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  • Death by a 1000 Cut: Is the Government Trying to Kill VOA Radio Transmissions?

    Does radio still play a role in a world where that is increasingly cyber-connected and populated by smart phone users? The answer, according to Google’s Director of Policy and Planning Bob Boorstin, is very much a “yes.”

    At a panel discussion of the new media and foreign policy hosted by the World Affairs Councils of America at the Mayflower Hotel on November 5, 2010, Boorstin declared himself a big supporter of radio, reminding the audience that “there are many areas of the world which do not have access to the Internet, or even electricity.” In those areas, radio is the only way to reach an audience. The same goes for disaster areas like Haiti. In many countries, moreover, the government seeks to control Internet and cell phone networks, making them vulnerable media.

    It is therefore stunning to find that these simple and evident truths have lost support at the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is tasked with overseeing U.S. international broadcasting. Despite the fact that the budget of the BBG has increased significantly in recent years, the board has cited budget shortfalls for decisions to curtail short wave radio transmissions around the globe, focusing in stead on television (which is far more expensive to produce than radio) and Internet (which is far more vulnerable to interference).  Equally, or even more importantly, there is also a sense at the BBG that radio itself is so “yesterday,” a medium of the past. As important a language as Russian was eliminated several years ago, and the VOA’s Russian service now only exists as a web-based presence.

    In early October, directions went out from the VOA management that all shortwave transmissions on Voice of America (the flag ship of the U.S. international broadcasting complex) in several major world languages would be eliminated by October 31. This would effectively remove VOA’s reach throughout a large swath of the globe. The language services affected would be Mandarin, Spanish, French to Africa, and Indonesian. Just think about it for a moment: these are some of the most widely spoken languages around the world.

    Yet, the BBG budget allocation for 2010 was $745.5 million, up by almost 4 percent from the year before, and steadily increasing for the past several years. Either death by a thousands cuts is the strategy that is being applied to short-wave radio, or budgetary planning at the BBG and VOA leaves a lot to be desired. Considering that the BBG proposed in its 2010 budget shutting down the Greenville, South Carolina, transmitting station (the last U.S. government owned short-wave transmitted on continental U.S. soil), one might well conclude that the former is the case.

    Thankfully, cooler heads seem to have prevailed for now. The decision to shut down short-wave transmissions in Spanish, Mandarin, Indonesian, and French to Africa was put on hold by VOA management on October 28, just days before the great silence would have set in. To eliminate short-wave radio (the vast preponderance of VOA radio transmissions) from the set of tools possessed by the U.S. government in its outreach to the world would be extraordinarily shortsighted.

    Helle C. Dale is senior fellow in public diplomacy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    9 Responses to Death by a 1000 Cut: Is the Government Trying to Kill VOA Radio Transmissions?

    1. George Colgrove, VA says:

      Would it hurt to let this ancient technology go? Sure it has nostalgia, but what is the cost? 100's of millions of dollars? With the World Wide Web and patriots all around – and the desire for freedom growing around the globe, the internet is the future for the Voice of America. It need not be a government program – it only needs to be something run from the grassroots by volunteers. There would be droves of people willing to run their part out of their basement! The internet is far more effective on promoting freedom throughout the world and it is getting more so. Best part – it is free for the taxpayer.

      As for military base broadcasting, give them FCC free zones. Every military base around the world can put up a simple broadcast antenna with a 20 mile radius. Connect the antenna to a computer with streaming audio. Do not apply government regulations on it other than the regular obscenity stuff and allow the soldiers to "volunteer" to running it. Each base would have its own programming. Music, Rush and what ever! It would be for the base, but what would it hurt for locals to tune in if they wanted to?

      On the other side, at the time the internet is growing in effectiveness in spreading freedom, what does the DoD do? Initiate Cyber-Security by dumping 100's of billions if not trillions of dollars into surveillance of the entire internet for threats.

    2. Lynn Rosen says:

      Who do we contact in Washington to appeal for VOA radio to remain intact. It is not an ancient technology, but a current viable form of communication that is inexpensive and available world wide to those living below US prosperity levels.

    3. Roozbeh, Tehran says:

      This isn't an all-or-nothing issue. And radio isn't just shortwave. And money is a factor. Does it make sense, especially to conservatives, to spend a million dollars to reach ten goatherds in some remote mountains vs a million to reach ten thousand listeners who want FM in the capital of that remote country? Of course not. We are well past the era when international broadcasting meant shortwave, period. International broadcasters, to be relevant and survive, need to do TV, FM, Internet, mobile and have SW in the back pocket for when it's needed.

    4. Buck Crosby Hubert , says:

      This government will shut down any communications system they can not control the message on , or at least try very hard . They only want their own propaganda heard .

    5. Jim, CT says:

      Sounds like PBS International. I'd like to scrap PBS, too.

      Fiscal conservatives, I would think, would have some faith in the free markets and charitable foundations rather than fight to expand unConstitutional government programs.

    6. Lazer, Korea says:

      Shortwave remains affordable, viable and critical. FM radio relies on a host nation broadcaster. That's not an option in most hostile countries. AM has limited range and reaches moderate distances only at night. SW spans the globe, can be heard around the clock and is difficult to pervasively jam. I've been to 65 countries. There are still a lot of people in the world relying on SW radio. I've seen and heard it myself.

