"Hey, Bob. Let's go over to the poorest side of Saigon, " I shouted over to the L.A. Times correspondent in the rickshaw on the other side of the road.
My rickshaw driver stopped and came around to take a look. His face lit up and he pointed his finger at me and said, "David Hyatt? VOA?"
"Yes," I said with surprise. "How'd you know?"
"I listen to Voice of America. I hear you every day."
The year was 1983. I was the VOA Southeast Asia Bureau Chief based in Bangkok. The U.S. government had no diplomatic ties with Vietnam at that time, and few Americans had been allowed into the country since the war. To the rickshaw driver, who had been a French teacher in the former South Vietnam, VOA was his news and information lifeline and his path to learning English. I had no idea that people depended on VOA broadcasts to such an extent.
At that time it was forbidden by the Hanoi government to listen to the VOA but each day at 6 pm I could hear the VOA signature tune "Yankee Doodle" blasting through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City as countless Vietnamese gathered around their radios at the top of the hour to get the latest news from the outside world. America's voice was strong. Loyal listeners, risking arrest, still tuned in.
Today, the organizational bureaucracy which is supposed to oversee the running of the VOA is wallowing in dysfunctional chaos amid urgent calls for action to streamline the international broadcasting bureaucracy.
What is our competition doing? The Chinese government is spending billions (some reports put the dollar amount at more than $8 billion) to strengthen its international broadcasting reach, including a new state-of-the-art bureau in Washington (about a mile from the White House) and a ten-fold increase in its overseas staff.
A recent article in Foreign Policy (FP) magazine reports on a trip to China last November by a small group of Western television journalists.
"The trip, arranged by China Central Television (CCTV), the world's largest broadcaster, culminated in a visit to the network's headquarters... a twisted pretzel of steel and glass dreamed up by Rem Koolhaas's architecture firm, an engineering marvel that manages to look both muscular and terribly fragile."
FP quotes a senior CCTV executive as saying, "China has a place in the world economy, so it's only befitting that China has a place in the global media platform."
Clearly, China believes it's important to invest in "soft power" the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes you want without coercion or use of military force (a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University). America would be smart to do the same.
Take a look at CCTV's new Washington broadcast center, with a staff of about 100 employees, creating Chinese-centric stories for an American audience. Supposedly, it's not intended to be a Chinese mouthpiece or Chinese propaganda tool. But this is not the case. Whereas VOA routinely covers topics of controversy, including open debate and reasoned discussion of U.S. policy, you would be hard pressed to find anything controversial about the Chinese government on CCTV's programing. Sensitive topics are avoided. Instead, you find business and cultural stories reported with a nauseatingly upbeat tone. If you want to find out about unrest in Tibet, scandals involving disgraced Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai or the Tiananmen Square Massacre, go to the VOA because you won't find coverage of any of these or countless other issues by CCTV. CCTV broadcasters are often confined to reading what sounds like official government statements.
Is the Voice Still Relevant in the Digital Age?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. Despite current spending constraints across the federal government, there is ample evidence of VOA's continued relevance which argues for its continued support in a rapidly changing media environment worldwide.
No other U.S. broadcaster has the global reach of VOA. The estimated weekly audience is 134 million people, a 77% audience share of all U.S. international broadcasting. (To put this in some perspective, the combined prime time audience of the three major cable news networks -- FOX, CNN, and MSNBC -- is four million.)
VOA broadcasts in 45 languages, with 24-hour television satellite network streams, numerous AM and FM and shortwave radio broadcasts, and many affiliate radio and TV stations around the world. VOA is also riding the digital wave, with a number of podcasts and specialty shows in a variety of formats for use on a wide range of digital platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes, not to mention its flagship English website, www.voanews.com and its various language service websites. Real-world examples of VOA's relevance abound, including stories that explain why VOA is often referred to as a "Beacon of Hope."
Example: It was widely reported last year that, during her visit to the U.S., Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma made a special point to stop by the VOA Burmese Service in Washington. She wanted to personally thank the staff for the daily VOA broadcasts that "informed and sustained" her during her decades of isolation under house arrest. (VOA's English language teaching programs are now being carried on Burma's state-run media.)
Example: More recently, Chinese dissident legal activist Chen Guangcheng did much the same thing when he finally escaped China and arrived here in May. He thanked VOA for helping him get through some of his darkest hours when he, too, was under house arrest.
Example: Prominent Albanian writer Albert Lulushi said at the 70th anniversary celebration of the VOA Albanian service: “For us in Albania, VOA was more than just words… our subconscious gradually began to formulate a path out of darkness.”
Example: Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud emailed VOA’s Somali Service thanking it for broadcasting a series on democratic constitution-making that he said was extremely valuable in his country’s drafting of its constitution.
Example: Ethiopian, Chinese, and Iranian Americans know that VOA continues to provide objective reporting to nations where the local media is controlled by the government and truly independent outlets are banned.
