America's Vanishing Voice?
By Alan L. Heil Jr.

As the fifth anniversary of 9/11 draws near, the Voice of America—the largest US government overseas broadcaster—is on the verge of disappearing as a global network. Only a last-minute rescue by Congress or a Bush administration supplemental can save the long-respected VOA from going silent to millions around the world a few months from now.

The US administration’s budget request for the fiscal year beginning next October calls for:

° Abolition of all VOA broadcasts in English except for highly targeted broadcasts to Africa and Special English transmissions for learners of the language. Yet English is the universal language of choice, used throughout the world in trade, diplomacy, education and on the Internet.

° Cessation of VOA radio transmissions in 11 more languages, including Russian and strategically important Balkans languages. (Ten other mostly European languages had already been cut from VOA’s schedule a year ago.)

° Elimination of the Croatian, Georgian, Greek, Thai and Turkish services.

° Closure of vital AM and shortwave broadcast relay stations in Rhodes and Kavala, Greece.

° Reduction of scores of additional hours of VOA transmission time around the globe. Hundreds of frequency hours already have been cut.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that oversees VOA and the other publicly-funded overseas networks, told The Wall Street Journal: “No one on this board and in this administration is overjoyed about ending any service of the VOA. It was proposed only as a result of having to match up priorities with the budget. Do you want to curtail our satellite television to Iran to subsidize English?”

Subsidize English? This is hardly a subsidy item. Plain and simple, US broadcasting in English is a necessity. More than a billion people around the world use or understand it. Until 2002, English was, rightly, among the highest VOA language priorities. But the Board did what would have been unthinkable during the first six decades of VOA history. It relegated English, except that to Africa, to “second tier” status.

Since 2003, when the VOA was on the air in English around the clock reaching all regions of the world, the Board has abolished English broadcasts in Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe. Today, only four shortwave frequencies remain on the air a couple of hours a day in English to the entire Middle East. The Board also halted VOA’s valuable Rhodes AM transmissions in English to the Levant and did nothing to replace these or relay English broadcasts via FM stations in the region. In 2007, if the latest plan is implemented, VOA standard English will be scaled down worldwide to only five hours a day of heavily tailored Africa-oriented programming.

This would mean death “by a thousand cuts” of America’s global broadcast service in its own language. This, as Al Jazeera and Radio Russia launch around the clock TV services in English, China Radio International in Beijing plans to create a 24/7 English Internet service, and Iran expands its English broadcasts to easily surpass the United States in the volatile Middle East. This, in an era when spreading facts and information over the airwaves is more important to national security than at any time since the Cold War ended.

The Board’s rationale for abolishing English:

1) There are many more sources of English information available to listeners, viewers and Internet readers in today’s world and VOA’s audiences in English are small.

2) Shortwave is a medium of the past and VOA English is largely on shortwave, which fewer and fewer people use.

3) The struggle against terrorism requires huge new investments in broadcasts to the Arab countries, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and reprogramming of resources from other parts of the world.

Contrary to the Board’s assertions, the worldwide audience to VOA English is now 13.4 million adults each week, still the most listened-to service at the Voice. Before the reductions were first imposed three years ago, VOA English had a weekly worldwide audience estimated at 16 million. Not surprisingly, as the airtime has been reduced in stages, so has the number of listeners. As one veteran observer and current staff member at VOA ruefully puts it: “I guess if listeners need news of America or the world, they can tune in any time to the 24-hour-a-day English service of China Radio International.” In the words of another: “We’re going down… down… down… a once proud network that achieved a lot over the last sixty-four years.”

Advocates of restoring a healthy VOA worldwide English service say that it is essential in the post 9/11 world to provide, around the clock, honest, comprehensive news and analysis from an American perspective in today’s babble of sound bites and commercially driven formats. This is especially the case when you consider the likely content of the new or planned English services beamed from Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Doha, as well as the established programs of the BBC World Service and China Radio International.

Because they focus on in-country events in the target regions, the US surrogate networks (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Martis to Cuba) are no substitute for VOA News Now in English. The latter offers a full range of news and features about America as well as world and regional news of interest to those tuning in. News Now scripts are transmitted electronically in its headquarters building in Washington, DC to VOA’s forty-three language services. Cut English off FM, AM and shortwave or hollow out the Voice’s central news service, and you cut off a vital information source to the entire network.

