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VOA in 2020

Imagine the VOA newsroom of the year 2020: a multi-ethnic, multi-skilled global hub connected with hundreds of reporters and stringers worldwide. By then, the VOA News Center will gather and distribute trustworthy information to perhaps 250 million people a week in many languages. Most of it will be video news and analysis, much of it watched on phones and tablets.

The bulk of our audience by that time will see or hear us through an affiliate partner – dramatically increasing not only our footprint in the market, but our influence as well. Already today—in 2014—56 percent of VOA’s global audience is reached through television and radio affiliated broadcasters. By 2020, it could be 75 percent.

By 2020, today’s 15- year-olds will be the innovators and game changers in their societies. This tech savvy demographic will set the standard for content delivery: portable, immediate, and interactive. VOA will position itself to meet those needs, with more cutting-edge efforts like the new Hausa Service programming stream — audio, pictures, text — designed especially for the mobile device.

At VOA, we are keeping on track with the human communications revolution and we are doing it cost effectively. In fact, VOA provides our country with some of the best “bang for the buck” of anything America does to reach out to the world. For $196.4 million—the approximate cost of two F-35 jet fighters—VOA currently reaches 164 million people a week. That is enormous reach and gives VOA powerful impact worldwide. It is in our national interest for people around the world to have knowledge about what is really going on, and especially about America, its policies and its values.

Credibility is the key

Of course, building the VOA of the future requires a strong foundation and a clear sense of identity. In today’s world, what is VOA for? From time to time, since its founding in 1942, the question has been posed this way:

Should it be the Voice of America, or the Voice of the United States Government?

In 1942, the United States faced one of the greatest crises in its history, as U.S. and allied forces suffered reverses in Europe and Asia. The first VOA director, John Houseman, had a choice: Accurately report the grim news or, as we would now say, spin it for the sake of America’s image. Looking back on that perilous time a few years later, Houseman said, “In reality, we had little choice. Inevitably the news that the Voice of America would carry to the world in the first half of 1942 was almost all bad. [But] we would have to report our reverses without weaseling. Only thus could we establish a reputation for honesty which we hoped would pay off on that distant but inevitable day when we would start reporting our own invasions and victories.”

The issue came up again in the seventies. President Nixon’s administration began applying pressure on VOA, not only for its coverage of the Vietnam War but also of the Watergate scandal that eventually forced Mr. Nixon’s resignation. How did VOA respond? That is captured in Alan Heil’s Voice of America: A History. Heil, a former correspondent and deputy VOA director, cites a Wall Street Journal story praising VOA for broadcasting, in its entirety, a call by a senator from Nixon’s own Republican Party for him to resign. “[His] open call for resignation was news,” the Journal wrote, “and the Voice of America is in the news business.”

VOA is, indeed, in the news business, and that was made the law of the land in 1976, when Congress approved and President Ford signed the VOA Charter mandating that it serve as a “consistently reliable and authoritative sources of news” that is “accurate, objective and comprehensive;” that VOA report on America and American thought, and that it present “the policies of the United States.”

Quite simply, the Charter is the foundation upon which VOA has built its credibility. It is an indispensable reason for our sizable audiences.

Moving forward, VOA will continue to set a standard, to be widely emulated, for principled, objective and trustworthy journalism, based on the notion that the proper response to propaganda is honest reporting, not counter-propaganda. It will reflect the conviction that if people have good information, they will make better decisions on matters that affect their lives. Done properly, this will not only ensure a wider understanding of American values and viewpoints, but also enhance respect for the United States as a nation where truthfulness and fairness are highly valued.

Change is Needed

While it would be a mistake to damage that solid foundation, major changes are needed, both in the structure of U.S. international broadcasting and at VOA. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA, as well as Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, is wisely planning to hire a Chief Executive Officer of U.S. international broadcasting. The Obama Administration has asked Congress to pass legislation giving such a CEO full control of all personnel and budgets currently under the BBG. This reform is needed. A complex enterprise with an overall budget over $730 million needs a fulltime boss, and has suffered without one. By 2020, we should be in much better shape under a fulltime leader chosen by the BBG.

At VOA, we are not only embracing new ways to distribute our content, but also reforming the way we collect and prepare news. This summer we are rethinking the way VOA Central News and our English Division are organized, and moving to a “digital first” newsroom. New beats have been established on topics such as corruption and Internet freedom—topics our audiences have told us they want. Coverage of U.S. foreign policy and New York business news is getting more resources, as is news about American efforts in health, technology and higher education—areas where the world looks to this country for leadership and innovation. That increased coverage comes from journalists from Persian, Chinese, Spanish, Hausa and other language services as well as Central News correspondents.

Making a Difference

Critics sometimes ask: why should the U.S. government fund a VOA when the world already has an American network in the form of CNN?

For three reasons:

First, CNN, FOX, NBC and Bloomberg are commercial enterprises, broadcasting, for the most part, in English. I once reported for CNN and ABC News—formidable news organizations which choose their markets based on profitability. The decisions about which audiences VOA should reach for are made instead by our Board, the Administration and Congress based on U.S. national interests. Thus, VOA news broadcasts reach terrified residents of northern Nigeria where Boko Haram recently kidnapped 200 school girls and they do it in Hausa, the language of the region. In Ukraine, our television audience has doubled since the Russian invasion of Crimea, and we have added Russian language news for eastern Ukraine. In Iran, even though home satellite dishes that can receive us are illegal, a quarter of the adult population watches at least one VOA TV show a week in Farsi—the largest reach of any western broadcaster in Iran.

The second reason is that not only does VOA reach larger, more diverse audiences than CNN by doing news in 45 languages, but we also define what is “news” differently than commercial networks tend to do. It does not have to “bleed to lead” on VOA. In Afghanistan, for example, we not only report the latest bloodshed or Taliban bombing, we also report on school and health clinic construction, and other kinds of nation building by the Afghan people and their government, as well as reports on the essential help provided by the West.

The final reason VOA is needed is one that perhaps does not readily occur to many Americans, because in this country we do not have a domestic state broadcaster. There is no real American equivalent of the BBC on our airwaves. In most of the rest of the world—as in Britain--the state broadcaster is influential, so the significance of the role is well understood. VOA is the international state broadcaster of the United States. That fact brings with it a prestige and influence that is quite simply, priceless. Combine it with our commitment to honest journalism—even about news stories like the Abu Ghraib Iraqi prisoner scandal, that require Americans to examine our own consciences—and you have a winning formula. It is one that has radio and TV networks in many parts of the world lining up to partner with VOA, and to broadcast the work of our trusted journalists. They do so because each day, we answer an essential question on people’s minds in Karachi, Kyiv, Lagos and Caracas: “what is Washington saying?”

In countries where we have a national interest, or where anti-Americanism is an issue, VOA must seek to be part of the conversation. There must be an American voice.

VOA exports the First Amendment concept of freedom of speech and of the press. It combats ignorance, propaganda and anti-Americanism, promotes American ideals and culture, and even saves lives with information for refugees in troubled regions.

Americans understand the importance of hard power—a strong military—but many of our fellow citizens seriously underestimate the potential of our “soft” power, and as a nation, we underfund it. With sensible reform by 2020 VOA can—and should—be doing much more for our country and for the world.