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New Voices of America

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
March 23, 2007

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The annual U.S. budget debates spotlight huge outlays for areas like defense, agriculture, and foreign aid. To the extent international broadcasting gets mentioned at all, it usually involves a debate over reshuffling priorities—choosing one language and region over another in the competition for resources. This year, that concern is focused on proposed reductions (VOA) in English-language broadcasts on the Voice of America, and in foreign-language broadcasts to the former Soviet sphere, as well as to Tibet (Variety.com).

But the overall budget sought by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees U.S.-funded international broadcasting, is by no means insignificant. At nearly $670 million (PDF), it would represent a continued spending surge for such broadcasting since 9/11, and is comparable to funding levels during the height of the Cold War. In scope and technology, the new broadcasters have moved far beyond the shortwave-radio era, as this new Backgrounder notes. There are new programs in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and other languages deemed crucial in contesting the “global war on terror.” In addition to radio transmissions, U.S. broadcasters now stream broadcasts online, send text information via cell phone, and beam satellite television to the Middle East. Web sites run by the seven U.S.-funded broadcast entities record tens of millions of page views per month.

Yet measuring the impact of the U.S.-funded entities has proven difficult. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) has repeatedly called on the BBG to come up with a strategy for gauging the results of its Muslim-focused broadcasts. A report released in August 2006 repeated these concerns and found the Middle East broadcasts, which receive the lion’s share of new funding, use flawed methodology (PDF) in measuring audiences. The BBG has pledged to respond to the GAO concerns. Meanwhile, it continues to fend off criticisms that its music-based programming to Arabic- and Farsi-speaking audiences lacks credibility. Others say a station like VOA is ill-equipped to compete with popular sifters of U.S. culture such as YouTube (IHT) At the same time, congressional experts like Mark Helmke, a senior Republican staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tells CFR.org that the new broadcast entities have not demonstrated they are sophisticated enough to explain U.S. foreign policy to their audiences.

This year’s budget debate also occurs at a time of new concern over the content of reports by some of the new Farsi- and Arabic-language services. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Information, has raised alarm over Radio Farda, singling out what he said was questionable coverage (WashTimes) of President Bush’s State of the Union address. And a recent op-ed from Joel Mowbray in the Wall Street Journal said Alhurra TV is ignoring what he called “Arab voices for freedom,” while airing live speeches from Hezbollah and Hamas leaders.

Some international broadcasting experts say clarity will only come to U.S. broadcasts when greater attention is paid to the BBG, its oversight board. The board currently has two vacancies and the remaining six appointed slots are all expired, giving it a lame-duck quality (WashPost) In the raft of public diplomacy reports since 9/11, a number of them called for consolidating broadcasters into one entity. A Heritage Foundation paper urged curtailing the BBG’s role to an advisory capacity. Alvin Snyder, who once directed the former U.S. Information Agency’s TV and film service, says it would be better to make the BBG chairman full time (PDF) to devote his attention to guiding the unwieldy domain of U.S. international broadcasting.

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