      Satellite TV reception equipment is expensive and easy for authorities to spot. The internet is tightly controlled in many countries (even here in South Korea it is partly censored). No average citizen has internet access in North Korea.

      China, meanwhile, is greatly expanding its shortwave services in multiple languages. Kind of ironic that on any spot in the world you can listen to China's broadcasts in English around the clock but not VOA.

    7. Keith, Taiwan says:

      The idea that shortwave is an out of date technology is just not true. You know that is shortwave had been invented this year, people would have called it amazing, being able to reach audiences around the world via radio waves where there is not gate keeping like with the internet. Yes it's true that shortwave in parts of the world is not important like in the US, Canada or most of Europe. But weekly around the world the Voice Of America attracts mot thousands, but millions of people in Asia, Africa, Latin America and other areas.

      Here in Taiwan we have super fast internet, but I still tune in daily to the Voice Of America on 7575khz, 9640khz and 9930khz between 1200UTC and 1600UTC. Now some of you may say why don't you listen on line. Well I can. I sometimes do when I went to listen to the VOA when they don't target to this region. But considering how strong the signal is and the audio quality is (as I type this 9930khz is clear like any local station), why not listen on shortwave? No need to be at my computer. I could be doing the dishes, or in my garden with the dogs. Often when I travel in this region the Voice Of America, BBC World Service, Radio Netherlands Worldwide is my only access to news and information. And considering how cheap it is to broadcast in shortwave to cut it is very short sighted. Some people would say the internet is cheaper. But add the costs. If you have lets say as an example 1 million people listening via the internet the energy used is far more than running a 250kw transmitter and radios use much less power than computers.

      The internet is easy to censor, shortwave is not. Yes some countries like China, Iran, Cuba and North Korea try to jam broadcasts, but it's not very effective and you can still tune in. But if they block the internet or turn off a satellite signal then silence.

      Yes it's true that in a city like Beijing or Shanghai as an example people won't listen to shortwave, but these two cities only account for less than 12% of the total population of 1.3 million people. The same can be said for India and many other places. In many parts of the world shortwave is even used for domestic broadcasting. The money spent on shortwave is economical.

    8. Leon Lundquist, Dura says:

      When Obama asked for an Internet Kill Switch? That stank pretty badly. But it looks like an operation in the Foreign Interest for us to defund VOA. Here in the States information is clamped down pretty tightly by the Captive Media, so perhaps taking out the Short Wave in America is a sinister sign. I don't know if the content on VOA is truly American, after all look at PBS and NPR. We Americans talk and talk about freedom, meanwhile our freedoms are out the window, something new every day. I wish Americans would stop talking and lead by example.

      Does the World know that we have our first Communist government? You don't suppose that goes out on VOA? Great when it was the truth being broadcast! But now? It is probably another billion dollars to promote Obamanation all over the globe. (That matches the billion we spend on PBS and NPR, to promote Communism at home!)

    9. GM, Virginia says:

      The arguments against cuts to VOA radio broadcasts are well-reasoned and logical.

      Unfortunately, logic and reason do not always apply in the Cohen Building where the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) resides.

      The cuts to the radio broadcasts have nothing to do with budget considerations. This is a convenient tool to divert attention away from an agenda which, to all appearances, intends to end the role of VOA as an international radio broadcaster. If that goal is achieved, the agency should be closed because it will have failed in its primary mission and undermined the effectiveness of US international broadcasting in reaching the maximum potential global audiences.

      For years, the BBG has approved a so-called "strategic plan" concocted by senior agency officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). This plan intends to place a heavy reliance upon the Internet as the primary delivery system for audio, video and text for VOA program output. Global realities make this approach ludicrous. This approach requires the acquisition of technology and the infrastructure to support it on foreign populations, many without the necessary means to do so.

      Particularly worrisome are the circumstances surrounding the termination of radio broadcasts to the Russian Republic. Shortly after these broadcasts ended in 2008, military forces of the Russian Republic invaded the neighboring Republic of Georgia. To this day, there has been no reestablishment of broadcasts to Russia, by neither the previous Bush administration nor the current Obama administration. There has been no move of any consequence by the Congress to legislate the return of these broadcasts. It is unclear what benefit to US interests is derived from the perpetuation of this situation. The Russian Republic is not known as an environment of press freedom. Major Russian media outlets are mouthpieces for the Russian government. At the same time, the absence of news and information from the United States government has allowed for the creation of an environment rampant with visceral Russian nationalistic sentiment on its airwaves, often virulently anti-American. The Russian people are worthy of a US broadcasting presence capable of rising to the challenge. Instead, the actions of the BBG are weak, contemptible and pathetic.

      It should also be noted that since going Internet-only, internal surveys show the VOA Russian service has had a wholesale and precipitous decline of people seeking news and information, compared to the numbers who were listening to VOA Russian radio broadcasts.

      Recently, the Heritage Foundation hosted a forum on US international broadcasting. At one point in the proceeding, three senior officials of the IBB/VOA verbally accosted an employee representative at the agency who was a forum participant. The behavior of these individuals speaks volumes to the nature of how government business in this agency is being conducted on behalf of the American taxpayer. It also speaks to the extent to which certain individuals will go to defend a "strategic plan" that is misdirected, undermines the global effectiveness of US international broadcasting and is clearly not in the national or public interest.

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