That phrase was the theme of a wide-ranging survey by a senior official of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (the USAGM) of the challenges confronting Western broadcasters today.
Dr. Haroon K. Ullah, chief strategy officer of the newly-renamed agency known since 1994 as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was the principal speaker at a monthly forum of the Public Diplomacy Council, the PDAA, an association for public diplomacy professionals, and the Annenberg School of USC.
Those three organizations have a combined membership of more than 500 scholars, retired diplomats, and public diplomacy advocates. A record number of students, professors, and journalists attended the discussion on October 1, at George Washington University’s School of International Studies.
Dr. Ullah, an award winning author and former State Department diplomat in South and Central Asia, who recently joined the USAGM, is fascinated with the potential of a five network organization designed to reflect and amplify — sometimes in real time — the values of American and Western democracy and freedom to 339 million followers a week around the globe in 58 different global languages.
The networks are the 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. For the first time in the 76-year history of U.S. publicly-funded international broadcasting, they are exchanging tips and collaborating on program content, sometimes hourly or daily.
Dr. Ullah said recently there has been a sharing of VOA live, simultaneous translations in many languages of events such as the president’s State of the Union message, other events not available on such channels as Radio Moscow, Iranian international TV, or Chinese global broadcasts. Live broadcasting or multimedia programming of events is not practiced by them.
Examples of the latest outreach by the five American networks:
- A new partnership with the BBC World Service on research
- Collaboration of the U.S. networks in training journalists of all regions
- Coordination with NATO partners on communications strategies
- Enhancing media and digital training abroad, by promoting high journalistic standards
- Cooperating with NGOs (non-governmental organizations), learning about local initiatives and influencers promoting reforms
- Measuring impact by tracking behavioral changes of people in such countries as Ukraine and Pakistan
Dr. Ullah was particularly proud of instances where reporting on local events by U.S. international broadcasters fostered positive changes.
“We did a story about an Sikh girls’ school in northern Pakistan threatened with closure. By focusing on that school,” he explained, “We were able to foster real change. The school’s enrollment doubled in size, and 40 more female students were enrolled in a new school facility following our broadcasts.”
Dr. Ullah noted that U.S. government-funded networks are contracting specific focus groups in strategically important audiences. As a result, RFE/RL have recently decided to re-start language services in Bulgarian and Romanian closed more than a decade ago.
Responding to questions after his presentation, Dr. Ullah said that in a meeting he and USAGM’s CEO John Lansing attended last month at the invitation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the secretary commented about the importance of VOA broadcasting to Africa.
Pompeo said then: “I care deeply about your agency’s mission. Getting free and objective information into some of the most closed societies in the world is more important than ever, and I commend your agency’s leadership in this area.”
Former VOA Director David Ensor, during a Q and A session, had high praise for the new directions Dr. Ullah is counseling, as U.S. funded international media focus on persuading journalists abroad to engage in accurate, objective and in-depth reportage. He suggested that USAGM might consider re-instituting two other East European languages abolished in the 21st century, Polish and Hungarian.
I inquired about whether the Agency was considering around the clock broadcasting in Mandarin Chinese, as was done so successfully in Russian, and planned soon in Persian to Iran, both unprecedented cooperative RFE/RL and VOA efforts. Dr. Ullah responded that a recent effort that focuses on China’s economic diplomacy, Dragon’s Reach, has proven to be very successful, and resources permitting, further collaboration — between all of the entities, might well be considered.
Dr. Ullah concluded the session with one of his favorite quotes by South Asian classical poet Iqbal: “Don’t get frightened by the furious winds, O Eagle! They only want you to fly higher!”
The slides from Dr. Ullah’s presentation, “The Role of the US Agency for Global Media in the Era of Disinformation,” can be found here.
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