I read with great interest Jeffrey Gedmin’s article on the state of U.S. international broadcasting (“Turn Your Radio On”, September/October 2012). The article reminds us of the powerful contributions made by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty during World War II and the long Cold War that followed. In those days, VOA and RFE/RF journalists lit up dark corners around the world with that scarce commodity in wartime—the truth.
They still do, and their work is as important as ever.
Mr. Gedmin’s review of the historic importance of RFE/RL and VOA has special resonance for me. As a longtime journalist at National Public Radio, ABC News, and CNN, I reported for three decades on the decline and fall of Soviet Communism, and on the rise of Islamist extremism. More recently, as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy in Kabul, I helped war-weary Afghan audiences gain increased access to VOA TV and radio, and RFE/RL radio programs. As the current Director of the Voice of America I witness daily the power of free media in information-deprived regions around the world. Mr. Gedmin and I are on the same side in the perpetual struggle between those who limit access to information and those who seek it. I greatly admire his work at RFE/RL, and now at the Legatum Institute.
I also strongly agree that it is time to reform U.S. international broadcasting, but favor a somewhat different structure than the one Mr Gedmin describes.
In January of this year, the Broadcasting Board of Governors voted unanimously to ask the Administration and Congress to pass legislation creating a Board-appointed Chief Executive Officer for U.S. international broadcasting, with real control over all staff and budgets. The nine part-time Board members would thus select one full-time professional to be the executive leader of U.S. international broadcasting. The BBG could then become a more typical board—with the power to hire or fire the CEO—but relinquishing the month-to-month management role it currently has. The CEO would be appointed by the Board rather than the President so as to protect the “firewall” that must exist between the incumbent Administration of the time and the journalists of VOA and its sister entities—journalists who must be editorially independent in order to do their jobs.
U.S. international broadcasting is an essential, highly effective tool of American “soft power” but it is fragmented into five companies and lacks cohesion. It needs innovation, reform and consolidation. This can best be achieved under one fulltime boss. Decisions about the future overall structure should be left until such a leader is in place to recommend them. Ideally, such legislation can be considered by Congress and passed next year.
I also want to clarify the record on VOA and its relationship with its sister broadcasters. VOA was founded in 1942 offering—then and now—local, regional, international and U.S. news. It currently does so in 43 languages, reaching over 134 million people a week, through radio, television, the Internet and social media. Over the years, Congress decided to fund two broadcasting services in some languages, creating intentional overlap, in the hope of greater impact: VOA with its full service broadcasting, plus RFE—or Radio Free Asia—with an in-depth focus on local news and surrogate broadcaster approach. A new CEO and the BBG will need to make recommendations to the Administration and Congress on where such overlapping efforts continue to make sense—presumably key markets for U.S. national security like China and Iran—and where they could now be reduced.
It is not accurate to suggest that VOA does not or should not cover local stories in the markets where it broadcasts. It always has, and always must, in order to keep its loyal audience. There has been no “mission creep.” Newscasts or websites that do not include local as well as international and American news risk losing audience share. While maintaining its strong journalistic standards, VOA needs to strive for the same visceral appeal as a local broadcast station, a gossipy neighbor, or an active ‘tweeter’ with a large following.
All news is not local, but relevance to local interests drives information consumers to news outlets. VOA needs to “think local” as we work to cover news relevant to our audiences, and to explain U.S. policies and American values, to the world.
Director, Voice of America
Jeffrey Gedmin replies:
I would be delighted to cross swords with VOA Director David Ensor, a gentleman and scholar if there ever was one. Alas, I'm afraid our parry-riposte would produce little tension or excitement. The differences between us are relatively minor ones.
First, on the structure of the Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG). I'm not at all opposed to what Mr. Ensor describes and what the BBG is currently proposing. The main point, in my view, is that a) the BBG is led by able and fully empowered leadership and b) that BBG members are selected on the basis of relevant skills and experience, not solely on the basis of political patronage. I'm agnostic as to how we get there.
Second, on the matter of overlap between Voice of America and its sister broadcasters. There's no doubt that budget constraints will continue to dictate that difficult decisions be made on overlap and inefficiencies. We all want greater cost-effectiveness and the chance to save tax payer dollars. My only concern is that considerations to cut be discussed firmly in the strategic context of American foreign policy objectives; that petty turf wars between VOA and other broadcasters (chiefly with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia) be set aside, and that penny-wise-pound-foolish decisions be avoided. To take but one example, if the Russians, Chinese and Al-Jazeera are ramping up in south eastern Europe, let's think carefully about how and whether we want U.S. international broadcasting to scale back. Mr. Ensor's calm, clear and steady voice will be indispensable to the the contentious conversations ahead.
Finally, let's agree that the VOA mission includes local and international news, as well as serving as the "Voice of America." I simply wanted to suggest that this last element--telling America's story, as the phrase goes--should remain central, in my view, and is today as important as ever.
President and CEO