1. How does US broadcasting advance public diplomacy priorities for the US?
Throughout U.S. international broadcasting’s long history, the tools and goals have been consistent: delivering accurate, reliable and credible reporting that opens minds and stimulates debate in closed societies – especially where local media fails to inform and empower its citizens. The International Broadcasting Act finds that “Open communication of information and ideas among the peoples of the world contributes to international peace and stability and the promotion of such communication is in the interests of the United States.”
Take a quick look at the recent coverage of the seismic events in the Middle East by Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. You will understand that audiences there have come to rely on our broadcasters for even-handed and comprehensive coverage of the protests and upheaval as they unfolded.
From the beginning of the democratic movement in January, Alhurra and Radio Sawa’s newsrooms received calls from opposition leaders and citizen protesters wanting to share information. Representatives of Egyptian opposition parties – including Wafd, Ghad and the Movement for Democratic Change – sought to appear on Alhurra because they knew people were watching and listening. Alhurra’s coverage was quoted around the world, including by CNN and a leading regional paper Al Hayat, wrote that “Alhurra was distinguished for its live and continuous coverage of the protest…”
Results of a February poll of Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria showed that 25 percent of respondents tuned into Alhurra to follow the uprising in Egypt. The telephone survey was conducted during the network’s 18 days of live comprehensive coverage of the historic events in Egypt. This is a testament to Alhurra’s excellent journalists who covered this story, despite threats against them. Our correspondents were in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria providing viewers with a firsthand account of the stories of the protesters and their unwavering desire for reform. Alhurra also brought the American perspective on the crisis; both the official Administration position as well as reaction from diverse voices throughout the public policy community.
Providing reliable, accurate and balanced news and information clearly fulfills our legislated mission and serves the interests of the United States.
2. What do you perceive to be the biggest challenge to US international broadcasting today?
U.S. international broadcasting began in 1942 during World War II and has evolved over time through a series of initiatives framed by world events. While our mission is unchanged we are an assemblage of disparate parts that would benefit from a more rational structure that eliminates duplication and overlap and clarifies the distinct role of each network brand. We face the challenges of reaching audiences in authoritarian countries and engaging the world in conversation about democracy and U.S. policies and institutions.
We need the right content, to reach the right target audience, using the right technology. The world is infinitely more complex then when I was the Director of Radio Liberty in Munich in the late 1980’s. It is our challenge to customize our broadcasts for each marketplace in order to be as effective as possible. This is no small endeavor and requires very careful research on the market conditions and audience preferences.
3. What do you perceive to be the biggest area for potential growth or opportunity with US international broadcasting today?
U.S. international broadcasting needs to reach critical markets in new ways and continue to combat longstanding obstacles of jamming, censorship and lack of distribution within authoritarian countries. When you look at all the planks of the mission of U.S. international broadcasting as defined by Congress, there are many markets where there are growth opportunities. In places like Central Asia, if we could secure local distribution, we could expand our reach and impact exponentially.
To be relevant to our audience we need to address the issues of concern to them. That may mean learning English or providing features on business, science, agriculture and health to improve their economic opportunities and well-being. There is a well documented youth bulge in the populations of the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere. Our distribution and programming needs to be positioned to be accessible and appealing to them.
4. What is your top priority as a Board member this year?
We began a comprehensive strategic review in September 2010 and its completion – culminating in a new Strategic Plan – is my top priority. We are actively engaging those within in our organizations as well as from noted outside experts for insights on the political and media factors shaping BBG broadcast environments, to understand current broadcasting strategy and effort, and to think expansively about future directions, not just for the next year or two but five years out and beyond, to the extent our data and analysis provide clarity.
As the Strategic Review progresses, the regional reviews is where the rubber will meet the road. Out of these assessments, specific strategies will begin to emerge. As noted in the initial guidance for the Strategic Review provided to the entities, BBG staff will begin a rolling write-up of findings from the regional looks as the foundation for the new strategic plan and will share drafts with all concerned.
From Cuba to China, we are making a careful study of ways we can be more successful.
5. How is US international broadcasting currently taking advantage of new technology to advance its goals?
As events have unfolded in the Middle East, it has been exciting to hear about a new wave of audience engagement with Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, our Arabic language broadcasts. We also see the explosive popularity of VOA’s satire Parazit with exponential growth of its fans on Facebook as the program is heralded as the “Daily Show of Iran.”
At the same time, we can’t forget that traditional radio and television technologies are overwhelmingly the preferred media in our broadcast markets. Of our worldwide weekly audience of 165 million people, just five million people are on new media. In a place like Iran, satellite TV is widespread and 94% of the population uses TV weekly for news, compared to 20% weekly use of the Internet for news. In Afghanistan, where U.S. international broadcasting reaches more than 35% of the population, weekly use of radio for news is 71% and 38% of TV for news is 38%. Meanwhile, BBG networks reach 38 million listeners via shortwave radio, concentrated in distinct markets (including Nigeria, Afghanistan, Burma, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe). In the best of circumstances, our programming and distribution are reflective of the audience media use. This is as true for radio and TV as it should be for online and mobile platforms.
S. Enders Wimbush is Senior Director for Foreign Policy and Civil Society at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. From 1987-93, he served as Director of Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany. Mr. Wimbush has also worked for the Hudson Institute, where he was senior vice president, Booz Allen Hamilton, Science Applications International Corporation, the Rand Corporation as a consultant, strategist and analyst of international security issues, and for Runzheimer International as director of communications.
Earlier Mr. Wimbush directed the Society for Central Asian Studies in Oxford, England. In addition to dozens of policy studies for both the public and private sectors, Mr. Wimbush is the author or editor of seven books, including several authoritative histories of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and many articles on international strategy and security competition in scholarly, professional and popular media.
Mr. Wimbush serves as Chair of the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee as well as Chair of the Board of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc.