Saturday, March 16, 2013

Roundtable Discussion on the Future of US International Media

The video/audio of an interestiing discussion on the future of US International media has finally gone on up on  the Interwebs. There must have been some glitch because it took a long time for them to post it and you won't find it now on the website unless you know exactly where it is.

While the content and methods of delivering America’s 24/7 conversation with the world have kept abreast with the 21st century, Wilson Center Senior Scholar A. Ross Johnson and retired Director of Audience Research and Program Evaluation at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty R. Eugene Parta argue the structure  of U.S. International Broadcasting has not. The published a discussion paper outlining their arguments for reform in a free paper, "A 21st  Century Vision for U.S. Global Media,"

Using this Occasional Paper as a point of departure, the Wilson Center organized this roundtable discussion on the future of U.S. global media. Expert panelists will include Tom Dine, former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague; D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, executive vice president of the Northeast MAGLEV and former governor of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors; A. Ross Johnson, Wilson Center senior scholar; R. Eugene Parta, retired director of audience research and program evaluation at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College and former director of Voice of America. John Milewski, host of the Wilson Center's Dialogue Radio & Television chaired the event.

As an ex-director of an international broadcaster myself, I found the candid remarks by these ex-Directors of US International broadcasting stations to be fascinating. The broadcaster I worked for had the huge advantage of being public not government. It had the disadvantage of having a fraction of the production budget that the US pumps in. 

I don't know why, but I vividly remember San Ungar, then VOA Director explaining the top 5 countries for VOA at a conference in Canada back in May 26th 2000. I found the programme in my archive - the clip I am thinking of is 13'00 into the programme.  

I recall Sanford Ungar explaining his surprise that VOA had huge audiences in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, because the VOA had shown through its programming that it was able to take a step back from the actions by the US government. In those days, Afghanistan had nothing like the significance in Washington than it does now.  The reason for large audiences in Bangladesh are probably linked to stand it took during the infamous Tilt towards Pakistan in 1971, when Henry Kissinger made serious foreign policy mistakes. And VOA Bengali service didn't take sides, even though the US was heavily involved in South Asia.

Some points I heard in the discussion:

US International Media still struggles because:

  • there is no clear leadership of  Broadcasting Board of Governors. There needs to be a strong man or woman with a plan B, starting with a clear ready WHY international media is so important to US Interests abroad. Hilary Clinton complained on several occasions that they were losing the information war to China, Russia and Qatar. It needs to be a radical plan.

  • I am amazed that VOA still makes and broadcasts editorials reflecting the views of the US government administration - and Ungar was right to say in the discussion above that this is ridiculous. Even though they have stopped calling them VOA Editorials, they rather stupidly use a VOA Jingle hook at the beginning and end. And the website is a gallery of rather atrocious, boring journalism. I think they must pay people by the word, because this 4 minute item has 2 minutes of a production music tacked on the end. Clearly, nobody cares. In some of the smaller language sections, these heavy handy commentaries are voiced by the same presenters that present VOA programming. As if a piece of music or a jingle between the "views of the US government" works. It is the worst programme item that VOA puts on the airwaves. I note that some languages put these VOA Editorials at the end of the broadcast, knowing full well that most partner stations won't broadcast them. 

  • The Golden Age of US broadcasting was defined by some of the speakers as the era immediately after the Cold War. Golden in the sense that there was plenty of gold to finance it all. But it clearly failed to redefine its goals and justify WHY to the US Congress. Ungar wonders whether there is any real understanding up on the hill. Unless they can find the visionaries, then prospects are bleak. Personally, I don't think the problem is funding. You can certainly be expected to make a measurable impact with US$720 million dollars. What would happen if other countries had the same amount? And remember China puts aside US$8 billion dollars for its government propaganda efforts. They are so poor that they they fail to convince anyone - thank goodness. 

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