By Alan Heil
A SHORTWAVE CHRYSALIS TO A MULTIMEDIA BUTTERFLY: U.S. INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING THEN AND NOW
Last Monday was indeed a memorable day for historians of our nation’s publicly-funded international broadcasters. In the 20th century, these scholars were challenged to understand hot and Cold Wars, and convey what they learned, largely on shortwave radio. Now they must deal in an era of proliferating media vehicles carrying false or distorted information in milliseconds, an unimaginable array of often instantaneous challenges, globally.
On July 10, two forums documented those challenges in bold relief.
- VOA World War II historian Holly Cowan Shulman described the founding of the Voice of America (VOA), the nation’s largest publicly funded network now in its 75th year. She reviewed her classic book, The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945, during a monthly Annenberg School-Public Diplomacy Council forum at AFSA headquarters in northwest Washington.
- Earlier the same morning, three well known multimedia specialists of VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) outlined today’s many challenges in confronting a reported billion-dollar annual media expenditure by the Kremlin. They spoke at a forum jointly sponsored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and IREX, the International Research and Exchanges Board, at the latter’s headquarters a half mile west of AFSA. The PDC-USC First Monday event can be seen on YouTube.
VOA, from Radio Dramatization to Multi-Media News
Holly Shulman addressed the USC-PDC gathering based on her family’s firsthand experience, as well as her University of Virginia scholarly background. Her father, Lou Cowan, was the second director of VOA at the height of World War II (1943-1944) and her brother, distinguished USC scholar Geoff Cowan, was VOA’s 22nd director (1994-1996).
“In its earliest days, 1942-43,” Ms. Shulman recalled, “VOA’s first director, actor and producer John Houseman, supported dramatization and an entertaining twist to the news. VOA’s staff was less concerned with a straight recitation of the facts.” Some language services even encouraged audiences in Nazi-occupied areas to resist German rule or flee, with all the risks that might entail.
That changed in 1943, Holly Shulman added, “when the original leaders were asked to resign or given assignments elsewhere. Their successors, led by Lou Cowan, refashioned VOA from agitprop to telling the truth.” In VOA’s early years, Ms. Shulman recalled how its producers, recognizing the limitations of scratchy shortwave, forwarded original programming to London for clearer re-transmission to war-torn Europe. Their only concern: at times, the British censored the programs before re-broadcasting them to the continent.
Contrast that with America’s international broadcast outreach today. In 1942, it was several weeks before VOA received its first letter from a French listener. Its audience was only in the thousands; last year, the Voice reached 236 million listeners, TV viewers and Internet users. The other U.S.-funded international broadcasters — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting network in Arabic, and Radio/TV Marti to Cuba in Spanish — reached about 51 million in all languages. Together, the five networks broadcast in more than 60 languages.
Disinformation in Eurasia, and Current Time
At the BBG-IREX roundtable July 10, the panelists described a recently inaugurated unprecedented joint 24/7 multimedia daily production of two of the networks, RFE/RL and VOA. The Russian language program, Current Time, was the first such collaboration between two networks in the BBG system since RFE’s founding in 1949. Lyubov Vasylchuk, program manager at IREX Ukraine, spoke by video from that country. Seated at the panel table in DC were RFE/RL’s Daisy Sindelar, the Current Time director, and Irina Van Dusen, chief of VOA’s Russian Service. Their topic: “Addressing Disinformation in Eurasia. Photo of event attached to this post. Photo credit: Judy Kang; L-R: Sheila Scott (Senior Technical Advisor for Gender, IREX); Daisy Sindelar (Director, Current Time); Irina Van Dusen (Managing Editor, Russian Service ,Voice of America); and (on screen) Lyubov Vasylchuk (Program Manager, IREX Ukraine)
From Kiev, Ms. Vasylchuk described an IREX program designed to teach journalists how to cope in an era of disinformation. The Learn and Discern program has empowered more than 600 journalists and citizens to cope with false reporting and distinguish between fact and fiction, evaluate “all sides of a question.”
Since its formal inaugural last February after a couple of years as a pilot program, Current Time director Daisy Sindelar said, followers to the program have increased to 2.4 million people a week in 40 countries. 1.3 million of these users reside in Russia. In a series titled “Unknown Russia”, human interest stories included a video account of a Russian hamlet set up for blind people which has fallen on very hard times. One of the citizens shown on the video in a very cluttered home was Sergei Ivanov. As a result of the Current Time transmission produced by RFE/RL, people donated nearly $26,000 to relocate Ivanov, and a minister from Moscow went and helped other blind people in the municipality.
During the question and answer period, VOA Russian Service chief Irina Van Dusen was asked what the reaction in Russia has been to President Trump’s attack on the media. In her view, “we’re trying to reflect all viewpoints in American society… we report protests around the U.S. — that’s what distinguishes our society from Russia.” Ms. Van Dusen added that VOA is airing a 36-part series on Russians in America, ranging across the U.S., from cities along the East and West coasts to settings in the rural Mideast. Some weeks, she said, 700,000 responses pour in via social media from the 40 countries now reached by Current Time. “You provide truthful and fact-based, VOA Charter based journalism… people share it and stick with you.”
All panelists at the BBG-IREX roundtable agreed that live programming — including VOA simultaneous translations in Russian of President Trump’s inaugural address and former FBI Director Comey’s recent Congressional testimony, as well as those fresh interviews with Russian arrivals in the United States — are a key advantage in countering disinformation in much of Eurasia. A recent Russian arrival perhaps summed it up best: “I’ve been very impressed with American hospitality — the American spirit won my heart.”