Off the Air
The Voice of America will cease broadcasting its flagship English radio programs by year's end.
For decades, intrepid American travelers and expatriates roaming the globe could count on the Voice of America to keep them informed about that which we call news: war, political upheaval, natural disasters, scientific discoveries, even cultural events. Relying on hard-to-jam shortwave radio frequencies, the government-owned broadcasting service kept people in even the most repressive nations in touch with world events. Americans weren't the intended audiences for these broadcasts, but rather English speakers (and those striving to become English speakers) who lived in totalitarian states or undeveloped regions where reliable news was often impossible to find. VOA's global English service, called News Now, like the British Broadcasting Corp.'s World Service, proved an information lifeline to millions during the Cold War.
But the Cold War is history, and ever fewer people depend on shortwave broadcasts for information. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which overseas VOA and other government-owned news services, announced in February that it would modernize broadcasting operations and boost programs deemed central to the war on terror. According to a statement released by the board, it faced "painful choices" to pay for expanded coverage in the Middle East and new television and Internet programming. As a result, it will cut VOA's News Now broadcasts, along with those in Georgian, Greek, Turkish, Croatian and Thai, at the end of the fiscal year. The board estimates the cuts will save about $23.7 million.
There is widespread agreement that the United States should expand its use of television and the Internet-the mediums reaching most people now-and target broadcasting operations in regions vital to American interests. But in a war where administration officials say winning hearts and minds is a criti- cal objective, VOA radio broadcasts are a surprising casualty.
What's striking about the cuts is they come just as China, Russia and the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network all have announced plans to expand their own broadcasting operations-in English.
"A lot of countries have found it worthwhile to establish a global broadcasting presence in English," says Kim Andrew Elliott, an audience research analyst with the International Broadcasting Bureau. Elliott, who stresses that his views are his own and not those of VOA or its parent organization, says that while the shortwave listening audience is on the decline, VOA's global reach is extraordinary, and shortwave capability remains a significant advantage. Hostile governments can block Internet access, television broadcasts and medium frequencies, but it is much harder to block shortwave frequencies. "Shortwave is a fail-safe," Elliott says.
VOA will continue broadcasting a program known as Special English, which is aimed at beginning English speakers (basic information is spoken slowly, using a limited vocabulary), and English to Africa, which is broadcast in Anglophone countries on that continent and focuses on African, not global, news. Neither program approaches the breadth and depth of News Now.
One longtime News Now staffer who supports the decision to increase broadcasts to the Middle East also believes that VOA should reassess English language broadcasting and put greater emphasis on television and Internet productions. But cutting the global news service strikes him and others as penny-wise and pound-foolish: "The U.S. government has unilaterally surrendered English to our enemies. Is this the way to fight the global war on terror?"
Even The Wall Street Journal-usually a champion of federal spending cuts-finds the VOA budget shortsighted. Editors wrote in a Feb. 17 editorial, "Everyone supports improving broadcasting to the Middle East. What's disconcerting is the notion that this demands a trade-off." The Journal recommended that Congress restore VOA's budget until the issue can be further studied: "In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't sound like a huge sum to tack onto the proposed 2007 budget of $2.77 trillion, while America fine-tunes its Voice."