2011 06 07 NYT Digital Retooling of Voice of America Faces Political Hurdles – NYTimes.com
A New Voice of America for the Age of Twitter
WASHINGTON — When Walter Isaacson championed Voice of America’s decision to shut down its shortwave radio broadcasts to China — and shift those funds to the Internet, cellphones and other forms of digital media — he viewed it as the sensible updating of a propaganda playbook dating from the cold war.
But nothing is simple in the world of government broadcasting. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and staunch critic of China, condemned the move, saying it would deprive Chinese listeners of unfiltered news. It amounted, he said, to an American retreat in the face of Beijing’s growing global influence.
“Who knew shortwave in China was a land mine?” said Mr. Isaacson, a onetime head of CNN who is chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and its four sister networks.
With the Obama administration embarking on a fundamental overhaul of Voice of America and other official broadcasters — one that seeks to adapt their traditional diplomatic missions to the era of Facebook and Twitter — Mr. Rohrabacher’s response could be a foretaste of battles to come.
As part of its yearlong review, Mr. Isaacson’s board is seeking ways to streamline and modernize Voice of America and its sister networks: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra, and Radio and TV Martí. Each service has its protectors in Congress — Cuban-American lawmakers fiercely defend Radio Martí, for example — and they are likely to view any change as a threat.
“It’s going to take some tilling of the ground,” acknowledged Mr. Isaacson, who brings the perspective of both a media executive and an aspiring diplomat (he has been in line for senior jobs at the State Department).
While the need for the United States to get its message across to an often hostile world is greater than ever, Mr. Isaacson said, digital technology risks turning these services into relics of a bygone era, when dissidents in closed societies huddled over their transistor radios for scraps of information from the West.
To be sure, the broadcasters have made significant strides. Voice of America is inviting listeners to file reports about the uprisings in Bahrain on Facebook, while Radio Free Asia is aggressively developing technology to circumvent firewalls that the Chinese government puts up to block its transmissions.
Yet in a brutal budget climate, the money for foreign broadcasting is shrinking. And the competition is relentless. In Egypt alone, 12 new commercial television channels have sprouted up since the January revolt.
“It’s not the neatly defined world of the cold war,” said Robert McMahon, a former news director of Radio Free Europe, which reinvented itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall by beaming into countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It’s a crowded, chaotic media marketplace.”
Mr. Isaacson’s solution sounds like the blueprint for a state-owned CNN: create a state-of-the-art global newsroom that would gather all the programming generated by the five networks and send it out via television, the Web, social-media services, mobile phones — even shortwave, where it still makes sense.
To run Voice of America, Mr. Isaacson has recruited David Ensor, a former CNN and ABC News correspondent who is finishing a stint as director of communications and public diplomacy at the American Embassy in Kabul. During his two years in Afghanistan, Mr. Ensor said, one of his biggest achievements was helping set up an Afghan company that offers SMS text messaging services.
“Whether it’s Voice of America or my previous employers, CNN or ABC, they need to be on the Internet, on Flickr and on Twitter,” Mr. Ensor said by phone from Kabul, where he was packing to leave.
The United States government may be the largest broadcaster that few Americans know about. Although its networks reach 100 countries in 59 languages, they are banned from distribution in the United States by a 1948 law devised to prevent the government from turning its propaganda machine on its own citizens. Mr. Issacson wants to rewrite that law, saying it is obsolete in the Internet age.
In some countries, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe have iconic brand names and loyal audiences. But other, newer government broadcasters have a more checkered history. The signals of Radio and TV Martí are jammed by the Cuban government and reach few people on the island.
Alhurra, an Arabic-language satellite television service started by the Bush administration in 2004 to counter the influence of Al Jazeera, has struggled to build an audience in the Middle East. It has also weathered criticism on Capitol Hill for airing the views of militant leaders from Hamas and Hezbollah.
Still, officials said Alhurra had attracted record viewers and hits on its Web site during the protests in Egypt, where it was the last network to carry a live feed from Tahrir Square. And its reporters are embedded with rebel fighters in Libya. A NATO airplane is beaming broadcasts into the country.
“It has attracted a sizable new audience; the question is, can it keep that audience?” said S. Enders Wimbush, chairman of Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which oversees Alhurra and its sister network, Radio Sawa.
The broadcasting board is also trying to reallocate money to take account of shifting geopolitical realities. Radio and TV Martí, for example, currently soak up the lion’s share of the total Latin American broadcasting budget. Looking beyond Fidel Castro, the board wants to use Radio Martí’s studios in Miami to broadcast all over the region, said Michael Meehan, a board member.
The overall budget for government broadcasting in the 2011 fiscal year is $748 million, down from $759 million last year.
China is emblematic of the difficult choices. The Mandarin- and Cantonese-language shortwave broadcasts are closely identified with Voice of America; shutting them down will mean letting go up to 45 longtime employees. But officials said they reach only one-tenth of 1 percent of China’s population.
Radio Free Asia — a so-called surrogate service that focuses on delivering news about China rather than the United States — will take over some of Voice of America’s better shortwave frequencies. That is important, officials said, because some jailed political dissidents do get news from the service on transistor radios.
Yet “China has moved dramatically from radio to Internet,” said Libby Liu, the president of Radio Free Asia.
Ms. Liu said she spends most of her time trying to figure out how to get around Chinese government firewalls that make it difficult for young people to get Radio Free Asia’s broadcasts on the Internet or their cellphones.
“We have to put circumvention technology on mobile phones,” she said. “The key to reaching people electronically is breaching the firewall.”