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Transcript of David Ensor's Interview with Nicholas Kralev




Kralev: Tell me about the transition, for so many years as a journalist suddenly you’re in the corporate world. What prompted you to leave? Had you had enough of daily reporting?

Ensor: You can never have enough. In my blood still there’s ink or videotape or something after 31 or 32 years as a journalist. In my heart I’ll always be one. But after 31 or 32 years of writing about the news and writing about what other people were doing, I wanted to have a go at doing rather than writing about it, and so I went into the corporate world to try to learn some things and do on that level, and then it was very exciting to serve my country in Afghanistan, and I’m still doing so now at the Voice of America.

Kralev: I find there are quite a few misperceptions about Voice of America. It’s a strange beast. You are a political appointment, technically, but you are also a journalist and you always will be a journalist. Once a journalist, always a journalist, right? You are appointed by the administration currently in office, at the same time, VOA is a journalistic operation -- it’s not really a government/propaganda operation. How do you see VOA? For you what is VOA, and what should it be five years from now?

Ensor: First of all let me just make clear that actually I am not an appointee of the Obama administration directly. I am an appointee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has four republicans, four democrats, and then the tie-breaker who’s the Secretary of State normally represented by the Under Secretary [for] Public Diplomacy at the meetings. So I’m actually a bipartisan appointee, an unusual person in that sense. And the reason for that is because it was so important to make sure that there is a firewall between the journalists who cover the news at Voice of America and whoever is president at the time. Voice of America is not a propaganda organization and it is not a mouthpiece of the White House or of anybody else. It is a proud journalistic organization more than seventy years old.

Ensor: Among the first words spoken on the air were, “The news may be good, the news may be bad, we shall tell you the truth.” That was in 1942, and for a couple of years the VOA was obliged to report the Germans were winning, and they did so. Some of the best impact and audience growth at Voice of America has occurred when we were telling it like it is, about stories that aren’t necessarily complimentary to the United States. The Abu Ghraib scandal was a stain on America’s honor and it was so reported by Voice of America. Our many audiences around the world, I think, find us a highly credible voice because we are honest about America’s failings as well as its strengths, and that gives us credibility, and credibility, as you know as a journalist, that’s the coin of the realm. So every day in 45 languages, Voice of America broadcasts on radio and television, on the Internet, on Facebook, on Twitter, on any platform human beings are using to communicate with each other, we’re on it.

Forty-five languages, we reach 150 million people a week on average. In Iran, for example, 20% of the adult population in that country watches a Voice of America television show at least once a week. We have huge audiences all over Africa, big audience in Indonesia, substantial audience in Latin America. We have a lot of reach and you know, people meet me and I say I am the Voice of America director and they say, ‘Really? I thought that went away during the Cold War…’ On the contrary, we have a bigger audience than we did during the Cold War. We have in many ways just as much impact, if not more.

Kralev: Is the target audiences in countries that are not democracies, where there is suffering, where there is various problems, whether it be human problems or governmental issues? What about Eastern-Central Europe for example, people there are still interested in listening or watching the Voice of America.

Ensor: You know, obviously famously during the Cold War, we broadcast to Central and Eastern Europe, and we were a source of hope for people in countries that are now members of NATO, and members of the EU in many cases.

Kralev: So those services are closed...

Ensor: Yes, we don’t broadcast in Czech or Polish anymore. We still do broadcast in the Balkans and we have a Ukrainian service, a Russian service, so we’re still very much in parts of Europe, and I think doing important work there.

Kralev: But in a way, any audience these days is global, to some extent right? We have Internet. So whether you’re in Bulgaria or Russia or Czech Republic, you can still actually go to the VOA website, whether in English or another language, and read, and listen and watch... so do you think of your audience as segmented or are you starting to think of it more as global?

Ensor: Much more global.

Kralev: How does that change what you do?