To date, more than $200 million has been invested in two new around-the-clock Arabic services created by the Board:

1) Radio Sawa, a youth-oriented entertainment radio service whose producers pride themselves in providing a mix of seventy five percent pop music, and twenty five percent headlines. When Radio Sawa replaced the respected VOA Arabic Service four years ago, the Palestinian intafada and Israeli scorched earth retaliation were at their peak. Arab listeners suddenly heard US overseas broadcasts that featured Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Amr Diab—to the exclusion of the latest crisis news in their own region, save a few fast-paced headlines punctuated by electronic stings and brief field reports.

2) Alhurra TV, launched two years ago with more news and analysis than Sawa but struggling to compete in a field of more than 170 Arabic satellite TV stations. In a recent survey of five Arab countries by Zogby International and the University of Maryland, Alhurra was named as a prime source of news by only one percent of more than 5,000 respondents. It has had mixed reviews and has registered as barely a blip on the media scene, according to analyses and spot checks by the US embassies in Cairo and Baghdad.

In the wake of 9/11, the Board has had unprecedented success in obtaining more money for all of American government-funded overseas broadcasting. But, as in every budget since 2002, its request for the fiscal year beginning next October, it continues to invest heavily in the new privatized Middle East outlets while dismantling core newsgathering and transmissions at VOA, the nation’s only official global network. Indeed, if the current Bush administration request is approved by Congress, the United States will have invested close to $300 million in Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, despite growing doubts about their overall impact.

The planned reductions in VOA English in four of five continents and the closure of five more Voice language services would have these additional unintended consequences:

° The two million people in China who tune in to VOA English each week (special and standard English) will no longer be able to hear the latter broadcasts—now on the air ten hours a day. They will be denied an in-depth English language window on America, the world, and reports about events in their own country ignored or whitewashed by PRC media. (Three hours daily of Special English to China will remain.) VOA and Radio Free Asia programs in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan are heavily jammed, as are their websites. Among all US publicly-funded radio programs, only VOA English shortwave reaches China in the clear. At least 200 million people are studying English in the PRC, more than two-thirds the population of the United States.

° Those who advocate silencing English by cutting VOA shortwave and medium wave frequencies ignore some basic facts about overseas broadcasting. One is that the same programs beamed via shortwave are often downlinked via satellite to affiliated FM and AM outlets. VOA English has 58 such partner stations, according to the Board’s own research website, in 48 countries from the Philippines to Guyana. Other language services send programs to hundreds of stations, including national and local stations in the Balkan languages destined to cease radio broadcasts: Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Greek, Macedonian, and Serbian. Unless next year’s budget reductions are reversed, those programs will no longer be produced. Relays to affiliated stations in the Balkans will cease just as the US backed Kosovo negotiations reach a critical phase.

° Shortwave is essential to any long-range international broadcasting strategy. To quote a leading American authority on international broadcasting, Kim Andrew Elliott (, it acts as a “failsafe” in times of crisis. No other broadcast technology can vault borders over such great distances and reach listeners when martial law is declared in a country or when its government cracks down on dissenting voices and opposition media. When crises erupt or local media are censored, listening to shortwave surges.

° Announcements on shortwave have alerted American citizens in times of crisis and possibly saved lives. In the 1980s and early 1990s, VOA transmitted information about staging points for emergency evacuations from Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan. If, because of budget cuts, VOA’s frequencies are relinquished to others, they won’t be available to the United States when most needed. An indispensable “failsafe” in future crises will be gone. Not all American citizens abroad have access to the Internet and many, including military personnel and Peace Corp volunteers, still depend on shortwave.

° Shortwave audiences, in fact, are those VOA and other international broadcasters most cherish. Many are the influential, usually highly educated elites—government and media leaders and opposition politicians most curious about the world beyond their own countries. Listeners to VOA include the Dalai Lama, the presidents of Afghanistan, Albania, Iraq and Georgia, and not so long ago, Saddam Hussein. Speakers at last November’s Conference on International Broadcasting and Research (CIBAR) in Montreal, Canada, stressed that the aim of truly effective transnational broadcasters is to reach communities of “influentials” within other countries, those whose interactions with their compatriots in daily conversational networks can make a difference, and shape events.

