President-elect Biden has taken a promising first step to ensure that the five networks uphold that reputation by naming former Under Secretary of State Richard Stengel and Time Magazine columnist as director of a Biden transition team for international broadcasting and other foreign policy assets.
America’s five U.S. overseas government multimedia networks face a crucial test under the Biden administration that will take office next January 20th. Will the networks be able to protect their reputation as an accurate, reliable, up-to-the-minute source of objective information to a curious world?
Minneapolis Post columnist Eric Black interviewed Mr. Stengel November 16 in Minnesota’s capital city, where the noted foreign affairs specialist was giving a promotional lecture on his latest book, “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It.”
In Richard Stengel’s view: “The Trump Administration has been a disaster for traditional values of American foreign policy that have had America standing for things like freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. These have been tenets of American public diplomacy since before the Cold War.
“We benefit from the multilateral world that we helped create.” Today, Mr. Stengel continued, “we helped create the multilateral world in which the number of democracies has grown fairly steadily for decades… as the leader of the world’s democracies, this adds to what is called ‘the soft power of the United States.”
Stengel and America’s five funded networks
Since the only global and oldest of the networks, Voice of America, went on the air on February 1, 1942, four other taxpayer-funded networks have been created to reach specific geographic targets where free media are banned. They are: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty aimed at Russia, central Asia republics and Afghanistan (founded in 1949); Radio Free Asia (founded in 1996) which today reaches China and eight other Asian countries; the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic (founded in 2004) which reaches 22 countries in the Middle East and Africa; and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba (founded in 1983).
A principal challenge: how might the five networks enhance content to influential audiences in the regions they reach? As a participant and historian of VOA’s 20th century years, I suggest the following steps:
*Enhance collaboration among VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, the MBN, and Martis to Cuba
Together, research shows, the five networks reach 354 million people abroad each week. That’s an increase of four million in the past year. Latest available research summarizes unduplicated audiences (meaning each user is counted only once weekly, even if he/she may access the network several times a week).
Latest available fact sheets of the networks break down total TV, radio, and rapidly growing on-line user totals as follows:
- VOA: 273,000,000 (46 languages worldwide)
- RFE/RL: 31,000,000 (25 languages including Russian and other Eastern European languages, across eastern Europe and Afghanistan)
- MBN: 27,000,000 (Arabic)
- RFA: 21,100,000 (Mandarin and Cantonese to China and 7 other languages to Southeast Asia)
- Radio-TV Marti to Cuba: 1,000,000 (Spanish). Rough estimate, given survey limitations in Cuba
A simple current weekly summary of probable overlapping content in networks broadcasting in similar languages should be a one-time pilot program to signal ways of reducing redundant programming. This should be succinct, and shared biweekly among senior managers or editors in all five networks for the current fiscal year on a trial basis. Results of the one-time-only survey should be shared across the network managements o/a August 31, 2021, two months before the annual assessment of all U.S.-funded international media is published.
*All five networks should share their weekly or monthly reports with the chief executives of others in the system to informally reduce future overlapping reportorial efforts or even establish coordinated programming, as VOA and RFE/RL currently do for a daily weekday programming block 18 hours in Russian. Of principal importance: focus on content that matters, with a goal of continuing to expand impact and reach, say to 400 million people weekly by 2025 and half a billion weekly by 2030.
Of principal importance: focus on content that matters, with a goal of continuing to expand impact and reach, say to 400 million people weekly by 2025 and half a billion weekly by 2030.
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