Ensor: Well, we have to think about things differently. I mentioned our Farsi [language] service, our Persian Service, you know there are 800,000 people in the state of California alone who speak Farsi and not a small number of them go on our website and download programming and then send it to their friends send links to it to their friends in Iran. So we have to think of the Farsi-speaking community as global nowadays, and that’s the same for the Hausa-speaking community, and the French-speaking community. So actually another point to make is that recently Congress recognized this and recognized that the Internet in a way had made out of date an old law called the Smith-Mundt Act, which governs some other things and does some good things, but part of it was out of date. One of the things it said was Voice of America thou shall not broadcast in the United States, period. Well that has now been amended by Congress to say that we may give, we may supply our programming to broadcasters in the United States if they request it and certain other terms are met. So we’re beginning to look at that, we’re beginning to get requests, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of our programming, you might see a Haitian program up in Boston or something like that, possibly. It hasn’t happened yet but I think we may be close to that.

Kralev: I think that it has begun to happen…in certain markets, that they are requesting...

Ensor: There are stations that put our program on whether they ask or not.

Kralev: I wanted to talk more about VOA as a news source for Americans in the United States in a minute, but on the foreign audience, you mentioned the role that VOA played during the Cold War. Is it playing a similar role now in other countries? Is Iran one of those countries?

Ensor: I believe it is. I like to say I have 45 language services and I like to have 45 market strategies. Everything from, what we call, denied area countries: Iran, China, countries where the government doesn’t really want us there and make an effort to keep us out, whether by satellite jamming or by Internet censorship or whatever. And there we have to use satellite television, Internet circumvention techniques, an aggressive effort to get to the people and give them an attempted balance and objective news, something that their government apparently doesn’t want them to have. But it’s part of our mandate to give them anyway. But then secondarily, we will also reach out to Latin America, which has vibrant media markets throughout most of the continent. They don’t need us to give them a half hour broadcast in Spanish in Colombia or in Argentina. They’ve got that. What they don’t have is good coverage of what’s going on in Washington and in the United States. So, what we’ve gone to is a strategy of saying to big broadcasters, with big audiences in Latin America, “you know there’s something missing from your newscasts. We could offer this to you. We can give you somebody that speaks in a Colombian accent and will cover the immigration debate for you in a careful and clever way.”

Kralev: Because it’s too expensive for them to have a correspondent in Washington.

Ensor: Exactly! And so, that allows us to become part of the national conversation that’s going on in Colombia or in Argentina or wherever. So we have a different strategy for different markets. But we’re very active and we’re very engaged with a lot of the globe.

Kralev: Have you had an occasion during your tenure since 2011 when someone from the government came to you and said “we wouldn’t like if you were to broadcast this.”

Ensor: Yes.

Kralev: And did you oblige?

Ensor: No.

Kralev: Ok. And no punishment? No repercussions?

Ensor: Look, I’m the director. So I’m the person people come to if they’re unhappy. Quite often. Not always, but quite often. And that’s fine. That’s fine. I’m part of the firewall. But…

Kralev: Can you give us an example?

Ensor: I’m always interested because if the question is the quality of the journalism. You know, we do 1,600 hours a week of radio and television. It can’t all be perfect. Oh, you know, my line to the public is, keep those cards and letters coming. We want to self-correct occasionally, you know. And we’ll always try to check in to whether the journalism is good, because journalism is what we do. It’s what we’re about. But if someone says “please go easy on the government of so and so because they’re helping us in some way,” I listen politely, I smile and say thank you. And it’s part of my job to do that and part of their job, possibly, to say that to me. But the journalists don’t even hear about it because that is not appropriate. VOA has to be journalistically independent. That’s why we have an audience. That’s why we have credibility.

Kralev: Ok, so now, you mentioned Smith-Mundt and the amendment that was passed before July and came into effect in July. Are you allowed to proactively inform Americans?

Ensor: No. We’re not supposed to…We’re not supposed to spend any taxpayer money reaching out to the American public. It’s not what we’re here for. Our mandate is to provide information and balanced news to the rest of the world. That said, because the globe is getting smaller, as we talked about earlier, anyone can go to any of our websites and read them. There are, I think, 55 or 60 of them. Something like that. And people are welcome to go to voanews.com. Please have a look.

Kralev: Right. So if you want to have a website of a news organization that is at a global level, at high professional standards. And you know that your audience is supposed to be overseas but it ends up a lot of it being Americans or native English speakers. Does that change the way you cover the news? Or [the way] you do your programming? At least online?

