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The Changing Scope of U.S. International Broadcasts

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
March 23, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

U.S. funding for non-military international broadcasting has surged since 9/11, with a special emphasis on reaching audiences in the Muslim world. The board that oversees such broadcasting is seeking about $670 million for the next fiscal year, part of which would go to expanding broadcasts to such crisis-prone states as North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. Critics say the traditional U.S. broadcasting structure has become unwieldy and that some of the new ventures, including the use of pop-music formats in the main Farsi- and Arabic-language broadcasts, are lessening the impact of what should be news and information services. Analysts continue to raise questions about the goals of U.S. international broadcasting.

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What is the purpose of U.S. international broadcasting?

U.S. policymakers consider broadcasting a pillar of U.S. public diplomacy, stressing its role in promoting freedom and democracy. The Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG), an independent agency charged with administering U.S. broadcasting, lists its priorities as providing objective news and information to “priority areas in support of the war against terrorism” as well as regions “where freedom of information is suppressed or denied.” The BBG says it fulfills its mission of promoting freedom and democracy by disseminating “factual and balanced news and information” to “enable our audiences to make informed choices on the vital issues that affect their lives.” But it is careful (PDF) not to give the impression of actively promoting regime change.

Its oldest surrogate broadcast service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, suggests a more transformative mission. It says its goal is to provide “objective news, analysis, and discussion of domestic and regional issues crucial to successful democratic and free-market transformations.”

In contrast, the mission of the largest service, the Voice of America, is to explain America to the world and provide reliable international affairs programming.

What is the Board of Broadcasting Governors?

The Board of Broadcasting Governors was created by Congress in 1994. Under the 1998 Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act (PDF) it assumed responsibility for overseeing all non-military U.S. international broadcasting. Among many changes, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were brought under the same organizational heading for the first time. The board is intended to be a firewall between the broadcast services and the government to avoid tampering. The BBG does not oversee day-to-day operations of the various broadcast services, but it was given more authority to micromanage the broadcast entities, such as its move in 2002 to create a new joint Farsi-language service composed of RFE/RL and VOA broadcasters. The bipartisan board consists of eight members from the fields of mass communications and foreign affairs, appointed by the president but reporting to Congress.U.S.public diplomacy chief Karen P. Hughes usually sits as the ninth, non-voting member. Some critics say the board has failed to adopt a strategy for gauging the impact of U.S. broadcasts, while others point to government neglect of its membership. The board currently has two openings and the terms of all other members have expired, leaving current members, including Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, to serve until replacements are appointed.

How extensive is U.S.-funded broadcasting?

After dipping to a post-Cold War low of about $420 million in 2000, spending on international broadcasting has risen to $650 million. U.S. broadcasters disseminate reports on satellite television, the Internet, and shortwave, FM, and middle wave radio in nearly sixty languages through the following agencies:

  • Voice of America (VOA). The flagship of U.S. broadcasters with programs in about forty-five languages on radio and twenty languages on television. It began broadcasting in 1942 as an effort by the Office of War Information to reach people in Nazi-occupied Europe. It took on a broader importance in the Cold War and has retained a central mission of informing other cultures about the United States and the world. It is mandated toinclude a U.S. government editorial in its daily reports. Its news reporting is generally well regarded and reports in English are widely cited on Internet news aggregator sites and blogs. The number of visitors to VOA’s site increased in 2006 to over 22.9 million, up from 17.3 million in 2005.

Some VOA supporters this year are protesting plans to eliminate broadcasts of the English-language “News Now” program. BBG officials say it is better to use existing resources to expand programming in Pashto to the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as develop new broadcasts in other strategically important areas. Former VOA deputy director Alan L. Heil, Jr. says if the cuts are approved, VOA English-language radio broadcasts will be essentially reduced to a few hours a day of programming tailored to Africa. “This, as al-Jazeera and Radio Russia launch around-the-clock TV services in English, China Radio International in Beijing plans to create a 24/7 English Internet service, and Iran expands its English broadcasts,” Heil wrote recently in Transnational Broadcasting Studies.

