BBG Watch Commentary

A longtime Voice of America (VOA) shortwave and medium wave listener in Asia has written this letter after VOA shortwave transmissions were abruptly cut last month without any warning to VOA listeners or even VOA radio program hosts.

Victor GoonetillekeDear Chairman Shell and Broadcasting Board of Governors Members,

On the 1st of July barely 3 days before American Independence, the airwaves fell silent of VOA broadcasts to millions of people in Asia. For a country like the USA to go off so abruptly after nearly 75 years of bringing every major event in the USA to us, this was unimaginable. Listeners started to call me to ask what was happening.  These are loyal people, who valued the USA and above all friends of the USA. In Sri Lanka, we followed Britain as a former colony, but the powerful signals of the VOA which once ruled the airwaves turned even our English to American English, from the day we heard the  word “Program Schedule” pronounced the American way. The daily editorial reflecting the views of the Government of the USA spoke directly to the people of the world, be they friend or foe.

In that backdrop listeners cannot understand  why the VOA left when it still has so many listeners. When the  Deutsche Welle,  Radio Netherlands and even the Voice of Russia left the airwaves, it was totally different, because we associate the VOA with the USA as a world leader and a superpower.  The only reason I would accept for the BBG to cut its shortwave transmission is if the USA can’t really afford to be on shortwave.  When the VOA left the airwaves without warning, it was a slap in the face of these thousands of listeners who followed America and events there. Those broadcasts earned their respect and a sense of belonging to the American way of life. It dealt a devastating blow to the image of the USA and shook the confidence people have in the United States. In the eyes of the public the image of the USA comes crashing down. It is like a nation who has retired living on a pension and has to think twice before going out to a restaurant. Has America lost its will to lead?

People decorate their houses and do so many things to convey an image to others.  The VOA was a part of the USA that people all over the world felt and had a connection with the great nation. The decision makers at the BBG may not realize it and I am sure they do not because if they did they would not do what they did.

Doesn’t America have the means to say a proper good bye? Does the BBG care at all and what they would save by cutting shortwave? Is it an insignificant saving which the VOA cannot afford to speak to the world when billions are thrown away at other projects, even going to war and supporting conflicts.  

The argument might be posed that the Web  does it better. Does it?  Radio is a powerful means also for peripheral reasons I have mentioned above and also for what it does as a means of delivery.  A radio station, a broadcaster without radio waves is like a fish out of water.  The VOA threw away a position as a strong voice ( I don’t say the strongest voice as it abdicated that leading position starting a few years ago) on the shortwaves and became a voice lost amongst a million or billion other voices on the web. If someone says only shortwave enthusiasts listen to the VOA on Short Wave, then be prepared to find that soon there will be even fewer people listening via the web to the VOA.  The web is not just radio, its Games, Skype, e-mail, chat, sex, pornography, education, entertainment and finally maybe a means of listening to the radio.  

What VOA had to do at the turn of the century/millennium was not the start scaling down, demoralizing its program producers and making it harder and harder for listeners to hear VOA. It should have found resources for other platforms, but not at the sole expense of shortwave. BBG should have reorganized the Voice of America in a smart way.  

China was despised during the cold war years. Its hard propaganda turned people away from it as a crude propaganda device. China Radio International did exactly what the VOA failed to do. It increased its output on shortwave at the same time changing into a very listenable, but subtle propaganda voice for China. Soon it overtook the VOA and other western broadcasters and at times even seasoned VOA listeners wondered whether they were listening to the BBC or VOA. The Chinese got it right. The VOA was cutting down and in the face of the Chinese digital jamming, buckled down and  even without so much as a good bye left the airwaves.

Finally, why did I become a supporter of the American system? It is because of the VOA and getting to know about the US, its politics, arts, culture and people. I felt I knew the USA better than any other country in the world next to mine. (I took a recent Facebook tests of 50 questions a would be US Citizen should take and got 44 correct out of 50. That’s because of our link to the USA with VOA.  

What the BBG did was akin to  breaking diplomatic relations with Asia and the English speaking world. The VOA should have been the last international broadcaster to leave shortwave. Without doing so it abandoned the world of faithful listeners. BBG seems to be like the French Queen Mary Antoinette asking, why are people asking for shortwave? When the Internet is there? So out of step with the pulse of the world.

The USA has to have a link with the masses of the vast Asian continent, get at least English back on the airwaves and show them that America cares and has the resolve and is not a bankrupt power.


Victor Goonetilleke

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