by Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti)

In November 2011, at a forum sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Council and reported on by Adam Clayton Powell III, participants heard that the newest 2011 VOA audience figures showed an increase of 22 million for the international broadcasting audience in comparison with 2010.  Good news, of course, and fast on the heels of a brand-spanking-new Strategic Plan unveiled just a month prior and authored by the IBB spokesman at the forum, the Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Measurement of the United States Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

In those 2011 VOA audience figures, “the biggest success on the planet” is how the IBB spokesman described U.S. broadcasting in Afghanistan.  Evidently, the data showed three-quarters of the entire country watches or listens to American broadcasts. Additionally, 400,000 Afghans subscribe to BBG text messaging services. According to available research data, less than half of the population in Afghanistan has a TV and only a tiny minuscule has access to the Internet. Therefore, it would not be difficult to deduce that radio, for the time being, is by far the most powerful medium in the country to reach potential listeners.

In reaction to the news about the impact and popularity of U.S. broadcasting in Afghanistan, the BBG/IBB in its FY-2013 budget submission decided to cut those evidently powerful VOA radio broadcasts to Afghanistan while proposing to release eight seasoned VOA broadcasters. In so doing is the Agency, as some wonder, transferring the functions away from VOA’s federal employees to the RFE/RL surrogate grantee, thereby opening up the back door to de-federalization?

That non-sequitur in deciding to cut VOA Afghan broadcasts in spite of their importance and popularity is rivaled by the announcement in the FY-2013 budget that VOA will cut most of its English-language broadcasts to the world including China and the Middle East. This decision ignores the fact that according to some, English is or should be the official language of the United States, remains the language of diplomacy, culture, and commerce in the world as well as being the second language of choice for millions of people around the globe from Albania to Zambia. One can only wonder if the BBC, plus Radio Canada International and Radio Australia, perhaps inspired by the daring VOA example, will soon cut its English-language broadcasts to the world as well.

At the Public Diplomacy forum, there came a “medium is the message” a la Marshall McLuhan moment when the IBB spokesman stated: “Impact cannot be reduced to audience, but you cannot have impact without audience,” adding that broadcasting needs to look at specific audiences – not just traditional elites, but young people and women.” Actually, the Voice of America has been doing that for many years, informing audiences with the latest news and commentary and tailoring its back-half features to the diverse interests of its listeners with programming aimed at a cross-section of the listening audience: farmers, students, teachers, engineers, politicians, elites, business people, young/old, men/women, rich and poor. In its music programs, the VOA of the not-too-distant past broadcast the full spectrum of American music: opera and classical music, country, Broadway, folk, pop, rock, hip-hop, blues, jazz and never concentrated solely on rock and pop music, as in Radio Sawa to the Middle East, as if that were the only musical genre produced in America.

Beyond audience growth, another goal of the Strategic Plan, said its author, is for VOA and other U.S. broadcasters to embrace user content and use material created by listeners and viewers. According to the IBB spokesman at the forum, the “value-added” by U.S. international broadcasting would be checking and verifying the accuracy of material submitted by the audience. Unfortunately, the “check-and-verify” concept was challenged by the recent gaffe of the VOA Russian website which published a completely fictitious interview supposedly with a leader of the anti-Putin dissident movement in Moscow, Alexei Navalny, who announced to the world that the VOA interview was totally bogus and conducted via cyberspace with an impostor. “Value added” is a slippery slope, indeed.

One questioner at the PD forum said he could not find the phrase “public diplomacy” anywhere in the Strategic Plan.  “Correct,” said the Strategic Plan author, the reason being:  “Objective journalists by and large, don’t subscribe to the idea that they are changing people’s attitudes,” continuing that “attitudinal and behavioral change is the hope, but not a direct goal.”  And the explanation finished with:  “we don’t do the advocacy piece. Good things will come from good journalism.”

Crystal-clear.  Forget the WHAM (Winning Hearts and Minds) factor.

That comment is in sharp contrast to the words of the distinguished public diplomacy expert, Walter Roberts, whom many credit with being one of the founding fathers of VOA. At the recent 70th birthday celebration of VOA, Walter Roberts stated: As the information revolution proceeds, diplomacy will become much more public diplomacy and public diplomacy cannot exist without international broadcasting. When I predict that in 30 years the Voice of America will exist, I also predict that Deutsche Welle will also exist, that the BBC will exist because international broadcasting is a vital part of public diplomacy.”

Although public diplomacy was indeed omitted in the latest Strategic Plan, former BBG Chairman, Walter Isaacson, placed international broadcasting at the center of our national security. In his remarks when the Strategic Plan was unveiled, Mr. Isaacson said: “Our media outlets – VOA, RFE/Radio Liberty, Alhurra TV, and Radio Sawa, RFA, and Radio/TV Marti – are a vital, cost-effective national security asset, whose impact is felt by some 166 million people weekly across the globe where critical U.S. interests are at stake.”

That difference of opinion is reflected in the current state of affairs at the BBG/IBB where there is an obvious disconnect about the true mission of international broadcasting between upper management and some middle-managers together with most of the rank-and-file.  Over the past few years, that disconnect is also obvious with the U.S. Congress which has consistently overruled the plans of the BBG/IBB in the national interest and the interests of national security.

The VOA ensemble trudges on and plays its heart out in spite of who happens to be the leader or conductor at any given time. Many directors embraced their duties conducting the VOA ensemble with enthusiasm, earning respect and admiration; others were indifferent or perceived the employees as a bothersome and unruly bunch, preferring to keep interaction to a minimum. Regardless of whether the Director was a gem or a lemon or whether upper management knew the score or didn’t, the broadcasting band continued to play on and does so now until such time as its voice will be silenced.

Not much different from the musicians in this video playing Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” with the irrepressible rascal, Victor Borge, at the podium.

Link to Video