As a 36-year VOA professional who retired at the end of last century, I recall vividly a day when VOA’s then record weekly global audience reached around a hundred million followers. A Voice technician, in a conversation in a Voice corridor, noted an irony in this good news.
Referring to the scarce coverage in the U.S. media of VOA and its cousin networks who broadcast only to overseas audiences and not here, the studio engineer quipped, “We are America’s best kept secret.”
Twenty years ago, VOA, along with the other U.S.-funded international broadcasters — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Radio-TV Marti 9 (the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Spanish) — were heard overseas and had only tiny, if any, TV services. In 2003, a separate U.S. funded Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic was added to replace VOA’s Arabic Service.
New Report Reveals Expanded Audience
On November 21, the latest unduplicated estimated total audiences (TV watchers, radio listeners and on-line readers) for 2019 of all five U. S. networks were released. Surveys estimated that they reach 350 million people worldwide each week, directly on air, via satellite or hundreds of TV and radio affiliates spanning the globe. The breakout of audiences:
- VOA, 280.9 million
- RFA, 50.7 million
- RFE/RL, 37.6 million
- MBN, 24.3 million
- Radio-TV Marti, 1 million.
The Evolution of America’s Broadcasters
The organization overseeing the networks, previously the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was recently given a new name. It’s now known as the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
Last century, U.S. overseas broadcasts were largely via radio until the 1990s. Worldnet, the television service of the former U.S. Information Agency, had been the main U.S. government-funded TV provider of news and information abroad. Many of its staff joined VOA or other media outlets when USIA was merged into the State Department on October 1, 1999.
These days, research pollsters in 100 countries survey audiences to estimate the reach of the five networks. They were led the past four years by the first CEO of all five networks, John Lansing, until he became president of National Public Radio (NPR) last month.
In a just-released comprehensive 200-page annual report, the new USAGM CEO Grant Turner noted that the five networks reach those 350 million people in 61 languages. Its goals:
- Produce journalism and other content of exceptional value that informs and engages audiences and expands the media marketplace, by delivering information otherwise not available in closed society or limited local markets.
- Overcome censorship to connect audiences in closed societies.
- Serve as an authoritative source of information on U.S. news, policy and society.
- Engage local media and empower citizen information gathering and exchanges.
- Reach and engage audiences in key strategic areas including the information-denied, targets of disinformation and extremist rhetoric (such as China, Russia, Iran Syria and North Korea).
VOA is the largest of the networks, with 47 languages, including a newly-established Rohingya language service for refugees forced over decades from their native Burma to overcrowded, freezing camps in neighboring Bangladesh. In 2019, the Voice also added a Lingala language broadcast to central Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
VOA’s Award-Winning Coverage from Iraq and Syria
VOA programming, increasingly, also focuses on survivors who are risking their lives to rebuild their war-torn countries. In a documentary from the recently liberated city of Mosul in Iraq, a VOA Kurdish Service reporter, Rebaz Majeed, recently co-produced a report entitled Rising from the Ashes: a Woman’s Campaign to Rescue Mosul’s Books.
Working closely with Rikar Hussein at VOA in Washington, Majeed focused on the efforts of Tahany Saleh, a young Iraqi woman determined to rebuild a library collection at Mosul University, devastated during a two-year ISIS occupation of the city. Ms. Saleh and her team retrieved hundreds of books from the bombed ruins of a Mosul university library. She appealed to neighbors for contributions of other books that survived the ISIS occupation and expulsion from one of Iraq’s cities.
Increasingly, America’s taxpayer-funded international broadcasters are focusing on recovery efforts in war-torn cities throughout the Middle East. On scene coverage in northern Syria has been particularly and at times unbelievably risky for its on-scene reporters and contributing stringers.
Particularly compelling: the story of a reporter for VOA’s Kurdish Service, who on November 14 was awarded the Voice’s 2019 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award. Zana Omar, who joined the VOA five years ago, has spent much of his time covering conflicts in northern Syria and neighboring countries.
Omar repeatedly has put his and his family’s lives on the line as a working journalist in these war-devastated cities. He also has covered pro-democracy rallies in Damascus, escaped a kidnapping by an armed pro-Assad group. Zana was forced to flee his home with his family. His crime: filming anti-government protests and mass war destruction.
It was unbelievably dangerous reporting. Omar’s wife and two children were injured in bomb blasts, and their home was destroyed. Yet he continued to file up-to-the minute accounts from Qamishli, Syria, and conflict-ravaged cities in neighboring Iraq.
As VOA Director Amanda Bennett put it, in presenting the USAGM award: “I can’t think of anyone that is more deserving of this award … Zana Omar’s courage, determination and dedication to the Voice of America’s mission has been exemplary and his contribution to our programming unparalleled.”
VOA’s Kurdish Service reaches its audience on TV, the internet, and radio. In addition to shortwave and medium wave, its programs are broadcast live in several Mideastern cities, in Iraq and Syria, such as Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Audience research indicates that the multimedia broadcasts are popular in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey as well as Syria.
Brave and unrelenting efforts of frontline war reporters and editors in all five U.S. international networks. They are the around-the-clock, often unrecognized, frontline truth seekers of “America’s best kept secret.”
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