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The State of America’s Voice

VOA Director David Ensor
VOA Director David Ensor
In a time honored tradition, the President of the United States today delivers a State of the Union address to Congress. It is an opportunity to take stock of where we are, and where we are going. Taking advantage of the news peg, here is a look at how the Voice of America is doing and some of our plans for 2013.

First of all, VOA gives America real global impact. The nation’s oldest and largest U.S.-funded international broadcaster has an estimated weekly audience of 134 million people. Admittedly this is an imperfect comparison, but to put that in some perspective, the three largest U.S. domestic cable news channels, FOX, CNN, and MSNBC, have a combined prime-time audience of just under four million (Cable News Ratings from Thursday Feb 7, 2013).

VOA currently broadcasts in 43 separate languages (plus two pilot projects in Africa). It is a complex multi-media broadcaster providing world-wide coverage, with eight 24-hour television satellite network streams, numerous AM, FM and shortwave radio transmitters, and many radio and TV affiliate stations around the world. VOA provides music, cultural, news magazine and language teaching programs, and a wide variety of podcasts and specialty shows in both conventional radio and TV formats as well as on social and broadcast media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes. In the past year, we started simulcasting certain radio shows -- in Pashto, Kurdish and Farsi -- on television.

Since 1942, Voice of America has been a beacon of hope for people in places like Iran, North Korea or Mali, suffering from government repression, censorship, and turmoil. Last year, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi visited the staff of VOA’s Burmese Service in Washington to personally thank them for the daily broadcasts that she says informed and sustained her during her decades of house arrest.

For dissidents, people trapped in war zones, or isolated by governments that block outside sources of information, VOA is an information lifeline. Our congressionally-mandated Charter requires us to be balanced and comprehensive. We don’t cherry-pick the people we interview to make them fit U.S. government views -- or any other view for that matter -- and we don’t tailor programs to espouse -- or oppose -- some particular policy goal. We aim, as always, for balance -- and truth.
This past year, our journalists around the world covered the news with creativity -- and courage. They included Scott Bobb, Paige Kollock, Sebastian Meyer, Rudi Bakhtiar, Ali Javanmardi and Afshin Nariman in rebel-held Syria, Elizabeth Arrott and Japhet Weeks in Libya, and Idriss Fall and Anne Look in Mali.

There is an increased focus at VOA on producing more of our own original stories, and there are plans to strengthen and multiply the Central News beats, and to deepen coverage of business and economic news from New York. Our coverage of the U.S. elections, Hurricane Sandy and the inauguration of President Obama reached record audiences worldwide. In the past year, VOA has also upgraded its television operations with a new 12 channel, all digital and fully automated master control, modernized its TV studios, installed a dedicated video link to the U.S. Capitol, and begun renovation on the New York News Bureau, which will include a new set with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline.

VOA’s China Branch launched an ambitious new two-hour television program this past year, which is now carried on the most popular direct-to-home satellite provider in the region. One Mandarin language segment, OMG! Meiyu, an exciting youthful video blog that teaches American slang expressions, has enjoyed exponential growth in online popularity. The Chinese government, with free access to the U.S. market, is reported to be spending billions of dollars on CCTV and Xinhua, including a new state of the art bureau in Washington and a ten-fold increase in its overseas staff. The Chinese government also imposes a concerted Internet censorship program and a systematic campaign to destroy private satellite dishes, especially in areas with large Tibetan populations. Despite these efforts, VOA continues to find new ways to penetrate the Chinese market with reliable, balanced information in Mandarin, Tibetan and Cantonese.

VOA has also been building this year on decades of audience loyalty in Burma, where our English language radio teaching segments are now being carried on state-run media -- unthinkable until very recently -- and some of our television programs can now be seen on a local dish TV network. In Vietnam, the VOA website, recorded 2.2 million visits in December, making it one of the most popular in the country. In Indonesia, VOA programs have an extraordinary weekly audience of more than 21 million people, and the VOA Indonesian Service Facebook pages have more than one million fans.

For Iran, which has been the focus of international tensions over its nuclear program, VOA embarked this year on a wide-ranging update of its Persian programs, and we have built a dynamic new management team. More than a dozen new or revamped TV shows now fill a 24-hour satellite stream that can be watched on direct-to-home satellite, or social media sites.
Because of its importance and impact, VOA Persian television is closely watched -- and critiqued. Recently, a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece accused our journalists of being ‘too soft’ on the regime, pointing to an interview on the program Ofogh of a former Iranian nuclear official. The column built its argument on quotes taken out of context from the interview, in which the official was in fact closely and pointedly questioned by the VOA anchor. Our programs are rigorously analyzed each year by independent analysts, for their journalistic integrity. VOA journalism strives to be hard hitting but fair—in clear contrast with Iranian state media outlets.