The planned silencing of VOA in languages other than English also raises significant questions about whether or not these cuts reflect US strategic priorities:

° Closure of VOA Turkish and Greek radio and TV. In announcing the cuts on February 6, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) said the Bush administration’s $671.9 million request for the next fiscal year “will fund technological innovation as well as highly visible programs in support of the war on terror.” Cessation of VOA multimedia broadcasts to NATO’s southeastern flank, where the volatile Balkans touch the Islamic world, would have precisely the opposite effect.

Turkey, a largely Muslim nation of 74 million people, is a critical bridge between the West and the Middle East. In a recent InterMedia Inc. study to determine U.S popularity in 61 countries, Turkey ranked 59th. Its press is sensationalist and anti-American. The most popular film in Turkey’s history, Valley of the Wolves—Iraq is now a box office hit throughout the country. It depicts the fictional avenging by Turkish special forces of an accidental arrest of their comrades in northern Iraq by US troops in 2004. Al Jazeera soon will begin translating its new English TV program into Turkish. Iran broadcasts 28 hours of Turkish weekly compared with 12 hours of radio and a half hour weekly of television by VOA.

Despite this, the number of adult listeners and viewers to VOA Turkish, the only US service in that language, has more than tripled since 2003 and is now estimated at around 2.5 million weekly—an impressive gain in the tough Turkish market. The service had a commitment late last year from a Turkish nationwide network to provide a daily TV news slot in prime evening time to VOA Turkish. That is now on hold, pending a final decision on the fate of the service. And it will not pass unnoticed in Turkey that VOA is retaining a Kurdish Service four hours a day, a segment of it in a dialect spoken in eastern Turkey. The American Embassy in Ankara has reacted predictably. “In view of the increased emphasis the BBG is placing on broadcasting in the Muslim world,” an unclassified Embassy cable said, “it would be a serious mistake to cut the VOA Turkish Service.”

Criticism also has erupted over the planned demise of the Greek Service, whose four-member staff provides satellite-fed daily radio and weekly television programs to major networks in Greece, Cyprus and the Hellenic communities in Canada and Australia. The total listening and viewing audience to VOA Greek, also the only US government funded service in the language, is estimated at close to a million in Greece and Cyprus. Two high circulation Greek dailies, To Vima and Elefterotypia, have predicted that Greek-American organizations such as AHEPA and the Hellenic-American Institute will pressure Congress and the State Department to reconsider elimination of the Greek broadcasts. They have a strong case. There are increasing tensions in Cyprus, where a continuation of both VOA Greek and Turkish transmissions would ensure the US could reach both communities on the island if that becomes necessary. In a letter to US senators and congressmen, Thessaloniki broadcasting magnate George Kodopoulos notes: “VOA Greek programs are of increasing importance today because of aggressive marketing by representatives of other networks not sympathetic to the US who are aiming to penetrate the Greek electronic market.” Among those seeking to fill local airtime to be vacated by VOA is Al Jazeera, which is also planning to version its programs in Turkish.

° The end of Russian radio broadcasts. VOA Russian has been on the air for nearly six decades. Is now really the time to abolish the last three hours of daily radio transmissions? Vladimir Putin is tightening restrictions on the media in Russia, as well as non-governmental organizations promoting human rights. Thomas Melia of Freedom House told a recent RFE/RL briefing in Washington that Moscow is the leader of a coordinated worldwide effort by authoritarian regimes aimed at human rights activists, NGOs and journalists—including accredited correspondents of international radio networks. In the words of RFE/RL’s acting president, Jeff Trimble: “It’s déjà vu.”

If VOA radio to Russia vanishes, it could no longer reach about a half dozen FM and AM stations throughout the country, including several region-wide networks. Its live Russian simulcasts on radio stations in Azerbaijan, Khazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Moldova and Uzbekistan also would disappear. VOA would, however, retain a presence on 47 TV stations in Russia but a midlevel manager at the Voice says: “I’m afraid that relays of foreign broadcasts on TV will be cut off by Putin in the next year or so. Then where will we be? We’ll be gone.”

