After a speaking tour a couple of weeks ago that took me to Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, California and Pullman, Washington, my main takeaway is that most people in America’s West are unaware that 70 years after its founding, the largest US-funded broadcaster is still on the air, with a larger audience and bigger impact than ever before.
Heads nodded when I spoke about the proud history of Voice of America and its role in helping to win the Cold War, but most Americans have no idea that VOA currently reaches over 135 million people worldwide, or that VOA-TV today is watched at least once each week by one in five adults in Iran.
It is time to reach out to our own countrymen and build greater understanding of what we do.
At a speech to the Oregon World Affairs Council in Portland, audience members expressed delight that our country is broadcasting reliable news to countries where it is rare, and information about US life and American values in 45 languages.
“You’ve been out of sight and out of mind for too long,” one person told me, and he urged VOA to do more to make Americans aware of the tremendous “soft power” impact of their taxpayer dollars spent reaching the world through radio, TV, internet, mobile and social media.
A key legislator here in Washington knows it well:
“I think that we in the United States need VOA to show to the peoples of different oppressed countries what America is all about,” Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said at the May 7th event celebrating the 70th anniversary of our first broadcast in the Albanian language. “Every dollar that we give to VOA comes back to us with hundreds of dollars of goodwill for America, hundreds of dollars of good faith for what America is and what it stands for.” Engel is the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and an influential voice for democracy in the Balkans.
At VOA, we are not accustomed to talking about ourselves much, or reaching out to our fellow citizens. Our audience—our mission—is overseas. Under the 1948 legislation that has come to be known as Smith-Mundt, VOA was not even permitted to make its programs available in the US. That law was amended earlier this year, and starting in July, in certain circumstances, VOA and other US funded broadcasters will be able to offer programs for listening or viewing here, upon request.
The change in the law is in part a recognition of the new reality. Through the Internet, anyone in the world can already log on and see any VOA website they want to, and can often download a TV or radio report, too. Technologically, the web has changed the way media are consumed.
The Portland talk was a chance to bring people interested in world affairs up to date on today’s VOA, as were a talk at the University of Southern California’s School of Public Diplomacy and a commencement speech at Washington State University. At WSU, I urged graduates of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, and the Colleges of Education and Business to “keep in mind public service.”
“Some of my deepest satisfaction comes from doing it”, I told them, referring to my time working at the US Embassy in Kabul “helping the Afghan people put their country back together, and now, helping people around the world through the Voice of America—with everything from reliable news to life saving health information.”
In the audience in Portland were a number of recent immigrants to this country: naturalized Americans who grew up in Burma, Pakistan or Afghanistan and know well the impact VOA has in those countries, and how many lives have been helped by its broadcasts. Many of them grew up listening to VOA.
Many Somali Americans are well aware that VOA and Google recently collaborated on a pioneering telephone survey in Somalia that helped shape that nation’s draft constitution in some significant ways, and that Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud participated May 9th in a lively question and answer session with students at a VOA-organized town hall meeting held in London, where he admitted that young people are still joining the al-Shabab militant group because of a “weakness on our part as politicians, religious leaders, elders and women’s groups.”
Ethiopian, Chinese, and Iranian Americans know that VOA continues to provide objective reporting to nations where the local media is controlled by the government and truly independent outlets are banned. America’s diverse diasporas understand better than most the value of what VOA and its sister organizations—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and TV and Radio Marti—do for our country.
After the talk in Portland, a dozen or more of these “new” Americans came up to the podium, to urge me to keep VOA strong and to ask what they could do to help. They are natural allies in any US effort to inform, engage and connect with the world around us.