1. How does U.S. broadcasting advance public diplomacy priorities for the U.S.?
First of all, it is very important to understand that U.S. international broadcasting is not public diplomacy like the State Department global outreach programs. Yes, broadcasting reaches beyond the heads of national governments to communicate directly with overseas publics, and yes, broadcasting operates in a manner consistent with U.S. foreign policy objectives. But broadcasting’s chief role is to serve as a free press, and to do accurate, credible journalism, and here it parts company with public diplomacy, which does advocacy. Broadcasting’s “message” is its provision of fact-based news and information. What the U.S. government implicitly communicates to the world through broadcasting is that we stand for freedom of expression, that we uphold the inherent rights of citizens worldwide to receive and impart information without restriction. Indeed, research by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) consistently shows that receiving reliable, relevant news and information is the number one reason audiences tune in. And I would add that the number one responsibility of the BBG is to safeguard the editorial integrity of the broadcasts against any party, including those inside our government that would seek to influence the coverage of the news and information.
2. What do you perceive to be the biggest challenge to U.S. international broadcasting today?
U.S. international broadcasting, like all global media, has to accommodate the rapidly evolving relationships consumers seek to have with media. This means two things. First, broadcasting has to provide audiences with the content they want the way they want it. Audiences using shortwave broadcasts are disappearing; most receive their news and information through AM, FM, TV, cell phones and the Internet. This is a real challenge when the highest priority countries like China, Russia, Cuba, and North Korea can relatively easily block these transmissions. Secondly, broadcasting has to accommodate audience demands to share their own reports and their reactions and ideas. So, it’s not just about the content broadcasting can deliver; it’s also about the engagement broadcasting can offer. The global media environment today is about the democratization of information. Traditional media mechanisms are not dead, even if many in the commercial sector are finding it hard to monetize their content. Great, well-sourced and edited content will always find an audience. But media outlets today have to share the platform with citizen journalists and bloggers. Everything changes when anyone with a mobile phone can film, photograph, and feed content on breaking events instantaneously into the global news stream.
3. What do you perceive to be the biggest area for potential growth or opportunity with US international broadcasting today?
In addition to meeting emerging audience demands for content and engagement that I just noted, I would highlight two major opportunities. The first is broadening service to under-served countries, and nowhere is this opportunity greater than in Africa. As a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, I traveled frequently to Africa, where I have seen endless potential for broadcasting to serve populations in need of every kind of information imaginable. Certainly it’s the news of the day, but it’s also information on health, maternal care, education, micro-business, agriculture, science, technology, the list goes on. It is for good reason that nearly 40 percent of U.S. International broadcasting’s worldwide audience is in Africa, but there is considerable room for growth in countries like Angola, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, among others. The second area of opportunity is breaking through almost complete government censorship to reach populations now denied knowledge by their governments. There are multiple offenders, including Iran, Russia, North Korea and Cuba. But the single largest violator is China. As a BBG member, I also made it a point to travel regularly to China. Every time I visited, I pressed the Chinese authorities to open up, allow Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to have more than token correspondents in the country, grant them access to local media to distribute their programs, and end jamming of radio signals and blocking of the Internet. While China has almost unfettered access to the U.S. market, U.S.-supported broadcasters have no access to the Chinese market. Penetrating the almost complete government censorship in China would yield new audiences, reaching upwards of hundreds of millions for people. And this is what the Chinese fear. But now, broadcasting’s advances in developing tools for Chinese citizens to circumvent their government’s blocking of the Internet may be on the verge of a significant breakthrough. We can only hope so.
4. Where are some regions where US international broadcasting has been particularly successful? Where is it lacking?
During my tenure as U.S. senator, I held a hearing on broadcasting’s impact that looked at two countries in particular: Iraq and Afghanistan. Broadcasting’s reach and impact is global. There are many places where the weekly reach of broadcasting exceeds 20 percent of all adults, something unheard-of in the American media market. But Iraq and Afghanistan stand out because it is of course these two countries where the U.S. has been at war. Today, we look back at the Cold War and rightly consider that VOA and Radio Free Europe were vital contributing factors towards ending that conflict. We know from research done then and verified subsequently that VOA and RFE weekly reach rates in Eastern Europe averaged 20-30 percent while such rates were in the 10-20 percent range in Russia. In the “hot” wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. international broadcasting has consistently reached 60-70 percent of adults weekly. This is astounding success. To be sure, audience reach is not the sole gauge of impact. But considering that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, fledgling democracy has emerged and advocates of terrorism enjoy scant popular support, it is not unreasonable to credit broadcasting with making a significant contribution by sustaining accurate, credible news and information in the face of partisan and sectarian as well as extremist media outlets. Where success has been lacking in reaching significant audiences has been in places like Central Asia, as well as Russia and China. But this is due largely to severe restrictions on distribution. While citizens in many areas of the world have unprecedented access to information, many still do not enjoy this benefit, including those who do not generally have their own governments to blame. Nonetheless, wherever U.S. International broadcasting has clear access to the media outlets audiences use, it is successful.
Edward “Ted” Kaufman is a Senior Lecturing Fellow at the Duke University Law School. He was the Chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The Panel created to oversee the Treasury Department’s handling of the TARP funds.
Kaufman was formerly United States Senator from Delaware, where he served on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees. He arrived in the Senate with significant experience, having served 22 years on the staff of United States Senator Joseph Biden, 19 years as Chief of Staff, and taught about the Congress at the Duke University School of Law and Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy for almost 20 years.
From 1995 until 2008, Ted was a Board member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the independent, autonomous, federal entity responsible for all U.S. government and government-sponsored non-military international broadcasting. He was appointed to the BBG by Presidents Clinton and Bush and was confirmed by the Senate for four terms.