The Voice of America, Muffled By Sanford J. Ungar

Monday, November 10, 2003; Page A25
Last month, just as we were setting our clocks back to standard time, the Voice of America — this country’s largest and most credible international broadcast service — was making its own seasonal adjustment: reducing its round-the-clock daily worldwide English-language news and feature service by almost 25 percent.

The change was dictated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the bipartisan, part-time group of private citizens that supervises VOA and other government broadcast agencies. On the basis of its “research,” it no longer regards English as a “Priority One” language.

The irony is that this occurs even as other policymakers in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, along with members of hastily convened commissions, wring their hands over how to improve America’s “public diplomacy” effort in these tense times and get others to better understand the United States. They seem willing to spend billions on that effort, while VOA, for more than 61 years one of the taxpayers’ biggest bargains, is cut back.

How is this for enlightened government policy: As of this month, for five crucial hours a day — during morning “drive time” in Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, late morning in the Middle East and early evening in East Asia — the straight news reporting of VOA about events in the United States and around the world is no longer available in English on short-wave, FM or the Internet, except for a six-minute newscast at the top of the hour. The cost savings will amount to about a million dollars a year.

To be sure, VOA will still be on the air in dozens of other languages at various times of the day, as it should be. Tens of millions of Chinese listeners will continue to hear many hours of American-style broadcasts in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan. Although many European-language broadcasts have been reduced as certain countries develop lively independent media of their own, others (Urdu, the principal language of Pakistan, and Indonesian, to name two) are growing. Arabic and certain other languages are virtually disappearing from the VOA repertoire, however, as the Broadcasting Board of Governors tilts toward controversial commercial-style broadcasts in their place.

These choices are always difficult to make, especially in the context of the unreasonably tight budgets that have been imposed on VOA in recent years. But there is something fundamentally absurd about sharply reducing VOA’s reach in America’s own primary language, increasingly dominant, for better or worse, in business, science, education and information technology around the world.

Indeed, since the 24-hour continuous service in English, “VOA News Now,” was launched in the late l990s, others have followed: the BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, Radio Australia and Radio Japan. Radio France International is said to be planning many hours of English in a new round-the-clock television service. These, among other international broadcasters, including al-Jazeera, will be richly amused by the VOA cutbacks. They will also inherit new listeners and viewers.

“VOA News Now” has had plenty of critics, both overseas and among those who listen at here at home. (The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 still forbids VOA from beaming its programs to a domestic audience, and that’s why changes in VOA programs attract little attention at home.) It is repetitive, in part because the VOA staff has shrunk in recent years. It is routinely interrupted by often-strident “editorials” explaining U.S. foreign policy, imposed by certain members of Congress as the price of appropriations.

But it is nonetheless still the place to hear some of the highest-quality radio news and features in American journalism, all the more impressive because of how the Voice of America staff has had to resist intermittent pressure over the years to become an outlet for official government propaganda.

Any correspondent who has worked overseas since World War II knows that VOA has traditionally fielded some of the best; its veterans work for many major news organizations. Some of its fine Washington reporters, while virtually unknown at home, have become household names internationally. The VOA newsroom knows better than most how to sort the wheat from the chaff, and it has specialized in telling the whole American story — about impeachments, for example — even when it may tend to be embarrassing. That is why it has credibility and respect.

VOA’s English broadcasts — some in regional accents and dialects, some in the slow-spoken limited vocabulary of “Special English” and some in simple, everyday American colloquial English — have for generations brought the world reliable information, jazz and other American music, a few good laughs and even a little hope from time to time. Both symbolically and for their documentable day-to-day impact, they deserve to survive intact and around the clock.

The writer is president of Goucher College in Baltimore. He was director of the Voice of America from 1999 to 2001.

PS This article is about VOA, but it also applies to RFERL.