  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The famous Cold War-era station, run by the CIA until exposure of that link resulted in overt congressional funding in 1972, is one of several “surrogate” broadcasters focused on reporting to countries or regions where local media is suppressed or limited in their ability to deliver news and information. The station in 2002 added limited broadcasts in three North Caucasuslanguages—Chechen, Circassian, and Avar—and remains one of the largest international broadcasters programming in Russian. Plans for the fiscal year 2008 budget call for RFE/RL to eliminate services in Macedonian, and cut broadcasts in Romanian and Kazakh, making it more like “Radio Free Eurasia,” with increasing emphasis on Central Asia and Afghanistan. Overall, RFE/RL broadcasts in twenty countries in twenty-eight languages, most addressing a primarily Muslim audience. RFE/RL, which once boasted one of the world’s top research institutes on the Soviet bloc, retains a small analytic unit.
  • Radio Farda. The BBG created the 24-hour station in 2002 as a joint editorial venture of RFE/RL and VOA staffers based in Washington and Prague, succeeding RFE/RL’s “Radio Azadi.” The move drew controversy because of a shift to a pop-music format with embedded newscasts. But the station remains at the center of U.S. public diplomacy efforts to Iran. Along with VOA’s Farsi-language TV, the station is receiving a boost in funding, including a planned $20 million for VOA’s Persian service and $8.1 million for Radio Farda in 2008. The BBG has also directed considerable resources at expanding Radio Farda’s Internet presence. The station’s revamped web site said it received 4.2 million page views in December, the first month after it was revised.

“Information is not today’s scarce resource, attention is,” says Bruce Gregory.

Surveys commissioned by the BBG show Radio Farda is the most widely listened to international broadcaster in Iran. But critics say its music format has undermined its effectiveness. They also say split editorial control by RFE and VOA has muddled its message. BBG officials say it has improved outreach to Iran’s large under-thirty population and the station’s jamming by the Iranian regime shows it is having an impact. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow S. Enders Wimbush, a former director of Radio Liberty, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January 2007 the changes at Radio Farda were a result of government neglect. “Iran is easily as resonant a milieu for idea-induced change as, say, Poland or Russia,” Wimbush said, “but unfortunately both the war of ideas and the instruments that gave them life have been largely ignored by this administration.” But U.S. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told the same committee in March 2007 that the Farsi-language broadcasts were part of a comprehensive administration strategy aimed at fostering greater understanding between Iranians and Americans.

  • Radio Sawa. Concerned about low levels of listeners to VOA’s Arabic service, the BBC replaced it in 2002 with Radio Sawa, which broadcasts twenty-four hours per day on FM and medium-wave stations in Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf States, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco, and Egypt. The station is music and entertainment oriented, with embedded news and information. BBG officials say the radio station reached nearly 21 million people in its target region in 2006. It says Radio Sawa’s all-news web site averages more than 12 million page views per month. But some broadcasting veterans remain critical of the station’s music-oriented format, even while acknowledging it has attracted more listeners than the old VOA Arabic service. Former VOA Director Robert R. Reilly wrote recently in the Washington Post of Radio Sawa and Radio Farda: “We do not teach civics to American teenagers by asking them to listen to pop music, so why should we expect Arabs and Persians to learn about America or democracy this way?”

In a 2006 audit, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) called for more regular reviews (PDF) of programming by both Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, the U.S.-funded Arabic-language network. The GAO said it was not clear whether Radio Sawa and Alhurra met their targets of audience size because of “weakness” in survey methodology. It faulted the BBG for failing to take steps to clarify its audience estimates. The Board agreed that research could be improved but expressed concern that the GAO “displays a lack of understanding of field conditions and practical considerations that often require departures from ‘textbook’ survey methods.”

