On October 1, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Tom Kent moves on after two highly successful years at that U.S.-funded network. After service in Washington and Prague for RFE/RL, he’ll be in New York writing and teaching about journalism, disinformation and Russian affairs.
Noteworthy achievements during Tom’s RFE/RL tenure:
- Formal inauguration with the Voice of America of Current Time (or Real Time) in Russian), an around-the-clock multimedia service in that language to Russia and the Russian diaspora in more than 19 countries, as well as Germany and Israel.
- Planned launch next January of a second collaborative 24/7 service to Iran in Persian and Iranian communities globally.
This will combine existing on air hours of VOA’s Persian News Network and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. Both startups are an unprecedented in the 76-year history of U.S. international broadcasting, pooling resources to take full advantage of multimedia in a new communications age. According to VOA Director Amanda Bennett, the new combined program will be called VOA 365.
- Expansion of RFE/RL’s audience since 2015 of 25.800,000 to 31.500,000 — including huge increases in TV, video and on line services such as Facebook and YouTube.
- Tom Kent has been an active contributor to a relatively new biweekly International Coordinating Committee (ICC) of U.S.-funded multimedia network presidents or directors. The ICC was set up in September 2015 by the first CEO, John Lansing, of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Until recently, the USAGM was known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The ICC: a Watershed Breakthrough?
The Lansing initiative has greatly increased sharing of material among all five taxpayer funded networks, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic, Radio Free Asia (nine languages to that region), and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba (as well as RFE/RL (25 languages) and VOA (45 languages).
Does this experiment in cross-network sharing of content make a difference to those who access the programming? Undoubtedly yes.
Several years ago, when a pair of VOA and RFE/RL Washington beat reporters planned to attend a meeting of the Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill, the RFE/RL reporter was absent. The VOA reporter happened to be there — and was concerned; she phoned her RFE/RL colleague to see if all was OK. It turned out, an emergency had kept her at home that day.
Her VOA partner said: “Don’t worry, I’ll feed you my recording of the hearing … and you can file on it right away.”
In Russia, RFE/RL recently dug out and told the story of a blind man in Russia living in a run-down apartment with an abusive neighbor. The story triggered a fund-raising campaign by ordinary Russians, who raised enough money to buy the man a new apartment in a much safer neighborhood.
RFE/RL is riding a wave of previously unimagined new friends in this digital age. Recently, another of its reports told about the plight of a small village in Russia’s Central Asia region where central government services were nowhere to be found. Within days after the broadcast, Kremlin authorities dispatched relief workers from Moscow to the village to help out.
“Other recent RFE/RL reports,” Mr. Kent recalled, “have focused on the situation of women, and of handicapped and LGBT citizens in the nation it serves.”
The Risks of On-site Reportage Over the Years
Since 1954, 17 on-scene reporters for the five U.S. networks have been killed in action during on-scene coverage in danger zones. Last April 30 was the costliest day of all when three RFE/RL journalists — two reporters and a trainee — died in a suicide bombing that targeted journalists in Kabul, Afghanistan.
These sacrifices by journalists are extremely costly. In 2012, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of VOA reporter Mukarram Khan Aatif, who was off duty, praying one evening in his local mosque. His factual reporting was silenced, but his colleagues’ commitment to the truth was not. They were even more determined than ever to find out the facts, even on scene in combat zones, and report them to worldwide audiences: TV viewers, on line users, and radio listeners.
A participant at a Washington panel on international broadcasting recently asked: “Why should two federally-funded networks be broadcasting in the same language — isn’t that a waste of resources?”
Not at all, CEO Lansing responded. “On even the darkest night, two headlights are always better than one.”
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 236 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More