“The last three feet,” according to the late famed journalist and USIA Director Edward R. Murrow, is a classic catchword in public diplomacy statecraft.
A common misperception is that U.S.-funded international broadcasters transmit signals from thousands of miles away and are largely removed from their listeners, viewers and online users.
Virtually unknown: the extraordinary reach of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Training and Development which supports all five American overseas networks. They are: the flagship Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcast Network in Arabic, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba.
A Remarkable Surge In 2017
Last year, BBG training teams enriched journalistic practice at face to face on location workshops with nearly 1,000 journalists and broadcast managers in 28 African, Asian, East European and Latin American countries.
Some Classic Examples
In Ukraine last May, Zorislav Baydyuk of VOA’s Ukrainian Service visited U.S. Embassy-run American corners in seven cities. Zorislav is host of his service’s celebrated Window on America program. He screened key moments of a Ukrainian language series, Off the Highway, depicting small communities in the American Midwest.
One of the presentations was in Slovyansk, the first town initially captured by armed proxies of Russia in eastern Ukraine in order to divide that region from the rest of the country.
In the words of Kateryna, 36, one of the participants in Mr. Baydyuk’s workshops:
“This presentation has changed my opinion about VOA. I became not merely informed but intensely interested. The Voice of America is definitely different from most Ukrainian media. It is not politicized and does not spread negative propaganda.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the Office of Development and Training is having a practical on-the-ground impact. Journalists from 16 affiliates of the recently inaugurated 24/7 Russian language program, Current Time, met in Prague. Current Time is the first live, multimedia broadcast of RFE/RL and VOA, and the journalist trainees visited the studios at RFE/RL headquarters in the Czech capital. RFE/RL President Tom Kent welcomed them and briefed them in Russian.
The main topic was research. What makes a program attractive and effective? Training is often two-way. Participants volunteered ideas on Current Time, including a need for more reports from affiliated stations. The trainees included three from Russia, and others from Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Israel. Most had accessed Current Time, which now has more than 30 affiliates in former Warsaw Pact countries. Russia has banned all U.S. international affiliates in its territory, including VOA and RFE/RL, despite RT’s presence on several radio outlets in the United States.
Impact Of Face-To-Face Contacts
The Training and Development Office consists of a seemingly tireless pair: its director, Joan Mower, and her associate, Inna Dubinsky. They work with BBG media professionals, who often serve as trainers on topics such as mobile video reporting, investigative journalism, newsroom management and security for journalists. Training is done in local languages. In Nicaragua, for instance, VOA’s Spanish-speaking experts conducted a workshop for about 100 journalists on new ways to create radio programming using new digital technology. In many developing countries, the rapidly growing use of mobile phones creates new distribution channels.
The Office of Training and Development spent weeks last year planning or leading training programs in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. They enriched journalistic and media management skills in Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Mongolia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and six separate workshops in Nigeria.
Then there is Haiti, where VOA’s Creole service beams programming to FM stations in every one of its ten provinces. The Voice of America is the only international broadcaster to reach Haiti in Creole, but the impoverished country is thirsty for new media. With that in mind, the training office led a session of 25 Haitian journalists last October in Port-au-Prince. The trainers delved into the latest features of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, You Tube, Skype, and a WhatsApp link to enable affiliates to communicate and swap ideas with VOA Creole staff in Washington. The group created a Facebook Page for the trainees called HaitiTechVOA to help exchanges of ideas and feature the Haitian broadcasters’ work in the future.
“The journalists,” Mower recalls, “were extremely enthusiastic about working with the new social media sites they learned about. They stayed long after classes were over to discuss issues, ask questions and show me what they had done. They all created professional pages and some have been posting on several different sites since the class ended. Sixty to seventy percent of the Haitian population is young, learning quickly, and are extremely interested in new technologies. This will produce huge changes in the local media atmosphere.”
BBG also works with other U.S. Government agencies in training journalists. In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, the BBG, with support from the Centers for Disease Control, has trained journalists on how to better inform the public about polio. The Department of State and USAID also support media training on subjects like water conservation in the Middle East.
Former VOA Director and George Washington University faculty member David Ensor sums up the trainers’ triumph well: “Honest journalism requires the goals of objectivity and balance, but — and this is the key — it has values that undergird reporting: the belief in freedom, truthfulness, justice and humaneness.”