That approach clearly has credibility. Twenty-one percent of Iranians watch VOA TV each week -- one in five Iranian adults. VOA Persian attracts that large audience despite ongoing regime efforts to block Internet access, interfere with our satellite broadcasts, and threaten the family members of U.S. international broadcasters.
The continent of Africa offers VOA some of our greatest opportunities for audience growth and impact in a part of the world with increasing importance to U.S. national security. VOA has demonstrated a creative approach that combines our strong traditional radio and TV programming with cutting edge mobile technology to reach audiences in some of the most remote and hostile environments.

In Mali, for example, when radical Islamists took over the northern part of the country last year, shutting down independent affiliate stations and intimidating reporters, VOA established a mobile website (Mali 1) that offered cell phone users special reports in French and Songhai, the local language spoken in the North. Usage soared during the recent fighting. What began as a fledgling effort to augment our shortwave broadcasts, has blossomed into a popular service. Plans are also in place to create a ‘dial up’ radio service that can be accessed using even the most basic mobile phones, and a new FM transmitter has been installed in Mali’s capital, Bamako. We will soon begin broadcasts in an additional local language, Bambara. A new daily radio segment Sahel Plus has just gone on the air in French.

Reporting on this region is not without risk. In August, one of our local contract reporters was brutally beaten and left for dead by the radical Islamists, who have since been pushed out of many areas by French forces.

Last year in Somalia, once one of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, VOA helped to provide citizens with knowledge and understanding about the country’s emerging new constitution. In partnership with Google Ideas, VOA conducted a nationwide telephone survey to ask people what they thought of the new constitution, then broadcast and published the findings and analysis on a special radio show.

In other African countries with major challenges, like Nigeria, South Sudan and Zimbabwe, VOA enjoys substantial audiences. In order to better report on Nigerian news in Hausa and English, VOA plans to open a news bureau soon in Abuja.

In Latin America, VOA has gone to extraordinary lengths to rebuild its audience. In 2012, VOA’s Spanish Service added 56 new affiliate stations, and is providing them with a rich stream of in-depth coverage of the U.S. Live VOA radio and TV reports on the U.S. presidential election could be seen throughout Latin America, on networks and stations that have come to rely on VOA as their “Washington Bureau.” Independent TV ratings from key markets in Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico, indicate VOA’s weekly combined audience in those countries is more than 10 million.

In Russia, once the prime target of Cold War broadcasts, VOA is carving out a new, younger audience with a web-based strategy and a highly ambitious new live television program called Podelis, which allows audience members to participate by Skype, or Facebook or Twitter. Popular cable and Internet television stations are beginning to turn to us for reporting about the United States. With the recent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, and the growing aggressiveness of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, it is fortunate that the VOA Russian Service is nimble and creative -- continually refining its programming and distribution strategies to meet new demands.

VOA is making an important difference in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the 2014 transition looms, our Afghan Service has a large, loyal audience (60% of adults weekly) on radio and television and a new -- but seasoned -- Afghan service chief. VOA’s Urdu Service, with broadcasts to Pakistan, has unveiled four fresh television programs in the past year. VOA’s new youth-oriented shows are being scooped up by independent cable outlets and provide audiences in a troubled part of the world with a dramatically different picture of what America is like than they find on local stations. They show some of the best of American life and culture, and offer a chance for people to interact with U.S. officials and experts. And another new TV product for Pakistan, the Urdu VOA News Minute, is an outgrowth of the successful “VOA60” news minute pioneered in 2011 by our VOA Media Lab.

Voice of America plays a critical role on the world stage, but receives little attention at home, and our journalistic mission is often misunderstood. Amendments to the Smith-Mundt legislation which were made in the recent Defense Authorization Act will allow us to build greater awareness of our impact, particularly in this country’s large and influential diaspora communities. In the past, if a radio station requested -- for example -- a VOA Somali language program to broadcast to Somali immigrants in Minnesota, VOA had to refuse. Our general counsel’s office is examining the precise implications of the new amendments and we await that interpretation. In general however, the changes recognize that in the digital age, complete bans on domestic dissemination of materials produced for overseas audiences are outdated. That should make it easier for Americans to learn more about what we do.

In a world where too many governments still try to keep their people ignorant and afraid, VOA --and its sister organizations Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) and the Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB) -- are among some of our nation’s best investments. Around the world, VOA remains a trusted source of unfiltered news, and of information about America.

For millions of people, it is a source of hope.

David Ensor