Example: Since 2010, VOA's Spanish services have recorded phenomenal audience gains (from 3 million to 26 million) via radio-TV network placements on 230 stations in Latin America.
Example: The head of VOA’s China Branch, Sasha Gong, responded on her blog to something the new Chinese leader Xi said about what he called “his dream for the Chinese nation.” She wrote: “His dream was a collective dream, with a single color, while the American dream was an individual’s dream with a multitude of colors.” She went on to write: “I had been dreaming of free speech since I was a child, but only in America did I find it.” During the next day or so, her post was viewed more than 16 million times, and re-sent to countless others.
Example: VOA’s media training center has hosted more than 7,000 journalists in 140 countries (from upper management to cub reporters) since it was launched in 1985.
Just recently, teams from Washington, including physicians and medical specialists have joined Ministry of Health officials in Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan to lead journalism training workshops and town meetings. Topics: ways of reporting and combating bird flu and the threat of epidemics, as well as HIV/AIDS prevention, maternal health, education, disease prevention.
Africa is an important case study of VOA's public service international broadcasting in action. Forty five percent of VOA’s audience is in Africa. (This will likely rise significantly this month when President Obama visits Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania starting June 26.) Surveys of African listeners identified health information as the most important reason, after local news, that they access international media. I once worked in VOA's English to Africa service as the managing editor and host of Nightline Africa, a one-hour live current affairs program. Africa has only three percent of the world’s doctors and health professionals. So, we routinely included the latest health news in practically every show. Now, VOA has created an Africa Health Network, with programs produced by 13 language services. The network has a tremendous reach through a combination of radio, TV, the Internet, mobile networks and at least 200 million users of digital media. And that's not all. In the last six months, VOA has initiated daily broadcast services in Bambara and Songhai, two dialects in militant-threatened Mali.
The thrust of U.S. international broadcasting revolves around the three Es: Engage, Enlighten, and Empower, with life-changing and life-saving content that builds goodwill toward America. VOA is leading the way. This public service mission separates VOA from CNN and other commercial broadcasters. CNN's main purpose is selling time and earning revenue. It will never broadcast in Somali, Burmese, Tigrigna to Ethiopia and Eritrea, Shona to Zimbabwe, or Haitian Creole not to mention Bambara and Songhai.
To be relevant is to be effective (as the above examples illustrate). But perhaps the best measure of VOA's effectiveness is to take a look at which countries are trying to block its broadcasts. China, Iran, and North Korea are high on the list. The current VOA Director, David Ensor, writes in his February blog "State of America's Voice," that " the Chinese government imposes a concerted Internet censorship program and a systematic campaign to destroy private satellite dishes, especially in areas with large Tibetan populations. Despite these efforts, VOA continues to find new ways to penetrate the Chinese market with reliable, balanced information in Mandarin, Tibetan, and Cantonese."
A New Consensus
Even though a long line of foreign policy analysts have spoken out in favor of investing more in soft power, America's Voice abroad is set to shrink if Congress passes proposed budget cuts for 2014. Strategic languages would be cut. The heart and soul of the VOA is its News and English Central News Service which serves as the VOA wire providing news and feature reports to all of the other language services. It would lose 35 positions. VOA Spanish would be cut by eight out of a 17-member staff crippling its promising audience expansion in Latin America. The Afghan Service would lose 10, Urdu 4. In addition, the Greek Service is to be abolished entirely on September 30 if the FY 14 budget is approved. It costs $400,000 a year (three staff members). One wonders about the timing, with the financial meltdowns in both Athens and Nicosia and the growing heft of a fascist rightwing party in Athens. On April 1, VOA direct radio broadcasts in Albanian, English to the Middle East and Afghanistan, Georgian, Persian and Spanish were eliminated on medium and shortwave. This is just a partial list of how America's Voice abroad is retrenching at a time when our competition is pouring billions into soft power.
What's needed in the U.S. is a new consensus regarding a strategic vision for broadcast public diplomacy in general. The future of VOA should be at the center of the debate. But such an initiative faces strong political headwinds, with a divided Congress, an ambivalent Administration and a dysfunctional Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The BBG was created in 1994 to oversee the running of VOA and other aspects of U.S. international broadcasting. The nine-member Board is part-time and bipartisan. It consists of four Democrats and four Republicans, and the Secretary of State as an ex-officio member, usually represented at monthly Board meetings by an Undersecretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy.
On the surface, it doesn't sound so bad. But almost from its inception the BBG has been in a sorry state. A recent report from the State Department's Inspector General said as much. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her last appearance before Congress, took the unprecedented step of stating publicly that U.S. international broadcasting is in crisis. A 2012 survey by the Office of Personnel Management found that the BBG had the lowest ranking among all 82 federal agencies in three of the four major management categories (leadership knowledge, performance culture and talent management). And in the fourth category (job satisfaction) the BBG was tied for second lowest.
