2011 is shaping up as a pivotal year in publicly-funded international broadcasting. The two giants in the field, the Voice of America (VOA) and the BBC World Service, are struggling to confront two realities. One is a technological floodtide that continues this year to gather speed, force and reach: the stunning and rapidly evolving ways audiences access news and information via new and social media and converse across national boundaries. Another is that governments in both the United States and the United Kingdom are under huge pressure from constituents to cut deficits. Hard choices loom for international broadcasting managements on both sides of the Atlantic.
This article will describe VOA in its 70th year, and how geopolitics, new technologies and programming may shape its future. The Voice is the largest U.S. government overseas multimedia broadcast network, reaching more than 123 million listeners, viewers and social media users worldwide each week. It does so in 44 languages (26 of these producing television programs) and is on the air more than 1,500 hours weekly.VOA is rebroadcast live or on a delayed basis worldwide by 360 affiliate radio or TV stations, some of them national networks. In Muslim majority countries, VOA’s reach exceeds 80 million people.
In addition to traditional media, the Voice has a variety of state of the art delivery platforms. These include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, podcasts, short messaging services (SMS), email subscription services and partnerships with rapidly growing cell phone distribution networks. The annual cost of programming production: $206 million. The VOA and its worldwide staff of about 1,200 managers, editors and reporters is guided by its legislative charter, Public Law 103-415, to be an accurate, objective and comprehensive source of news and to reflect U.S. thoughts and institutions in all their diversity, as well as U.S. policies and policy debates.
The mass popular uprisings in Arab countries that caught the world by surprise earlier in 2011have had a profound impact elsewhere on the planet. Authoritarian governments half a world away tremble at the thought that their citizens might be inspired by accurate, balanced, on-scene, timely reporting from the Middle East, beamed to their citizens by VOA and the BBC:
—In China, there has been stepped up blockage of foreign news websites. This has coincided with the tightest restrictions since 1989 on reporting by foreign correspondents of local protest demonstrations. VOA’s Stephanie Ho was roughed up, and along with her colleague journalist Ming Zhang, detained by security police (some in civilian clothes) along with other foreign correspondents on February 27as they covered protests in the heart of Beijing. A uniformed officer intervened to stop a man in plainclothes from hitting Ms. Ho after she had been shoved from the street into a nearby shop. The cameras of many others were smashed or their videos were confiscated. “Since the people’s uprising in the Middle East,” the Washington Post said in a lead editorial (March 7), “the crackdown has taken on a new ferocity.” Hardened security surveillance of peaceful protests spread to Shanghai and other cities as well.
—In Russia, President Medvedev warned an audience of security officials in Vladikavaz about what he called “the direct impact” of the Arab uprisings on Russia, particularly in the northern Caucasus. He urged “preventive measures.”
—In North Korea, officials tightened their control of information by snuffing out the relatively small protest gatherings in February and March to keep its people from being influenced by the pro-democracy activists in the Middle East.
—In Iran, an organization called the Iranian Cyber Army announced it had temporarily blocked the website of VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN), and Iranian authorities increased jamming of RFE’s Radio Farda. One of VOA’s most popular programs is Parazit (meaning static in Persian, a reference to Iranian government efforts to jam PNN). The creators and co-hosts of the satire program, Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, have appeared on U.S. media and Facebook, and recorded more than 20 million impressions on Parazit’s Persian language page in January. VOA is by far the leading international broadcaster to Iran, reaching an estimated one out of five Iranians each week.
These examples illustrate the unique importance of what experts call “full-service global broadcasters” like VOA and the BBC. They are respected for their credibility and reportage of events in the world and regions they reach. They cover their own national news and information about culture, history, science, finance and civil society. In times of crisis, full service radio and TV programming merge in microseconds with new and social media to empower publics and stimulate debates and action in unprecedented ways. Media analyst Matt Armstrong says: “New and old media converge to become now media.”
Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, when asked about the sudden Arab awakening said: “In no time, it seems, peoples’ fear of governments has become governments’ fear of the people.” “For decades,” adds Middle East analyst Barbara Slavin, “politics in the Arab world has been frozen like a fossil in amber. The amber has shattered.” Or in the words of an Egyptian blogger conversing with fellow bloggers via VOA’s website, voanews.com: “Grab a board and catch a wave — it’s your freedom in the end.”
Rebecca McMenamin is director of new media at the International Broadcasting Bureau, a support organization for VOA. At a recent panel discussion on Capitol Hill, she volunteered a few examples of how social media can, as she put it, “help people navigate what is a lot of clutter out there” in this 21st century world of citizen journalists. Among Russian speakers, there were more than 13 million page views of VOA content last year and this is growing every week. In cases like Afghanistan and Somalia, McMenamin said, there are traditional radio markets and audiences. But text messaging in those countries is expanding quickly, too. In Somalia and the Somali diaspora communities, a quarter of a million users subscribe to VOA’s Somali Service text messages. VOA’s Indonesian Service reaches more than 20 million on TV and radio, with a Facebook fan base of more than 300,000. In Belarus, McMenamin reported, VOA’s Russian service contacted a local blogger on Facebook. He toured the main square in Minsk and described the scene as police gathered moments before a major crackdown against protesters. According to the current annual budget request for VOA, there were at least a quarter of a billion page views of its 44 language websites in Fiscal Year 2010. The leaders were English, Vietnamese, Persian, Mandarin, Russian and Burmese. Departing VOA Director Danforth Austin has
led the striking expansion into new and social media since he assumed charge in 2006.
More and more, carefully sourced user-generated videos and content are enriching VOA’s reportage. In the aftermath of the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, VOA English Service website editors mixed users’ images from the scene with exclusive reports by correspondent Steve Herman and his minute-by-minute tweets. According to Matthew Baise, director of English web operations, page visits to VOA’s English regional news programs to Africa have grown by 97 percent and to its newly-restored offerings to Asia and the Middle East by about two thirds between April 2010 and February 2011.
