Journalism in the Public Interest

Voice of America to Cut Language Services

The Voice of America plans to eliminate seven radio language services this year, reflecting the Bush administration’s emphasis on outreach to the Muslim world. Among the cuts are the radio and TV broadcasts of the Russian service, along with radio broadcasts in Ukrainian, Serbian, Hindi, Macedonian, Bosnian and Georgian.

Credit: Flickr User: Billy VCritics blame the cuts on the hundreds of millions of dollars absorbed by Alhurra, the U.S. government-funded Arabic television news channel. ProPublica has published two reports on turmoil and waste at the network.

VOA employees have long been unhappy with the direction of the agency, which currently broadcasts in 45 languages.

More than a third of VOA employees, nearly 500, signed a petition in 2004 protesting the “dismantling” of the agency. The protest came after the creation of Alhurra and Radio Sawa, the Arab radio service that VOA employees say relies on popular music and entertainment at the expense of substantive news programming, VOA’s hallmark. The services replaced VOA’s Arabic programming, which cost no more than $7 million a year. That’s far less than the “huge boondoggle” of Radio Sawa and Alhurra, said Tim Shamble, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1812. Alhurra and Radio Sawa have received nearly $500 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars since 2004.

Tish King, a spokeswoman for Voice of America, said the language services cuts are the result of “painful decisions” that reflect a focus on “places where, based on research, we can be most effective.”

The administration has been seeking cuts to various language services for years, only to be rebuffed by Congress. In 2006, the administration’s proposed budget for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the agency that oversees Alhurra and VOA) included reductions or eliminations in “non-war on terror related language services.” When the 2007 budget proposed reductions to even more services, Congress stepped in and provided funding to prevent it.

Among the reductions sought that year were broadcasts in Tibetan by VOA and Radio Free Asia, another U.S.-backed effort. A contingent of Tibetan monks visited Capitol Hill to lobby the House appropriations committee not to reduce the broadcasts, and ultimately the broadcasts were spared. In fact, VOA and Radio Free Asia increased their broadcasts this spring in light of unrest in the country, King said. She said the shift was just part of the “very dynamic” nature of international broadcasting.

“The fact that Tibet was originally scheduled to be reduced and is suddenly not on the chopping block is a good indication of why it’s not a good idea to eliminate these languages,” said Myrna Whitworth, a 28-year veteran and former acting director of VOA. “You never know when they’ll be needed again. The idea of totally eliminating these services doesn’t make any sense.”

This time around, however, King said Congress is on board with the cuts, which will be effective in September. Matthew Dennis, a spokesman for Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the BBG, cautioned that the appropriations process for VOA funds hasn’t been finalized. He stressed that the agency’s funding increased annually between 2006 and 2008, although the administration’s proposed 2009 VOA budget is $185.6 million, about $10 million less than in 2008.

King said the cuts don’t mean that U.S. broadcasts for the affected areas will disappear. For instance, she said, Radio Free Europe will continue to broadcast in Georgia, and VOA will continue TV programming in Hindi even though radio broadcasts will cease. Whitworth and other VOA veterans, however, argue that surrogates like Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia do not have the same journalistic standards as VOA. King said those services provide “balanced news and information.”

Russia is a different animal. The Russian government’s successful effort to squelch airing of VOA or Radio Free Europe material by radio or TV affiliates has made Russia “a really challenging market,” King said. Given that VOA’s shortwave radio service had such a small audience—just two percent—she said broadcasting by Internet was the best option for VOA.

Shamble, the union representative for VOA employees, said that eliminating the shortwave broadcasts was precisely the wrong move, since they reach the country with little danger of being blocked. Internet broadcasts are far more vulnerable, he said.

Update/Correction: This post originally described a reduction to seven language services. It has been changed to clearly indicate that it is VOA’s radio services that are being cut. Also the post originally referred to cuts in the Tibetan services, which were only slated for reductions.