It's hard to find a more cumbersome and dysfunctional 21st Century broadcasting bureaucracy. No wonder it's been difficult to find talented and dedicated men and women to fill the positions on the Board. Six out of nine positions are open, making appointment of new BBG members urgent. Nominations are at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of a prospective chairman, Jeffrey Shell (Democrat) of NBC International, and Matt Armstrong (Republican), formerly of the Defense Department, and former Ambassador Ryan Crocker (Republican). But nominations have been stalled amid partisan wrangling.
Are There Too Many Voices?
Up to now, I specifically have not mentioned the other four parts of U.S. international broadcasting. They are smaller, distinctly separate, regionally-targeted networks: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcasting Network (Alhurra and Radio Sawa) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio-TV Marti in Spanish). Looked at collectively it's quite an impressive alphabet soup, and I haven't even mentioned the IBB, the International Broadcasting Bureau, which provides technical distribution, marketing, and program placement services for all the networks.
Each of the networks has its own distinct “tribal culture” and supporters. But only VOA, by law, is required to be an accurate and objective source of news about America, its culture and policies, and ideas shaping U.S. thought and institutions, as well as a comprehensive look at the world. This is an important distinction. I worked for the Voice of America for close to ten years and I never once heard the VOA mentioned in the same breath as the regional broadcast services. This was intentional. It was strongly felt that VOA's credibility was at stake. The other services were set up as free surrogate media in regions they reach. There's nothing wrong with this. In fact, by most accounts, these regional services do their job well. But their mission is not the same as the Voice, which raises the question whether VOA should be administered by the same entity as the others and whether its mission suffers from guilt by association.
It's easy to see why managing VOA is much more difficult now than it was 20 years ago under the now-abolished United States Information Agency. Then the VOA Director was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and had authority over all functions, including budget and human resources. In other words, it was a much more streamlined and effective way to manage the Voice. Extra layers of bureaucracy have been added, with these functions now part of the BBG or IBB superstructures.
If there is any good news in all this, it can be found in the fact that hardly anyone now questions the need to correct structural and organizational flaws, starting with the BBG. Insiders say there’s now a keen recognition in the State Department, the National Security Council, and increasingly, in Congress, that there’s no way a nine member, part-time board whose members have real jobs elsewhere can run this kind of mixed bag of networks with vastly overlapping bureaucracies. The question is: How soon can it be fixed?The Need for a CEO
The current confused environment could open the way to some fresh thinking. One idea that's making the rounds is to create a full-time chief executive officer position to oversee U.S. international broadcasting in the future. This would require legislative change. But since all parties appear to agree that the current BBG structure is a disaster, one way out of the chaos is actually to put someone in charge.
There is a powerful argument for a well-qualified CEO with a solid record managing a large enterprise, journalistic skills of a high order, keen knowledge of foreign affairs, and sufficient stature to shield U.S. international broadcasting against the inevitable pressures it faces, political and budgetary. A lot would be riding on the ability of the CEO to take hold and make efforts to trim the bureaucracy, more equitably distribute funding, and get the five network tribal cultures collaborating even more.
But there’s a great distance to go. Six more BBG nominees should be urgently forwarded by the White House and the office of Senator Mitch McConnell who, as the ranking Republican in the Senate, gets to suggest four GOP nominees. (Undersecretary Tara Sonenshine is acting as the BBG ex-officio on behalf of State Secretary John Kerry.)
This nomination/confirmation process is cumbersome in the best of times. Last time it took from November 2009 to July 2010 for the eight BBG members to run this gamut. Currently, at least six nominees for various State Department posts at the assistant secretary level are languishing in White House personnel so the odds don’t appear promising for processing all the BBG nominees anytime soon.
In the meantime, China is on the move, determined to outflank the U.S. in this turbulent and uphill battle for the world's hearts and minds. As former VOA Director Geoff Cowan says: “We live in the midst of a disruptive and exhilarating era for civil discourse, news and information. The keys to the future will be in the hands of those who understand and practice communication leadership the ability to communicate effectively across multiple platforms and to adapt with agility to new technologies and the continually evolving global (media) marketplace.”
Former VOA deputy director of programs, Alan Heil (in his book Voice of America: A History, Columbia University Press, 2003), perhaps said it best: "Streamlining is the word. New leadership must invest in the reportorial reach and content of U.S international broadcasting, with a renewed focus on quality befitting the digital age. Above all, it's important to remember: Credibility and high quality content are a force multiplier of soft power.”
As Undersecretary Sonenshine told a Public Diplomacy Council at the University of Southern California symposium last year: “When we help more people become healthy, productive, democratic, prosperous and empowered, they become our partners. That spells security and prosperity for America.”
By inspiring the five networks anew and cross-promoting their reportage and brands, U.S. international broadcasting, which is vital to the nation’s security, can be enhanced for the cost annually of not that much more than what is spent on military bands and Blue Angels acrobatics.
To paraphrase Harvard’s Joseph Nye: “The state with the largest army may think it can prevail, but in this information age, the state with the best story is the state that really wins.”