The formal rollout March 5 on Capitol Hill of an around-the-clock Persian Service led by the Voice of America in cooperation with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a landmark advance in reform of this country’s international broadcasting. The new broadcast stream to Iran and the Iranian diaspora is called VOA 365.
First, some background on this landmark public diplomacy initiative:
- In 2014, then VOA Director David Ensor began exploring with the leadership of the Prague-based RFE/RL an unprecedented pilot introduction of a joint 24/7 TV and digital program in Russian. Current Time was formally inaugurated two years ago. Led by RFE/RL, it was the first joint broadcast of U.S. taxpayer funded civilian networks since the pioneer, VOA, went on the air in 1942.
- Current Time, originating in Prague at RFE/RL’s headquarters, has attracted new, younger audiences and helped tap into key markets. In 2017, according to a news release, the network logged 400 million on line viewers, more than half from inside Russia.
- Recognizing the success of a new format designed to reach users in Russia and Russian speakers worldwide, executives of all five U.S. taxpayer-funded networks decided to launch the second around-the-clock joint VOA-RFE broadcast, this time in Persian and originating at VOA here in the nation’s capitol.
- The other three networks in multimedia global outreach effort are Radio Free Asia, and the Arabic language Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) in Spanish. All five networks have a combined reach on television, on-line services and radio of 345 million weekly in 60 languages.
The March 6 meeting of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (until last year known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors), occurred just a day after the formal inauguration of VOA 365 at a ceremony in a filled-to-capacity hearing room in the House Rayburn Office Building. CEO John Lansing of all five networks, VOA Director Amanda Bennett and VOA Persian Service chief Setareh Sieg all spoke at the Capitol Hill rollout.
VOA’s Persian Service and RFE’s Radio Farda already have a combined audience of 26 million un-duplicated viewers and listeners a week in Iran itself, well more than a quarter of that country’s population. By pooling their resources and broadcasting to the Iranian diaspora around the world as well as Iran, the two networks together will have the largest international multimedia reach to Persian speakers globally.
“We’re changing our approach from nation-based to global-based content,” Mr. Lansing said, “and we anticipate more services doing this in the months ahead.” He followed up the next day at the USAGM board meeting by announcing that having expanded Russian and Persian language programming to 24/7, Chinese will be next — presumably drawing from VOA’s and Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin services and their smaller language units, Cantonese, Tibetan and Uighur. He added that there’ll be additional details at the next USAGM board meeting on June 5.
Recently, VOA 365 established a content relationship with ABC News that will enable it to air in simultaneous translation in Persian such programs as This Week With George Stephanopoulos, Nightline, and ABC News specials, among other programs. Other commissioned and original content programs will round out the around the clock schedule, including a weekly program on health and technology and VOA’s foreign policy-centered panel program hosted by Greta Van Susteren entitled Plugged In.
VOA 365, in its formative pilot stage, has already detected an increase in followers on all digital platforms in Iran such as Instagram, Facebook and Telegram, a popular encrypted instant messaging service.
As VOA Director Bennett put it: “in reaching the Persian-speaking diaspora, we’ve found that women’s programs, those on travel, and cooking shows are very popular. VOA 365 plans to introduce the late Anthony Bordain’s cuisine programs soon. Ms. Bennett said: “The appetite for world news in Iranians reached around the world and in Iran itself appears to be insatiable”. She added that a VOA documentary filmed on-scene in a monsoon-soaked Rohingya camp with Persian subtitles last autumn was very popular in surveys of audiences in Iran.
At the USAGM board meeting on March 6, newly-appointed senior officers and advisers were introduced, including the acting Under Secretary of State Michelle S. Guida, a new Board member, and the new Acting President of RFE/RL, Daisy Sindelar.
Board Chairman Kenneth Weinstein concluded: “It’s incredible to see how the five networks (VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN, and OCB) are working together. I especially applaud the hard work of the staffs who produce the programs, including those who came to work during the shutdown to get their services on the air. At each meeting of our Board, we see many improvements and initiatives.”
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