Ensor: No, not really. Frankly, no. News is news. News in a particular language will be aimed at the largest population who speak that language. And we are a foreign policy agency of the United States government. I’m comfortable with that. This is something the United States does because it’s in its interests. But what it does and what we do is, as one of our governors likes to say, we export the First Amendment. We export the concept of balanced and objective journalism as a goal to countries, even those where the government doesn’t want that to be there. Because we, as a matter of foreign policy, believe it should be. People should have information. There should be freedom of speech. And we’ll give the world a bit of that because it’s something we have to offer.

Kralev: So, because we talk about diplomacy and US diplomacy on this program most of the time, should we view the Voice of America as a tool and extension of American public diplomacy, or is that mixing concepts of diplomacy and journalism?

Ensor: No I don’t think so – I think public diplomacy is reaching out to publics around the world, when a government does that, and I think that Voice of America does that. We are, however, not involved in any kind of classic diplomacy. We offer another kind of outreach. We offer the service of a professional journalistic organization. We also do some training of journalists in countries in Africa where the skill levels are not high, and where that is what they desperately need. So we’ll work with our partners at radio stations around Africa, and TV stations, and give them some training and exchanges and so forth. But primarily what we do is put broadcasts on the air that they can look to for some kind of standard. And we try to make them as good as we can. I come from commercial broadcasting. I believe in entertaining while informing. We have a satirical show in Farsi, we have music shows – VOA has a long and proud tradition in music. We started some new television shows in music recently, and we have some strong radio ones as well. We entertain as well as inform. It’s an extraordinarily powerful agency for media effort which I wish Americans knew more about, and I’m particularly delighted to be invited here and maybe reach more of them. You know, the taxpayer is getting his or her money’s worth. For pennies we reach extraordinary numbers of people. And in many cases we make friends for our countries, at least we build understanding, and in some cases we save lives.

Kralev: Do you think it’s the responsibility of VOA to explain, not to defend, [but] to explain American policies and positions? For example, Syria, right now – is VOA trying to explain to the world what this administration is trying to do, the big picture of this chemical weapon… what does the Chemical Weapons Convention mean, what do countries get, or how are they punished if they violate it...

Ensor: I think that’s one of the most important jobs we have. And there is a VOA Charter that was passed and signed by then President [Ford] in 1976. It says, point one, give us balanced and objective news broadcasting, please. Don’t favor any particular group, and help to explain American foreign policy and have responsible voices representing different views. We do all of these things. And I think we do it quite well, although we’re not perfect. And I’m always trying to reach for more – more impact and better journalism.

Kralev: Where does VOA go from here? Are you satisfied with things as they are now? What’s the mid-term to long-term plan?

Ensor: Humanity is in the middle of a communications revolution of an extraordinary scope, and I don’t think any of us really quite know where it will end up. The tools we use to communicate with each other are changing yearly, sometimes even more rapidly than that. We need to be on every platform, on every type of device that humans are using to communicate with each other. And we’re making sure that that is the case. And we are trying to calibrate it right. We don’t want to get too far ahead of people. We don’t want to spend a whole lot of money on communicating to tablets to a country where there aren’t any. Good old-fashioned shortwave radio is still highly effective in quite a few parts of the world. And there’s no reason to close it down where it’s working. On the other hand, we do need to transition to new types of media as they become more popular. It’s good to be just a little ahead of the wave if possible, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, keeping up with the enormous changes in the ways human beings communicate with each other.

I also, I’m a patriotic American, and I believe in the values that this country was founded upon, my favorite one is the First Amendment, and we are kind of, as I said, exporters of the First Amendment. I believe in freedom of speech, and I believe knowledge is power. We try to get people as much information as possible, especially in places like Tibet, North Korea, where the repression is really severe, and there’s almost no other way to get information besides ourselves or maybe one or two among others.

Kralev: Do you have [an] audience in North Korea?

Ensor: Absolutely.

Kralev: Through radio?

Ensor: Yes, we do. Yes, shortwave radio is still the best way to get to North Koreans.

Kralev: Having had this national security reporting background – that was your job at CNN and of course much of what you did at ABC – but this NSA story with Edward Snowden...how are you handling? Because it’s a really interesting case study, maybe some universities soon, maybe some already have, although the story doesn’t have its ending yet – but was there something that you told yourself in terms of the way that VOA should be covering the story, or do you treat it as any other story?