Radio can be a riveting theater of the mind in the hands of skilled reporters. There have been the recent examples of this at VOA:
—VOA correspondent Margaret Besheer, covering the United Nations Security Council as the crisis in Libya erupted in late February, described “an amazing moment.” That was when Libya’s ambassador called on the Council “to save Libya.” This was a stunning break with the Gaddafi government he had previously represented. The drama reached its climax after the envoy’s remarks when he was embraced by his deputy, another defector from Libya, and the two broke into sobs as the Secretary General and other diplomats rushed over to congratulate and comfort them.
—December 2010, VOA’s Mandarin Chinese language website carried the searing image of an empty blue and white chair. That was the vacant seat reserved in Oslo for imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo for his protests against a government that had prohibited him from traveling to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But the world didn’t forget. VOA Mandarin Chinese reporters Nan Wang and Suli Yi were on the scene to file radio, TV and web reports about the ceremony. Somehow, they found time to send out 87 tweets, with news updates and photos. In just a few days, 172,000 people spanning the globetweeted back. In China, some opposition figures even altered their avatars to form the shape of that empty chair.
—In July 2010, seven months before President Mubarak stepped down, VOA Cairo bureau chief Elizabeth Arrott interviewed a prominent Egyptian scholar. He told her that Egypt’s younger generation was restless. They were chafing at the arrest and torture of citizens by authorities, corruption in high places and very high unemployment. The scholar said they would either continue to accept their plight out of fear or decide to organize mass street protests like the ones that ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign a few months later.
VOA broadcasters, using established and new media, can engage traditional audiences in conversations that could only have been imagined a few years ago. Simply by reporting the news objectively, broadcasting public service announcements or organizing mass town meetings on health issues or treatment of women, they can save lives and make a real difference to audiences. Recently, a suicide bomber injured scores of people in a crowded marketplace in the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar. Immediately, VOA’s Radio Ashna broadcast an appeal for blood donations to save the wounded. Dozens of local residents responded. And in Nigeria this year, VOA’s Hausa Service is conducting a series of four town meetings on the benefits of girls’ education in the largely Muslim north. These town meetings, cosponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, have attracted high-ranking officials in Africa’s most populous nation, including Muslim religious leaders. More than 3,000 people assembled for such a town meeting in Sokoto. These events are broadcast by VOA and reported in the local media, multiplying their impact many times over.
Back to Those Hard Choices
In this year of destiny for the two major international broadcasters, lean budgets have the potential of taking a heavy toll. That is particularly the case in London, where the BBC World Service is forced by funding reductions to close five language services and eliminate shortwave radio in Mandarin to China, in Russian, and in Spanish to Latin America.BBC managers project huge audience losses globally. The World Service has 180 million radio listeners weekly worldwide, including about 85 million of them on shortwave.
By way of contrast, in Washington, the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees VOA, RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra TV, Radio Sawa (in Arabic) and Radio-TV Marti has actually requested a 2.5 percent increase in its overall budget for the year beginning next October 1. But the Board has recommended an end to all VOA television and shortwave radio broadcasting to China in Mandarin and Cantonese. This would shift all VOA Chinese indigenous languages on shortwave to the regionally-oriented U.S. station, Radio Free Asia. The Broadcasting Board of Governors terms this “a strategic realignment” aimed at looking to the future by expanding VOA Internet text, video and audio services and other platforms. More than half the VOA China Branch staff would lose their jobs. Critics say that such downsizing would greatly hinder production of content and interaction with social media users in China. Moreover, they note, the PRC is relentlessly expanding its Great Electronic Firewall to block information from abroad and only about a third of Chinese are online today.
The Board’s reasoning: heavily jammed shortwave reaches less than 1 percent of the Chinese audience. The BBG says reducing the VOA China Branch staff would save an estimated $8 million a year, roughly 1 percent of the entire BBG budget. Efficiencies in consolidating managements and reducing administrative over head at the five U.S. government-funded overseas network entities (VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, Alhurra TV/Radio Sawa and Marti to Cuba) might be an alternative. In any case, Congress will have the final say on proposed reductions. A new VOA director, former NPR, ABC and CNN correspondent David Ensor, takes office in June.
Some on Capitol Hill are advocating retention of traditional as well as new media in U.S. international broadcasting. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex-officio member of the BBG, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, “Even though we’re pushing on-line, we can’t forget TV and radio because most people still get their news from TV and radio.” The Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, told a London conference (March 2) that he profoundly regrets the proposed BBC World Service cuts:
“The future of news and information,” he said, “is intrinsically multi-platform, multi-device, and multi-media. No one medium, neither TV, nor radio, nor print, nor even the web are sufficient in themselves… those players who control or have an interest in multiple platforms are capturing the highest amounts of news consumption.”
The Defense Department’s former desk officer for China, Joseph Bosco, agrees:
“The revolutionary events in the Mideast,” he wrote in March, “demonstrate that a picture can be worth a thousand tweets. Television and radio are still the most effective media to convey dramatic images and descriptions, as well as to provide in-depth discussion of contemporary historic events. They are also the only contact with the outside world for the millions of Chinese without Internet access.”
Bosco noted that the Pentagon today spends billions to cope with new Chinese weapons systems. In this multimedia era, outlets like VOA and RFA by reporting events accurately, completely and objectively can, as Bosco put it, “help foster political reform in China for a fraction of the cost.”
Alan L. Heil Jr., a former deputy director of VOA, is the author of Voice of America: A History, Columbia University Press, New York, 2003/2006, and editor of Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media, Public Diplomacy Council, Washington, DC, 2008.