Tested in Crisis
The events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath underscored the vital role of U.S. international broadcasting in moments of crisis.
Within minutes of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, VOA mobilized all of its multimedia resources to provide comprehensive coverage. VOA moved to an all-news format, immediately expanded broadcasting in Arabic and Persian, and WORLDNET interrupted regular programming on seven satellites to allow viewers around the world to see raw footage of the attacks in New York and Washington.
The coverage in the U.S. and abroad included segments of an interview with the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Excerpts of the Mullah Omar interview were aired in a larger piece framed around President Bush’s statement to a joint session of Congress. The VOA piece was broadcast despite nationally televised U. S. State Department objections. At the time it was rare for listeners in Afghanistan to hear the Mullah Omar reply to questions, and extraordinary for Afghan listeners to hear him contradicted and juxtaposed with other voices.
VOA extensively covered the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. To reach audiences in that critical part of the world, VOA significantly increased its programming in the Dari and Pashto languages. Previous research had shown that, on September 11th, the Voice of America had had the largest audience of any media outlet in Afghanistan, including the local media.
Reaching out to the Muslim World
On February 24, 2002, President George W. Bush celebrated VOA’s 60th anniversary with a visit to VOA and a speech broadcast around the world on radio and television. The President said, “Through a world war and a cold war, in crisis and in calm, the Voice of America has added to the momentum of freedom.”
During this period, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), VOA’s parent organization, increased efforts to reach predominantly young audiences in Muslim countries across the Middle East and West and South Asia.
In March 2002, the BBG debuted Radio Sawa (Together), a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week Arabic language radio station, in place of VOA’s Arabic Service, later complemented by Alhurra (The Free One), a new Arabic-language satellite channel broadcasting news and information to the Middle East.
Then, in late 2002, the BBG launched Radio Farda (Tomorrow), an around-the-clock radio station in Persian that was a joint project of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (in July 2008 it moved completely under RFE/RL). At the start of the new decade, VOA also expanded its TV programming to Iran, aimed at the millions of Iranians who watch satellite television. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi said she had always held VOA radio and television programs in high regard. "VOA Persian," she observed, "has always provided unbiased and timely reports which I listen to whenever I get a chance." According to audience research, one in four Iranians listened or watched VOA programs at least once a week in 2006, thus making VOA the most popular international broadcaster in Iran.
VOA’s broadcasting to Afghanistan also saw significant expansion. Broadcasting under the name Radio Ashna (Friend), VOA revamped its 12-hour Dari and Pashto radio stream to Afghanistan in 2004, creating a more contemporary format. Then in 2006, VOA debuted TV Ashna, its new television programs to Afghanistan.
For Pakistan, VOA launched Radio Aap Ki Dunyaa (Your World), a dynamic 12-hour-a-day Urdu-language broadcast aimed at young people, followed in 2005 by a new television program in Urdu called Khabron se Aaage (Beyond the Headlines).
In February 2007, VOA successfully launched new radio programming in the Somali language, reaching predominantly Muslim audiences in Somalia. Throughout the decade, VOA has increased efforts to expand its listener- and viewership in sub-Saharan Africa, home to one of every five Muslims in the world.
The end of the Cold War and new realities of the post-9/11 age resulted in the closure of twelve language services, mostly languages from Eastern Europe as those countries joined NATO and developed independent media.
The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which supports VOA, began to modernize VOA broadcast recording studios with the Integrated Digital Audio Production System (IDAPS), the largest integrated audio system in the world. in 2001. The digital project also included the installation of 24 Mix/Dub Centers. By 2002, WORLDNET switched from an analog to a digital system and, to streamline VOA’s radio and TV programming, WORLDNET and VOA merged in May 2004.
In 2000, VOA launched its main portal www.VOANews.com. By 2005, VOANews.com, was sixth in the world in Newsknife’s ranking of the top 10 news sites. Today, VOA offers its news content on the Internet in all of its broadcast languages, some in a variety of formats, including podcasts, online chats, and RSS feeds.
In February 2005, VOA unveiled a new state-of-the-art Newscenter, bringing together VOA’s radio and television professionals, along with studios, edit suites, intake facilities, and the VOA newsroom.
In April 2006, VOA inaugurated its new Studio Tour. In the first year, thousands of people toured VOA’s new Visitor Center for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into VOA’s radio and television operations.
VOA continues to examine new technologies and refine its programming to reflect the needs of its audiences. One goal remains, however, for the hundreds of professionals who make up the Voice of America — to deliver comprehensive, timely, and truthful information. The VOA will continue to broadcast the sounds of freedom and serve as a beacon of hope for its millions of listeners, viewers, and Web users around the world.