Ensor: We treated as any other story. And the main thing I told my leadership is, cover it well, because people are going to be very interested in this, and they are going to want to know the details, and some of our audience will count on us to maybe give extra insights, so let’s be good, let’s be good at this. These are big questions, again, about how people communicate, and who listens to what, and how. These are important questions for not just Americans, but the whole world, so I just think there’s another very important international news story that we need to cover as well as anyone else does.

Kralev: Are you happy with the access you have in Washington? Of course the overseas access is not a problem because Voice of America is better well known overseas than in the States. But do you find that, especially in the government, are you treated equally or better compared to journalists from other networks or print media?

Ensor: I think there are people in the government, particularly in the State Department, have quite sophisticated knowledge of how much impact we have on certain parts of the world, the African division knows that we are huge in Africa, and they are very, very aware of that. So if we want to talk to policymakers on Africa, we are likely to be able to because they know we are a good way to reach audiences in those countries. But it’s not even, I mean, there are places around town where I wish we had better access. I wish there were more people who understood what we do. Actually I think one of my jobs as director of Voice of America, and one of the things we really have to do in the next few years, is raise the visibility a bit with the American public and its representatives here in Washington. Voice of America has a huge impact. Most Americans, many Americans, don’t even know it’s still here. In many countries, if you go there, Voice of America is what people talk about, not the embassy.

Kralev: Speaking of the embassy, tell me about the time you spent in Afghanistan. You obviously have known people in the foreign service and at the State Department before you went to serve in Afghanistan, but you spent, I would say every hour when you’re in an embassy like that, you end up working 16 hours a day – of course, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq for that matter. But what’s the impression of the foreign service that you came away with after that assignment?

Ensor: It was so interesting having covered the State Department, and having had friends and sources that were Foreign Service Officers, to then serve with them in, what was after all, a wartime embassy, a very challenging environment. I was deeply impressed by the caliber overall of the American Foreign Service and of the vast majority of people that I worked with in the embassy. Some people rose the occasion better than others. Some people were made for wartime embassy, some were not. But there were some extraordinary bright people and we did some good things I think.

Kralev: Do you have a sense of – I know that Afghanistan is not the average embassy, it’s not like any embassy for that matter – but did you come away with a sense of, ‘Ok, this looks like the way we used to do diplomacy, but we are in 2011, 2012, we need to change the way we do diplomacy.’ Did you have moments like that during your tour?

Ensor: I must say, obviously I was the director of the embassy’s public diplomacy and communications, so put that in, you know, as I say this. Neither that embassy nor most other embassies, do public diplomacy or take it as seriously, do as well as they should, nor do they take it as seriously as they should. The world is changing, and communicating directly to audiences, to publics, is becoming so much more important than it used to be, especially in democracies, or in nations in transition like Afghanistan, but anywhere. So I don’t think there was enough time and attention paid at that embassy and probably at most embassies to the subject of, how do we reach out to the public in this country? We did some very innovative things though, and the amount of attention, funds and personnel that were put into it, I think, showed how seriously then Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke, took it, because those were the two people I really worked for, and both of them took it very seriously. I had a substantial budget and we did some creative things. I used to say I was in the hope business. I was trying to create a sense, and a reality, of hope for the 65% of the country of Afghanistan who were under the age of 25, and we were looking for lots of ways to do it.

The cell phone, like everywhere else in the world, is just huge in Afghanistan. The goat herders would rather go hungry than not pay 2 dollars a month to have that cell phone. So that cell phone becomes a platform, through which to reach people, with news, with information. And it also liberates people. If a woman is in a family compound in Kandahar and doesn’t dare go out for all kinds of cultural reasons and safety reasons, if she at least has a mobile phone in her pocket, she can call her friends, she can call her husband, she can call the police, she can call the doctor. You know, it’s empowering. So very, very important. And we worked with phone companies to expand the reach. We put up some 60-meter towers from Bamiyan to Herat, right across the middle of the country, that both widened the access of the cell phone coverage, made it more secure from a Taliban attack, and simultaneously these towers were designed to act as antennae for radio and television stations in the towns. I haven’t been there to see how this has worked out, but I strongly believe that was a useful thing to do, and something that will help the Afghan people moving forward.

Kralev: Well, maybe someone watching this program will tell us what happens, if they’ve seen them, if you haven’t. Thank you for coming.

Ensor: Thank you very much.
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