° Abolition of VOA Georgian. An emboldened Russia continues to challenge the government of Georgia in such Caucasian flashpoints as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tensions between Georgia and Russia are escalating. President Bush’s visit to Tibilisi last year signaled US support for President Saakashvili and heralded new American-Georgian military cooperation. The opening soon of a petroleum pipeline from the Caspian Sea that crosses Georgia enhances its strategic value to the West. VOA’s going silent in Georgian is likely to be viewed in Tibilisi as an unfriendly act. Abolition of the VOA Georgian Service’s radio satellite feeds will reduce vital information from the West to an emerging democracy at its hour of greatest need. Seven percent of Georgian university graduates listen to VOA each week.

° Elimination of the Thai Service. According to AsiaMedia, Thailand’s low-level, long running Muslim insurgency in the south is showing signs of new strength and could become the next regional center for extremists. Meanwhile, Thailand is in transition after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced from office by anti-corruption street protests in Bangkok and other cities. The Thai government recently shut down more than a thousand community radio stations, citing interference of their transmissions with aeronautical navigations. The real motive, Thai advocates for media freedom say, was to silence the opposition. The tiny four-member VOA Thai Service continues to place materials via satellite on dozens of Thai radio outlets, with occasional contributions for TV.

Over the years, the Thai government has been very sensitive about efforts to close VOA Thai. Two huge Voice relay stations are located in Thailand, one in Bangkok and the other near the northern city of Udorn. These operate under an agreement that can be cancelled on relatively short notice by either the Thai or US government. The Bangkok station beams a powerful AM signal into Cambodia, Burma and Bangladesh—reaching a large and strategically important southeast Asian audience. The Udorn station is indispensable in reaching southern and central China. Maintaining both relay stations is essential to VOA broadcasting in Asia.

Is there an alternative to the continued downsizing of the Voice of America, to make way for its emerging and strategically important TV, Internet and Muslim world operations? The Bush administration recently proposed a $50 million supplemental enhancement of international broadcasting to provide a 24/7 Persian television service in Iran. A close examination of the BBG’s budgets for the fiscal years 2005 through 2007 indicates what it would take to:

• restore a 24/7 VOA English service to the levels of three years ago (nearly worldwide) and

• retain the radio and TV services slated for abolition next year.

That would cost around $24.7 million, roughly four percent of the entire US international broadcasting budget this coming year. It would be about what the Pentagon spends on average every half hour, not including supplementals. One aide on Capitol Hill calls this “small change” in the scheme of things. A $24.7 million VOA supplemental rescue fund could be initiated by an administration persuaded that America’s loss of much of its voice on the world’s airwaves is unacceptable. Or, it could be met through an act of patriotism on the part of Congress, similar to or as part of recent supplementals on Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. It would signal that the United States is serious about using soft power in the global, as well as regional, struggle against terrorism and violations of human rights—not just in the Muslim world, but everywhere.

A recent dispatch of Inside Radio, a Washington newsletter, said of the projected 2007 cuts at the Voice of America: “We’ve seen increasing pressure on VOA budgets, but this seems draconian.” Christian Science Monitor columnist John Hughes, former director of the Voice of America, wrote: “In these challenging times, America’s voice to the world should be strengthened, not weakened.”

And syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer says: “By expanding service to Iran (the administration’s new bogeyman), and increasing Middle East television news coverage on Alhurra, a TV network run separately from the VOA, and Radio Sawa, the United States is unnaturally tying itself closer to only one part of the world—and ignoring the rest … It’s not a done deal yet, and Congress could change it—if, of course, anybody’s paying attention there.”

US armed forces have demonstrated their ability to win wars nearly anywhere on earth. But consolidating the peace is another matter. In Iraq, Afghanistan and other crisis-prone countries in the future, America needs to disperse the fog of war and deploy what the late VOA News Director Bernard H. Kamenske once called “the cutting edge of facts and information.” A $24.7 million supplemental may stop the hemorrhaging for now. But after that, restoring America’s presence on the world’s airwaves can only be ensured through guaranteed sufficient funding of the Voice’s vital radio programming and transmission base. The nation’s voice to the world, all would agree, must remain healthy and vibrant in the post-9/11 age.

Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former deputy director of VOA and author of Voice of America: A History, Columbia University Press 2003, now in its second printing. The book will be issued in paperback in July 2006.

[printer friendly version]

Copyright 2006 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Electronic Journalism, the American University in Cairo and the Middle East Centre, St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK