by Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti)

For the past 10-15 years, as the annual budget time nears, there’s a haunting presence in the halls of the Voice of America, call it, if you will, Mme La Guillotine furtively hovering in the background as broadcasters wonder whether this year it will be all over and they will be declared extinct like the dodo bird, a fading blip on the international broadcasting scene. A small cabal from the Executive Staff on the third floor of the Cohen Building, known as Valhalla to rank-and-file, stride to and fro with furrowed brows from meeting to meeting buttressed by bulging binders and glowing PowerPoint presentations, as they ponder the fate of the VOA language services in what some think is a macabre reenactment of the thumbs-up or down of Roman Coliseum days.

Some Services are plagued with this recurrent nightmare year after year as grating as a needle stuck in the groove of a scratched LP or maddening as the events in the film, Groundhog Day.  One of them is the VOA Georgian Service, doomed and then redeemed not once but many times. The Service was first saved from extinction by a VOA Director after a persuasive presentation by the service members together with a panel of knowledgeable experts.  In succeeding years, that pesky Mme La Guillotine persisted in prowling around the parameters of the Georgian Service. In ’08,  they were again on the chopping block but were saved, this time by the intervention of two gutsy Congresswomen, one who chaired the Congressional Georgian Caucus and believed that the Republic of Georgia was of great geo-political importance to the United States, a seemingly foreign concept to those making the decisions on diminishing the Voice of America. Fast forward to 2011 when VOA Georgian celebrated its 60th year of broadcasting with well-deserved congratulatory messages and celebration. With those cheers for VOA Georgian achievements still a fresh memory, the fate of the Service once again hangs in the balance with severe cutbacks proposed in 2012, keeping only two employees who will be expected to produce high-quality TV and Internet – a recipe for potential failure.

In the ’08 proposed closures which Georgia barely escaped thanks to swift action by Congress, VOA Tibet was also scheduled to go off the air but escaped like its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who had been forced into exile to India many years before.  Last year, the VOA Tibetan Service, created by law in 1991, celebrated its 20th anniversary at festivities replete with kudos and toasts to its accomplishments. The very next year, perhaps because of the anniversary curse, third-floor executives announced that VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts, described by the Dalai Lama as a crucial lifeline to the outside world for his oppressed people, would be off the air leaving TV and the internet. BBG executives are evidently oblivious to the fact that only exiled Tibetans in India can see VOA Tibetan TV since transmissions are effectively blocked within the country just as Chinese authorities prevent any internet access.  One of those fabled and familiar “oh well” moments.

Speaking of the bad-luck connection between VOA anniversaries and disaster, the Russian Service celebrated its 60th anniversary with much hoopla only to be unceremoniously shut down a year later in August of ’08 two weeks before the invasion by Russia of neighboring Georgia.  Ignoring the specific written advisory of Congress that radio/TV broadcasts to Russia be continued, the BBG transferred VOA Russian to the internet only with the inevitable result that it lost its listeners, prestige, and reach. Four years later, we see an aggressive Russia caught in the vise of an autocratic Putin and his plutocracy with unprecedented-since-the Cold-War venomous anti-American attacks issued from its ruling circles as our U.S. ambassador frantically strives to connect via Twitter.

The revolving-door scenario is repeated with the VOA Greek Service year after year: dumped and then resurrected, closed and then opened like a barn door in a windstorm.  Appeals to Congress and support from American Hellenic organizations kept turning the tide but again this year the Red Queen refrain – Off with their heads – is heard as the Greek Service faces closure for mysterious reasons known only to a select few perhaps in the secluded holy monasteries of Mount Athos.

The VOA China Branch narrowly dodged the infamous VOA anniversary curse last year when the U.S. Congress overruled the BBG‘s plans to cut radio/TV broadcasts to China and transfer its communication functions solely to InterNet which is almost totally blocked by China’s formidable cyber army. The Branch properly celebrated its 70th anniversary not in the confines of the VOA building but in the Rayburn Building of the U.S. Congress.

In March, the VOA celebrated its 70th anniversary with a glowing tribute to its influence and impact throughout the world over seven decades with congratulations from the U.S. President, the Secretary of State, video greetings from the Dalai Lama and Burmese activist Aung Suu Kyi, all kinds of hosannas from near and far, from inside and outside the building.

Knowing the track record of anniversary celebrations preceding extinction, one can only wonder if the BBG knows something that VOA employees do not.

Moral of the story? 

Beware of management emissaries from Valhalla bearing cake.