Since 9/11, the Voice of America has lost its way and those of us who work tirelessly to give the world an unbiased, objective and relevant message think it is high-time to either shut it down or clean it up.  The way it is managed now is a disgrace to a proud organization and one of the best known brand names in the world - outside of the United States.

I plead with Congress - in the strongest possible terms - to thoroughly investigate why, for the last 8 years, this administration has been hell-bent on using taxpayer dollars to fund a broadcasting organization that has become the laughing stock of the middle east by dumping an estimated $500 million into AlHurra TV in a feeble effort to legitimize what is widely seen as an effort by the “great crusader (The United States) to win hearts and minds.

Tell listeners the truth and you will be believed.  Give them garbage and you won’t.  A recent television program on AlHurra on the popularity of wearing jeans is but one example.

Instead of pumping millions of dollars into TV, why not re-invigorate shortwave radio which can reach places on this earth like nothing else can?  VOA and the other taxpayer funded broadcasting operations can reach tens of millions of people for a fraction of the cost of TV using proven technology which is seeing a renaissance everywhere else in the world but here..  The Internet is also a viable option but it can be unplugged at the whim of an ideologically hostile government. 

TV needs local stations to re-broadcast programs.  So do AM and FM radio stations.  The Internet needs a local host.  A broadcast from Greenvile, NC, where the VOA shortwave transmitters are located, can reach any part of the world.  New technology - digital shortwave - can now deliver a signal with the quality of an FM radio station, at lower cost with lower power consumption.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors will say there is no audience for shortwave.  Funny how their argument works:  shut down transmitters and then take a survey in the area the transmitter used to serve to find out there is no audience.  Borat would be proud!

I am mad as hell, both as an employee and as a taxpayer, that the policy wonks won’t do what is right, only what is necessary to satisfy the wants of a few major campaign contributors who made their fortunes in TV.

Wake up and smell the electrodes!

Timothy Shamble

July 10, 2008, 11:54 a.m.

I wish I would have had the opportunity to respond to the BBG’s spokesperson’s comments before the article was published but at least I can comment here. 

The only real “painful decisions” that are being made are by those federal workers who are currently performing an important government service by providing news and information about the United States to places such as Russia, Ukraine, India, and Georgia and are now having their work denigrated.  They have to make decisions on how they will pay for their child’s college education, keep a roof over their heads and food on their table.  So much for all their government service.  All the while the BBG has no problem pumping more and more money into a project that apparently funds ghost employees in Iraq and talking head guests. Wouldn’t it be better to keep the federal employees in Washington, D.C. broadcasting to places such as Russia, Ukraine, India, and Georgia at a fraction of the cost of what the BBG is spending on Al Hurra and Radio Sawa?

The BBG’s audience figures have been called in to question by many including the GAO.  The Board often cites audience figures that were only measured after they had already cut frequencies and broadcasts.

The BBG’s method of determining what broadcasts should be cut also seems to be seriously flawed.  Using their method it was determined that they should cut broadcasts to Turkey, a moderate Islamic state with a secular government right before 9/11.  This past year their method determined that broadcasts to Tibet and China were no longer important right before the unrest in Tibet and the earthquake and flooding in China.  Their system determined that it was a good idea to eliminate all radio broadcasts to Uzbekistan and to rely solely on televison.  Shortly thereafter the Uzbek government shut down all the VOA TV broadcasts to that country and the Board was forced to scramble to reestablish the radio broadcasts at who knows what expense.  Their system also determined that despite the importance and prevalence of the English language it would be a good idea to eliminate the VOA global English broadcasts. You have to wonder how the Board’s decisions nearly always have the same answer - cut radio broadcasts. The list of bad decisions goes on and on.  I think consulting my Magic 8 Ball would get better results.  I’d be happy to lend it to them.

These cuts shoould be prevented by shifting funding form Al Hurra and Radio Sawa to the Voice of America.

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