Will America’s voice become a whisper?
March 4, 2012
One of my most challenging, but ultimately rewarding, assignments during a 28-year U.S. Foreign Service career was a two-year stint as supervisor of the Voice of America’s Spanish-language broadcasts to Latin America.
It was a management challenge because of the importance of the Voice’s foreign policy mission and the diversity of our broadcasters, and rewarding because of the accomplishments we achieved through our short-wave broadcasts and rebroadcasts on local AM/FM stations throughout the Western Hemisphere.
A congressional Charter with force of law directs the Voice of America to: (1) “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news,” (2) “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions” and (3) “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.”
That’s a big order, but VOA has been up to the challenge since the Charter was passed by Congress and signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
If the Obama administration gets its way, however, America’s Voice will be reduced to a whisper. Alan L. Heil, Jr., a former colleague who retired as VOA’s deputy director, expressed his concerns last month.
“Under the Obama Administration’s proposed FY 13 budget, the potential damage to … the Voice of America would be unprecedented,” he wrote on a broadcasting blog. “Such hemorrhaging must be halted if the free flow of information from America to the world is to be secured …” for the Voice’s 140 million weekly listeners in 43 languages around the globe.
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The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises our government’s international broadcasting – including VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Network, and Radio/TV Marti to Cuba – wants to downsize the Voice into a smaller, news-based operation and contract-out other programming responsibilities. Heil argues that this transformation would undercut VOA’s “respected brand name” and further, that proposed reductions to VOA English broadcasts “would deprive (the Voice) of a valued role in our own language.”
“The Voice’s future … is dim indeed unless Congress halts the carnage,” he concluded.
I couldn’t agree more because radio broadcasting is, or should be, an integral part of our nation’s public diplomacy (overseas cultural and information programming) strategy to tell America’s story to the world, which was the motto of my alma mater, the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency. Unfortunately, thanks to ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., USIA was merged into the sprawling State Department in 1999, and coordinated public diplomacy programming disappeared from view in Washington, D.C.
As part of that ill-considered merger the government’s radio stations were turned over to the quasi-independent BBG, which plays pop music while downplaying, or even ignoring, the VOA Charter’s directive to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.” Personally, I don’t think taxpayers should subsidize an official radio station that doesn’t accomplish U.S. foreign policy objectives. If that happens, just turn the whole thing over to PBS or Sirius satellite radio.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was chief of VOA’s Spanish Branch during the period 1977-79.