America’s five publicly-funded overseas multimedia networks now reach a record 339 million curious users worldwide every week. That’s more than 17 billion user contacts a year.
The announcement was made September 12 at the National Press Club by John Lansing, CEO of the newly-renamed U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). (The Agency encompassing the five networks had been known for more than two decades as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or the BBG).
A Bit of History
U.S. global broadcasting began in the early weeks of World War II. In February, 1942, a shortwave radio network, the Voice of America (VOA) began broadcasts, initially to Nazi-occupied Europe and soon to Asia and other areas. The other four broadcast networks originated over the next six decades:
- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to Russia and the Warsaw Pact nations (1949-1952),
- Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba (1985),
- Radio Free Asia in nine Asian languages (1995), and
- The Middle East Broadcasting Network replacing the VOA Arabic Service (2004).
I’ve observed U.S. taxpayer funded broadcasts around the globe for more than a half century, 36 years as a staff member and executive at VOA, and two decades as an historian of the fine art these five networks represent. When I retired in 1998, the total reach of U.S.-funded overseas networks was around 110 million users a week, less than a third of what it is today.
There are two major reasons for the 21st century surge:
- The dedication of today’s international media specialists at the U.S. Agency for Global media. They are determined to reach far beyond the foundational shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasts which dominated their specialty until the early 1990s. They are extending their swelling audience reach via many previously unavailable innovations of the past decade: new video and online streams relaying many of the 59 USAGM broadcast languages. These include: Facebook Live, Twitter, You Tube, Instagram, What’sApp, Telegram, WeChat and other relays via specialized Chinese and Russian new media sites. And today, USAGM has more than 3,000 affiliates around the world, relaying daily broadcasts in many of those languages.
- Most important perhaps: the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors wisely decided in 2015 to appoint a full-time Chief Executive Officer to coordinate management they had attempted on a part-time basis for the previous two decades. That CEO, Mr. Lansing, arrived in September 2015 and immediately established an International Broadcasting Coordination Council of the five network leaders (VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN and OCB) to share ideas at least biweekly and daily in times of crisis. Prior to that, the networks rarely did so.
Reforms Well Worth Celebrating
On September 12, CEO Lansing — formerly CEO of the Scripps Network — held a reception by the global network leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, coincidentally on the third anniversary week of his arrival at the BBG.
Among the guest speakers: Congressman Thomas Rooney (R-FL) and a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He said the Persian language outreach of VOA and RFE/RL to Iran ís “a significant national asset.” They have 24 million followers a week in Iran on TV, social media and radio, the largest of any global network.
As Representative Rooney put it: “You are the truest representatives of our nation’s soft power, not only in Iran but around the world.” He also cited VOA’s on-scene reportage in Venezuela, where the Voice is “promoting green shoots of hope for the future.”
According to CEO Lansing: “Our programs (of the five networks) are far more collaborative than ever before.” Next January, VOA and RFE/RL hope to inaugurate an around the clock Persian broadcast, “VOA 365”, produced in Washington. It will follow their Russian language collaboration in Prague launched in 2017 called “Current Time”. The latter reaches more than 140 million users a month in 17 countries, including Russia, throughout Eastern Europe, Germany and Israel.
One need to look only at current events to see why authoritarian governments fear solid and unbiased, balanced news from the West. In Uganda, opposition leader Bobi Wine escaped to the West, and appeared in an interview September 12 on VOA’s “Straight Talk Africa” program. He had been charged with treason by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s government and brutally beaten in prison after recent anti-government protests there. He was released by the Ugandan government for health reasons and permitted to travel to the U.S. for medical treatment.
On “Straight Talk Africa”, Mr. Wine appeared alongside Uganda’s ambassador Mull Katenda to the U.S. (VOA’s Africa Division insisted on getting both sides of the story). Ambassador Katenda insisted that “Uganda does not condone torture.” Mr. Wine said that his driver was fatally shot and 30 other anti-government protesters were jailed, tortured and were brutally beaten by Ugandan authorities. But very shortly after the live program went on the air, all electric power throughout Uganda was suddenly terminated. According to VOA English to Africa chief Sonja Lawrence Green, power was not restored until shortly after “Straight Talk to Africa” completed its broadcast.
Within minutes, VOA reporter Marissa Melton summed it all up: “While the interview was live streaming, Uganda’s power authority tweeted that power had gone out ‘in most areas’ because of a system failure.
Some Ugandans tweeted back to the Voice to accuse the country of interrupting service to deny them access to the VOA program. ‘Seems they don’t want us to watch bobiwine on tv,’ one person tweeted.” Another said: “This power blackout was political.” But because of the follow up report, what Wine said got through to listeners and on-line users throughout Uganda and much of Africa.
As George Washington once wrote: “The truth will prevail where there are pains to bring it to light.”
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