The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections by Walter Roberts

American Diplomacy has several interesting articles this month, including a historical review by Walter Roberts, The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections:

Beginning in 1937, the failure of the Executive Branch to reach a decision regarding the establishment of a governmental radio station led to a shift in initiative from the Department of State to Congress. Gregory calls it “a change that was marked by the introduction in both the House and the Senate of several bills.” Their sponsors, in particular Congressman Emmanuel Celler (D- NY), argued that every other nation was prepared to see that the world understands its point of view – yet the U. S.  was at the mercy of the propaganda of other countries without the ability to present its own position. The year was 1937 and German-Nazi and Italian-Fascist propaganda were in full swing.

The Congressional sponsors of a government short wave station found themselves fiercely opposed by the private broadcasters of this country. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) passed a resolution in June 1937 opposing any governmental international radio station. Within the Executive Branch there was no unanimity and the President was not willing to support the establishment of a government radio station.  The plan died in early 1940.

Continue reading “The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections by Walter Roberts”

Al Shabab, Minneapolis in the news again

US Special Forces killed Salah Ali Nabhan, the man Somali-Americans who traveled to fight for the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization identified as one of their trainers. The coverage of this ‘made for the movies’ attack should draw attention to the not-neutral territory of Minneapolis where Al Shabab has shown significant success in recruiting.

This is as a good a time as any to reread my Censoring VOA article at

Earlier this year, a community radio station in Minneapolis asked Voice of America (VOA) for permission to retransmit its news coverage on the increasingly volatile situation in Somalia. The VOA audio files it requested were freely available online without copyright or any licensing requirements. The radio station’s intentions were simple enough: Producers hoped to offer an informative, Somali-language alternative to the terrorist propaganda that is streaming into Minneapolis, where the United States’ largest Somali community resides. Over the last year or more, al-Shabab, an al Qaeda linked Somali militia, has successfully recruited two dozen or more Somali-Americans to return home and fight. The radio station was grasping for a remedy. …

Read the rest here.

Interagency failure: DHS detains VOA reporter for 10 days

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security detained a Voice of America reporter for 10 days. The man, Rahman Bunairee, had the proper visa and documentation to show he was coming to the US for a year – the primary reason of which was to escape Taliban threats. But the DHS completely disregarded both the paperwork and the requests – including formal petitions – from the Broadcasting Board of Governors to release Bunairee.

Even after his release – helped by intervention from the State Department – DHS revoked his ability to work here, leaving a critical member of America’s information team to counter Taliban and Al Qaeda information on the sidelines. Worse, the BBG nor any other part of the Government can help him financially because of DHS’s decision.

The situation has not changed after a month. Imagine if DHS made what amounts to a unilateral decision on a member of our military – uniform or civilian? The is beyond a failure of interagency cooperation.

This beyond-boneheaded decision undermines not only our ability to engage in the struggle for minds and wills played out primarily in AM and FM in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the “market” Bunairee used to work and had to physically escape from – it also sends a message to other reporters currently and potentially working for America.

I recommend you read Jeffrey Hirschberg’s column in The Washington Post for more.

Broadcasting Board of Governors: empty seats at the public diplomacy table

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, is the agency overseeing all United States public diplomacy broadcasting, that is non-military broadcasting for audiences outside of the territorial US.

It is also the name of the Board that governs those broadcasts that nominally consists of nine members, eight of which are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. By law, no more than four members may be from the same political party (in effect, four Republicans and four Democrats). The ninth member is the current Secretary of State (ex officio).

The BBG is also the agency everybody seems to love to hate.

In the spirit of the popular incumbency chart published here on the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, below you’ll find a unique chart and timeline on the membership of the Board that you won’t find anywhere else.

Continue reading “Broadcasting Board of Governors: empty seats at the public diplomacy table”

Monitoring What You Say

In 1948, 70-75% of Voice of America broadcasts were outsourced.  The National Broadcasting Corporation, now more commonly known as NBC, had complete control over the broadcasts it produced and sold to VOA.  For a radio series named “Know North America,” its purpose clearly established by its name, NBC hired a Cuban author and a Venezuelan supervisor to produce the series in Spanish for Latin America.
In one episode, a Latin American is shown around Cheyenne, Wyoming, and told the history of the state by a guide.

Tourist: “Do we still have Indians in Wyoming?”
Guide: “Yes…Our Indian maidens run in races dressed in nothing but feathers.”

In another episode on Texas, the Latin American asks, “Don’t you have a saying that Texas was born in sin but New England was born in hypocrisy?”

Needless to say, NBC and CBS, who had a similar arrangement with VOA, lost their contracts and VOA took full control over their products.

Fast forward to the present and to a post by Mike Waller at his Political Warfare blog about a music video titled “DemoKracy” by a Swedish-Iranian band.

From Mike:

The “reporter,” shown at right holding the microphone in the first part of the video, is the VOA employee, Melody Safavi, whose married name is Arbabi. This blogger has learned that VOA fired her after an Iranian former political prisoner filed a complaint to Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, but her husband Saman Arbabi, who directed the video, reportedly is still on VOA staff. …

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which governs VOA, has long denied problems with its controversial Iran services. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been raising concerns for a year about the broadcasts to the Islamic republic, but the BBG and State Department were dismissive. Last spring, this blogger also submitted a set of written questions to outgoing Under Secretary of State Hughes at the request of a senior aide, and received a written response that ignored or evaded the answers. It’s time for BBG and State to catch up with the new leadership at RFE/RL and tackle the larger problems of US broadcasting into Iran.

I think Mike gives too much credit to BBG being able to sort anything out (although with James Glassman’s pending appointment to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, it may not matter what the BBG could do). The BBG has a history of denying problems.  The same goes for Karen Hughes.

The real issue here is the trust the Congress has of the BBG and its operations. This same concern is what led to the establishment of what was then called the Advisory Committee on Radio Programming and is now known as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.  How then to establish the trust and credibility of the BBG with the Congress?  This would include establishing the baseline on the purpose and allowances for the BBG’s operations.


Africa in the QDR

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) published by the DefenseDepartment is generally taken as a (not ‘the’) roadmap for future
strategy and force structuring of United States Armed Forces. As such,
it is a good read. Frequently, the more interesting read is what
various groups "hear" in the document and what they highlight. Looking
at the Voice of America (VOA), it is noteworthy they highlighted a
small theme in the report: Africa. Within the 92 page report, Africa
does not get too much attention.

Continue reading “Africa in the QDR”