiences. If an audience doesn’t use shortwave, we can’t afford to cling to it out of historic idealism. In places where shortwave continues to be popular in Africa, and elsewhere, we remain committed to reaching our audience on that platform.
Over 20 million people visited VOA’s website in March 2011. It is time to modernize the Smith Mundt Act and give us the latitude to engage our audiences in conversation with Americans and be unfettered in an era where our news products are widely available online.
3. What do you perceive to be the biggest area for potential growth or opportunity with U.S. international broadcasting today?
The decentralized commercial news media worldwide does less and less original high quality reporting. The area for the greatest growth potential is audience engagement that capitalizes on our traditional broadcast platforms and outstanding journalism. We need to freshen programming to appeal to the large youthful audiences and integrate our radio and T.V. content more fully with the new social media, mobile and online tools.
We also have opportunities to better reach untapped markets with improvement of our distribution network. We are taking a careful look in places like Ethiopia and the Congo to see in what ways we can improve our reach and impact.
We helped VOA launch a new initiative using a cloud-based multimedia platform called Citizen Global. VOA’s journalists are taking considerable personal risk to travel to remote villages and document the use of rape as a tactic of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. VOA is creating a record of stories that would otherwise not reach the outside world. We are using new methods of acquiring content – marrying our traditional radio and T.V. journalistic content with citizen journalist accounts, eye-witness interviews and third-party crowd sourcing. VOA’s Congo Story: War, Women and Rape helps end the isolation of victims by documenting the details of this tragedy in an interactive web platform that will help drive awareness and accountability.
The social media site includes other credible news sources, and reports and analyses from international organizations and research institutes. The moving documentary details gathered from this unique project will be shared across the VOA’s traditional radio and T.V assets, online platforms and language services and made available to the other BBG networks. Once tested, this low-cost pilot project with crowd-sourcing, traditional journalism and social networking will be considered for future development.
4. What is your top priority as a Board member this year?
Giving our networks the tools they need to succeed in the marketplace is my first priority. We manage an incredibly complex global broadcasting operation. Some of our infrastructure is held together with proverbial duct tape and shoestring. I think most people understand that U.S. international broadcasting operates in both rudimentary and sophisticated media markets.
There is no way for us to successfully engage our audiences if we can’t be on the platforms people use (F.M., T.V., Internet) or have the visual appeal of comparable news sources. To do so, we have to use our limited resources as efficiently as possible, update and integrate our systems, and take a fresh look at our programs vis-à-vis the interests of our increasingly youthful audiences.
We are planning to roll out a comprehensive strategy that encompasses organizational restructuring as well as actionable steps we can take on the ground to allow our broadcasts to gain new audiences and be successful in the field.
5. How is U.S. international broadcasting currently taking advantage of new technology to advance its goals?
As an organization, we are platform agnostic. We strive to be on the media that our audiences prefer. We don’t have unlimited funds so we have to venture into new tools with existing resources. Our networks are having noteworthy success with SMS headlines in places like Afghanistan and Kenya and are exploiting social media tools in other places like Iran and Russia. Voice of America’s Russian Service has rolled out a new iPhone app that does more than just deliver the latest news and information – it lets citizen journalists use their mobile devices to upload and share short reports, photos or video about key events in their target region.
RFE’s Radio Azadi partnered with Afghan mobile service provider Etisalat to launch an interactive SMS news service allowing mobile phone users in Afghanistan to subscribe to free news updates and emergency alerts from the station. Five months after its launch, the new service has already attracted over 200,000 subscribers.
One of the most important ongoing efforts for us is the research, development and implementation of web anti-censorship tools. In a number of important markets for U.S. international broadcasting, such as China and Iran, our audiences face ongoing and sophisticated online censorship. The tools and techniques we have fostered through a collection of partnerships with outside organizations are critical to breaking down these “Great Walls” on the Internet.
Michael P. Meehan currently serves as President of Blue Line Strategic Communications, Inc. and as Senior Vice President at Virilion, a digital media company. He also served as the first President of BGR Public Relations, LLC. For over two decades, Meehan served in senior roles for U.S. Senators John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, Maria Cantwell and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, two presidential campaigns campaigns, two U.S. House offices and congressional campaigns in 25 states. Mr. Meehan earned a B.A. in political science from Bates College.
Meehan serves as Co-Chair of the BBG Communications and Outreach Committee, Vice Chair of the Board of Radio Free Asia and as Co-Chair of the Strategy and Budget Committee.