  • Alhurra TV. Created in 2004 in response to the explosion in Arab-language satellite stations like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, Alhurra was tuned in by 21.3 million people in 2006, according to BBG estimates. The three-year-old station’s annual report notes that its coverage included programs on the rights of women in Islam and comprehensive reporting on elections in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, and the Palestinian Territories. A survey of television viewing in 2006 in six Arab countries, led by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami showed Alhurra gained audiences (PDF) from 5 percent to 19 percent five days per week. Those numbers are lower than major Arab channels but seen as an improvement on previous U.S. efforts to broadcast to the region.
  • Radio Free Asia. Like RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia is a surrogate broadcaster created to broadcast news, information, and commentary to Asian countries with state-controlled media. It transmits programs to China, Tibet (including three local dialects), Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea. It has an especially active Internet presence in China and introduced expanded live coverage in Korean during 2006’s major developments in North Korea.
  • Radio/TV Marti. Radio Marti went on the air in 1985 and broadcasts twenty-four hours per day on AM and shortwave to Cuba. TV Marti first broadcast in 1990 and transmits four and a half hours per day from a balloon above Cudjoe Key, Florida. In accordance with the Broadcasting to Cuba Act of 1983, Radio and TV Marti follow the VOA journalistic code, mandating accuracy and objectivity. A 1999 report by the State Department inspector general accused Radio Marti of a “lack of balance, fairness, and objectivity” in its reporting. A Chicago Tribune article on the station in December 2006 cited recent internal reviews of the two Marti stations that found violations of basic journalism rules and reluctance to broadcast news “that could be perceived as adverse to the current presidential administration, the U.S. government, or the exile community.”

The number of listeners to Radio Marti has reportedly dropped in recent years and TV Marti’s audience is negligible. In both cases, BBG officials cite heavy jamming by Cuban authorities. Critics say the broadcasts are not credible for Cubans but others say the jamming efforts prove the Cuban regime fears their impact. “Castro would not take the hugely expensive and intensive efforts to block the Martis’ broadcast signals from reaching Havana if they were not doing their job,” writes Alvin Snyder, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy.

What impact do the broadcasts have?

BBG officials initially focused their retooling of the Middle Eastern broadcast services on raising listenership but have faced continuing questions from auditors like the GAO about measuring their impact. Unlike the days of broadcasting to the closed-off Soviet Bloc, experts say, today’s U.S. broadcasters face competition from a wide-open global media marketplace. “What is different today for the broadcasters as well as everyone else in public diplomacy is that information is not today’s scarce resource, attention is,” says Bruce Gregory, director of the Public Diplomacy Institute at the George Washington University.

“It’s hard enough to fund foreign assistance. Can you see Congress trying to fund an NPR for the world?” asks Mark Helmke.

One traditional goal of U.S. broadcasting, helping other cultures gain an understanding of the United States, seems to have become muddled, says Mark Helmke, a public diplomacy expert and senior Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If the goal here is to make them understand the full complexity of America and America’s role in the world and American foreign policy, I don’t think they have the sophistication needed to do that,” says Helmke. Gregory says the BBG needs to go beyond market research and invest in research that tries to determine whether the broadcasts are making a difference.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Information, recently cited examples of what he said were biased reports from Radio Farda and VOA Persian services that undermined U.S. foreign policy in Iran. He has asked the BBG to provide English-language transcripts of the stations’ programming.

Are they likely to continue to get congressional support?

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remains a major supporter of U.S. international broadcasting. The appointment process for board governors this year will likely be an indicator of how much support, or attention, broadcasting receives from other senators. According to Helmke, most members of Congress think the broadcast services promote American interests. But a full-fledged debate on the broadcasters’ purpose could result in new scrutiny on their role as information providers, he said, with repercussions for the mission of the BBG. “Congress never intended the broadcasting services to be America’s BBC,” Helmke said. “If the debate in Congress got focused on that, they would lose big time. It’s hard enough to fund foreign assistance. Can you see Congress trying to fund an NPR for the world?”

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