Beyond the Radio Days

 

Some view Voice of America as “stuck in the 1950s with short-wave radios,” as one of the agency’s Washington-based Africa TV hosts recently phrased it. But the onslaught of 21st century communications has outfitted the one-time Cold War broadcasters with a wider global reach via the Web and social media. And the demands of digital have forced some new thinking on old rules.

Currently transmitting on radio, television and the Internet in 43 languages, VOA is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2012 and is reaching a record audience of 141 million weekly. Its calculated blend of news, discussion and culture consistent with U.S. foreign policy is increasingly being delivered through cutting-edge communications tools. During a recent demonstration at its studios, VOA managers gave a sampling of the returns on their $205 million annual budget.

In the People’s Republic of China, OMG! Meiyu, VOA’s two-minute daily Internet video of English lessons for Mandarin speakers,
drew 6 million hits
in less than six months.
Its success through social media owes
much to the appeal of Ohio-born broadcaster Jessica
Beinecke, who plays bilingual word games while featuring youth-oriented footage of everything from the Ohio State University marching band to a humorous take on the “yucky gunk” that comes out of the human face
.

VOA has staffed booths at urban
festivals and held mock tryouts for
on-air personalities to boost blogging in largely Muslim Indonesia.
In the near-closed society of Myanmar, where the military dictatorship long kept a lid on
the digital revolution, the broadcaster’s Web traffic rose 26 percent after restrictions on the Internet were loosened. VOA’s journalists used a December 2011 visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
to land rare on-camera interviews
with  officials. 

To the extent possible, Beinecke says, VOA’s nearly 1,200 staffers follow up using interactive tools like Twitter and Android apps to encourage responses such as fan videos on YouTube, all the while tracking users’ names, ages, locations and occupations. 

The worldwide penetration of online content, however, has called into question one long-standing fact of life at VOA: The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act prohibits it from disseminating content to domestic U.S. audiences. “It’s anachronistic, since it’s all available on the Internet,” says Joan Mower, VOA’s director of development. The act was passed at a time when lawmakers feared the impact of foreign policy propaganda on American audiences (though that word is not in the law) and commercial broadcasters opposed the competition. Today, the restriction “makes it hard to get our message out,” which is why VOA’s parent body, the bipartisan Broadcasting
Board of Governors, wants it lifted, “so we can do a better job,” Mower says.

The oft-cited example is a 2009 incident involving a Minneapolis-based radio station that serves the Somali-American community, which housed several young men arrested for traveling to commit terrorism in that troubled African nation. The station owner sought permission to replay a VOA program designed to counter al Qaeda
propaganda, but VOA programmers nixed the proposal, citing Smith-Mundt. 

A comparable situation, Mower notes, is the community of native Tibetans
that has sprung up in Los Angeles. VOA programmers believe that broadcasting to them would result in key news being relayed privately to their relatives in that isolated country, which is tightly controlled by China.

Easing Smith-Mundt would “help take away the handcuffs on a small part of the government and allow it to operate in a truly global environment,” says Matt Armstrong, who until December was executive director of the now-disbanded
U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. But he complains about misinformation that has clouded the issue for decades. 

One example is the notion that the law prevents VOA from communicating with Americans, when in fact the ban is geographical—plenty of Americans can hear its broadcasts while overseas, he notes. Some incorrectly assume the State Department would lose resources and authority to communicate if the law were changed, and that Congress intended
the prohibition to apply to Pentagon communications, Armstrong says. 

Such complexity might be the reason that legislation to modernize Smith-Mundt, introduced in 2010 by Reps. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Adam Smith, D-Wash., is on hold pending further refinements. The bill would “revise an outdated law that interferes with the United States’ diplomatic and military efforts,” the sponsors said. The Office of Management and Budget has responded favorably to the bill’s goals as they apply to the agencies under the Broadcasting
Board of Governors, according to VOA staff. When the board in January announced that it was preparing draft legislation to streamline operations, it included language for repealing Smith-Mundt restrictions.

Also favoring a change is Jeffrey Trimble, the board’s executive director, whose task is to maintain the journalistic independence of VOA and its four allied operations such as Radio Martí (which broadcasts to Cuba) and Alhurra TV, the Arabic-language service that played a key role covering last year’s uprising in Egypt. “We’re about the news business, and we tell the journalistic story,” Trimble says.

Some of the BBG-supervised call-in shows, he says, “have prompted a common question from Capitol Hill—why do you put terrorists on the air? But that’s the point of journalism. It’s a messy business, and people come to the microphone and say outrageous things that we have to moderate.”

No VOA editor would tailor or
spike a story in response to political pressure in Washington, VOA officials say. “We have a rigorous review process if anyone says there is bias,” Mower says. Research into audience response, she says, focuses not on whether listeners like the United States more than previously, but on whether they have a better understanding of it. 

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