TOPICS > Nation

Voice of America Adjusts to Changing Global Market

January 26, 2007 at 1:09 PM EDT

MAN: This is a voice speaking from America. Daily, at this time, we shall speak to you about America and the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the Voice of America was launched in 1942 with this broadcast into Nazi Germany, it announced its mission clearly.

MAN: The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.

MAN: Every morning, at this same time, we bring you the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: Funded by the U.S. government, VOA’s first home was on Madison Avenue. It grew into a major news organization during the Cold War, broadcasting by shortwave radio.

Today, the voices and faces of VOA are changing. Headquartered in Washington, VOA broadcasts in 44 languages and claims a weekly audience of 115 million worldwide for its news, education and cultural programming. By federal law, VOA cannot broadcast within the U.S. itself.

MAN: Our stringer in Miami was able to get an interview with him, because he knew it was for VOA.

JEFFREY BROWN: As it turns 65 years old in February, the organization is facing questions from within and without, as it adjusts to new technology and to new global politics after 9/11.

Reaching out to Iran

There are now, for example, four hours of TV broadcasts in Farsi into Iran each day, up from an hour a week before 9/11.

Setareh Derakhshesh anchors the flagship newscast "News and Views," which features daily headlines from Iran, the U.S. and around the world.

SETAREH DERAKHSHESH, "News and Views," Voice of America: We're trying to reach everyone in Iran -- the young people in Iran, the activists, the everyday people.

JEFFREY BROWN: A veteran broadcaster who left Iran as a young girl, Derakhshesh says it's a critical time to be reaching Iranians, whose media is controlled by the government.

SETAREH DERAKHSHESH: I have contacts with Iranian activists, women activists, human rights activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, students, and they all watch the show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Programmers are also trying to reach young Iranians with more shows that highlight popular culture.

Afghanistan is another growing focus of VOA, with broadcasts in Dari and Pashto, the country's two official languages. The broadcasts feature interviews with U.S. and foreign guests with simultaneous translation.

Shaista Sadat anchors "TV Ashna," which means "friend" in Pashto. There are no other TV broadcasts into Afghanistan in the native languages.

SHAISTA SADAT, "TV Ashna," Voice of America: We want to connect, actually, people in the United States with the people of Afghanistan right over there. We are like a window of the Western world to them. They have never had this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dan Austin, who just took over as director of VOA, after a 36-year career as a print journalist and corporate news executive, says, the core mission of VOA -- reporting the news and not presenting government propaganda -- has not changed.

DAN AUSTIN, Director, Voice of America: We believe that the interests of this country are served by having people around the world understand us. We're not asking people to like us. Those are policy issues. And we don't do policy at -- at Voice of America.

But I think, if we do a credible job and are believable and can explain this country and its people to other people around the world, and then they can judge whether they agree with us or don't agree with us.

Shifting technology

JEFFREY BROWN: But Austin is taking over an agency that is changing, shifting more of its resources from radio to television and the Internet. And the move toward more native languages has come with a sharp turn away from English internationally...

WOMAN: Over one million people remain displaced in Central Africa.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... except for broadcasts to Africa, so-called special English broadcasts for those with limited vocabularies, and the English news Web site.

Part of the shift, too, involves focusing more on those nations explicitly part of the Bush administration's war on terror, and away from other areas. The current budget proposal would cut TV and radio broadcasts in Croatian, Turkish, Thai and Greek, as well as radio broadcasts in Albanian, Russian and Hindi.

Ken Tomlinson heads the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG. An organization little known to most Americans, it oversees the U.S. government's international broadcasting efforts, including: VOA; the young Al-Hurra TV effort to the Middle East; its radio counterpart, Sawa; as well as Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Radio Marti.

Last year, a State Department investigation found that Tomlinson had improperly used his office in violation of government rules, charges he denied and called partisan.

Recently, Tomlinson, who was earlier forced to resign as the head of the Corporation For Public Broadcasting after another government investigation, announced he will leave the BBG once a replacement is confirmed.

Earlier in his career, in the early '80s, Tomlinson served as a director of the VOA, amid Cold War politics. Now, he thinks it must adjust to new times and circumstances.

KENNETH TOMLINSON, Chairman, Broadcasting Board of Governors: We need to spend our money in the areas that do not have that -- that free press. We had virtually no television to Iran four years ago, when I came into this job. It was very, very important for us to launch satellite television and Internet services to Iran, very important to serve people in war-on-terror regions, who -- who need to know what's happening in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tomlinson is also convinced that VOA must emphasize new technology to reach more people.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: The shortwave radio was -- was the primary means of communicating. Now the shortwave radio has essentially, in most countries, gone the way of the -- the horse and buggy.

So, to communicate with -- with people in the Middle East today, it's critical to do satellite television. To communicate with the people of the world today, it's critical to be -- to have a powerful Internet operation.

Leaving English behind?

JEFFREY BROWN: But such changes are coming at a big cost, according to Neil Currie, a 23-year VOA veteran and anchor for VOA "News Now," the international English news broadcast, which faces elimination in the current VOA budget.

NEIL CURRIE, "News Now," Voice of America: Coming up in this half-hour...

JEFFREY BROWN: Currie believes de-emphasizing radio is counterproductive.

NEIL CURRIE: There's no opportunity to sit down and say, do you realize that it only costs a penny per listener per week to reach them with radio? You can't send them a postcard for that price. It's a very efficient medium.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even worse, he says, the English language is being lost in translation.

NEIL CURRIE: There are 6.5 billion people in the world. According to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 1.6 billion of them speak English as a first, second or third language. These are people who have gone to a lot of trouble to learn to speak it. And we don't speak to them in it?

JEFFREY BROWN: Sanford Ungar, who headed VOA from 1999 to 2001, agrees.

SANFORD UNGAR, President, Goucher College: I think it's laughable, tragic and absurd for the Voice of America not to broadcast in English. I mean, if -- if Radio Moscow stopped broadcasting in Russian, people would be shocked. If Radio Beijing stopped broadcasting in Chinese -- imagine Radio France not broadcasting in French.

JEFFREY BROWN: The voice that VOA presents to the world has been a question from its beginning. According to its charter, written in 1960 and signed into law in 1976, VOA is to deliver accurate, objective and comprehensive news, while also presenting the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.

In 1981, VOA began presenting editorials, explicit statements of policy of the U.S. government drafted here at the so-called office of policy, and separate from the VOA news division. The three-minute editorials are broadcast one to three times a day, depending on the language service.

Ungar thinks they confuse audiences and damage the credibility of the newscasts. And he's gone further in his criticism of VOA in recent years, claiming in a 2005 essay in foreign affairs that there was explicit interference by then head David Jackson to push more positive stories about the Iraq war. Jackson, who left VOA this fall, denied those claims.

Ungar thinks the agency is at a crossroads.

SANFORD UNGAR: I think that the soul of the Voice of America is up for grabs. I think that there is the best brand name in the world in some ways, the Voice of America. It's very easy to understand. It's news coming from America.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, new director Dan Austin vows, VOA will play it straight.

DAN AUSTIN: We don't do propaganda. I know some people, you know, have -- have said that, but our news operation strives mightily to meet the requirements of our -- of our charter.

JEFFREY BROWN: One issue that all concerned agree on is that VOA could use more support from the new Congress. The survival of most English-language broadcasts awaits the outcome of congressional budget talks.

In the meantime, programming to Iran is scheduled to expand by three more hours a day beginning this spring.