Next Wednesday (August 22), the Broadcasting Board of Governors overseeing five U.S.-funded international networks will announce it is re-christening itself the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
That will be a significant event in the nearly quarter of a century since the BBG was established by the Administration and Congress in 1994. “New Name, Same Mission — Come Celebrate!” is the way BBG CEO John Lansing described an invitation to the networks’ staffs to gather at 11:30 a.m. at the Board’s and VOA’s headquarters Building, 300 Independence Avenue SW.
The Board oversees two federal agencies, the worldwide Voice of America (VOA) founded in 1942, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba, established in 1985.
It also administers three other taxpayer-funded grantee networks:
- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), founded in the early 1950s to broadcast to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
- Radio Free Asia (RFA), established in 1995 to reach China and four southeast Asian dictatorships
- The Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), established by the Board to replace VOA’s Arabic Service to the Arab world between 2002-2004.
Their collective mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” That’s a bipartisan commitment. At a VOA anniversary celebration in 1987, President Reagan said:
“To millions in closed societies, your broadcasts are the voice of truth. Let us remember that many listeners in closed societies tune into VOA at grave personal risk. I attach the kind of importance to modernizing the Voice that President Kennedy gave to the space program. I want to renew that pledge to you today.”
Why the name change now from Broadcasting Board of Governors today? I maintain there are two principal reasons:
1) It’s a strikingly new era in the media environment worldwide, compared with that at even the dawn of the 21st century. No longer are radio and even some visual channels dominating the way citizens can consume information … well more than half of more than a hundred million Nigerians, and half a billion Chinese can access a wider world via their cellphones or iPhones.
2) The global dissemination of information and exchanges of ideas so essential to the practice of public diplomacy, here and abroad, is ripe for refinement, reform and necessary funding to confront the challenges.
In 2011, then Georgia University Professor Shawn Powers, a nationally known scholar of international media, explained in an essay for PD Magazine : “Broadcasting was to the 20th century what the World Wide Web has been to the 21st; both were revolutionary mediums enabling people, governments and organizations to communicate with others with more ease.” Dr. Powers recently joined the BBG as Senior Advisor for Global Strategy and Innovation.
Reforming to meet the challenges of new age media clearly is a compelling reason for next week’s re-designation of Broadcasting Board of Governors to the U.S. Agency for Global Communications.
As University of Maryland Professor Susan Moeller writes in a current Great Decisions essay for the Foreign Policy Association: “Global media have become “our era’s disruptive force. Both state and non-state actors view the media not just as a propaganda arm, but as a battlefield in its own terms.”
It also can be, and often is, a unifying force. In the past three years, U.S.-funded international media have greatly increased joint programming and exchanges of information. RFE/RL and VOA have formally launched a jointly produced around the clock Russian multimedia program entitled “Current Time” in real time. Soon, the two networks have plans to launch a similar 24/7 Persian language program, drawing on exchanges of program material.
The reformed U.S. Agency for Global Media clearly is on the move, enhanced by Congressional legislative support to produce “accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and information.” It’s doing so in today’s turbulent world of the internet, constantly expanding websites, blogs, bots, TV, and radio in what has become what I see as an ever challenging zillion-channel, multimedia globe.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More