By Alan Heil
Under the Obama administration’s proposed FY 13 budget, the potential damage to the nation’s flagship publicly funded overseas network, the Voice of America, would be unprecedented if Congress approves it. Contrast the reductions: VOA faces net cuts totaling $17 million, compared with a reduction of $731,000 for its sister network, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The Voice of America, now in its 70th year, faces a far larger reduction, proportionally, than either the U.S. international broadcasting administrative support bureaucracy or collectively, the four other networks in the system. They are: RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Network, and Radio-TV Marti. Cuts of VOA staff who actually put programs on the air are the principal targets of the cuts, across the board. Such hemorrhaging must be halted if the free flow of information from America to the world is to be secured for the millennial generation so curious about our nation and its role in the century ahead.
In effect, many VOA assets are being reprogrammed to enhance consolidation of U.S. international broadcasting and the rapid pursuit of new media formats. The only encouraging aspect of the budget is the notion that VOA Central News, although greatly reduced in size, will become the site of a global news network incorporating the best reporting of all five publicly-funded overseas broadcasting entities.
The oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has seized on the notion that VOA best serves the national interest by transforming itself to become a Washington bureau in a number of languages and by shifting radio functions and coverage of other world areas to the grantee networks in a number of cases. This is contrary to a fundamental VOA Charter (P.L. 103-415) obligation to be an accurate, comprehensive and objective source of news (world as well as U.S.).
To be sure, engagement and dialogue, crowd sourcing, and citizen reporting, are powerful potential attributes in the new age. But the largest and only full service global network, VOA, would lose 170 professional front line broadcasters and producers in the proposed budget if it is passed by Congress. The new generation, most adept new media practitioners will be at the top of the list to go. VOA will be gravely weakened in its ability to capitalize on opportunities in the digital age.
Content wise, this would undercut an unmatched foundation (and respected brand name) for take-off. The BBG’s most recent surveys conclude that VOA has a 75% audience share of all who listen to, watch or consume U.S. international broadcasting in any format each week, 141 million of 187 million people altogether. Of the total, 104 million still use radio and research has shown that a multimedia approach — including radio — amplifies audience numbers and cross-streaming.
The harm done in the proposed reductions to the English broadcasts of the Voice of America (until 2001, its top priority service) would deprive our flagship official overseas network of a valued role in our own language. This, as China, Russia, Iran and Qatar expand their English broadcasts in America’s primary tongue to 24/7 coverage. VOA was on the air in English around the clock a dozen years ago, reliably present in the universal language at any hour of the day or night.
Yet now, the Voice’s future as the second decade of the 21st century dawns turns out to be dim indeed, unless Congress halts the carnage. The BBG has it right in one respect: an impartial, determined CEO with real authority is necessary to consolidate, reduce bureaucratic overload and preserve VOA and its journalistic soul. By saving frontline multimedia broadcast talent equitably, an empowered day-to-day manager could make publicly-funded U.S. overseas broadcasting the world standard the nation deserves and must have, for the sake of a safer, more secure planet.
References in support of the above may be found in the proposed FY 13 budget, Pages 7-10 and 22-24.
Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former deputy director of VOA, author of Voice of America: A History and editor of Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media.
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