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Leading the Voice of America: An interview with VOA director David Ensor

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David Ensor is the director of Voice of America (VOA), a federal broadcasting institution that delivers news and programming to an international audience. Ensor previously served as director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, and had a 32-year journalism career that included reporting for National Public Radio, CNN and ABC News. Ensor spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

What has been your biggest surprise since becoming director of Voice of America?

Voice of America has a much greater impact than I realized before coming here. We reach about 140 million people weekly worldwide with programming that matters to them, from reporting various kinds of news to teaching English on the air and on the Internet. Traveling around the world, I find VOA is better known and more highly respected everywhere else but here. That’s because it’s not our mandate to broadcast in the U.S. Journalistically speaking, this place is one of Washington’s best kept secrets.

How do you manage a workforce that represents so many different cultures and speaks so many different languages?

Our staff hails from countries all around the world. It’s a bit like the United Nations. Generally, people tend to share two passions. One is about this country, which so many of them have adopted as their new home. The other is the desire to provide people in the lands of their birth with accurate and balanced information, something that’s quite often in short supply. What they seek from VOA management is a sense that we understand and support what they’re doing, and some strategic guidance from time to time on how to reach audiences better.

How does the shifting international landscape affect your workforce and your priorities?

I try to budget resources and time into helping VOA serve our largest audiences, which are in places like Indonesia and Africa, and also in reaching audiences in countries that are national security priorities like China. I spend a considerable amount of time on the Iranian market, given both VOA’s significance there and the fact that economic and diplomatic relations between our country and Iran are so bad. Our latest information from Gallup suggests one in five adult Iranians use VOA Persian satellite TV at least once a week, so we do have impact there.

What do you do to engage your employees about the mission of VOA?

People around here aren’t shy. Journalists tend to be pretty willing to say what they think and ask tough questions. Frankly, I enjoy it. I find it useful as I move around the building, which is often. I want to hear from our people. VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, our parent organization, recently started something called “Face Time,” which was proposed by an employee. Senior managers can meet with employees to discuss whatever’s on their mind. We also asked people for different ways we can engage employees. One idea became reality not too many weeks ago when I was down in the front hall scooping ice cream for all comers. We made kind of a mess of ourselves, but it was fun and, even more importantly, it was a listening opportunity.

How much of your job is serving as an editor versus managing and leading?

I set overall policy for VOA, but I leave the editorial work to the editors and reporters. I don’t edit copy. In terms of managing the overall enterprise, one of the biggest efforts is moving our programming to the multiple platforms people use. For example in China, we still do radio broadcasting, but we now also have a daily two-hour satellite TV show. There’s some evidence that it is being noticed in China, where about 10 percent of the population have dish access. We’re also moving pretty rapidly toward more digital programming.

Who are your leadership role models?

I have three role models. The first is Edward R. Murrow, who came from commercial TV and radio as I have, but also wanted to serve his country, as I do. He was the [fourth] director of the U.S Information Agency, of which VOA was a part. He helped set the tone for VOA to offer real journalism—telling it like it is. My second one is the late Peter Jennings, the former anchor of ABC World News Tonight. He was a mentor and friend of mine. I greatly miss him. His dedication to getting the story right, getting it first if we can and, most of all, telling a compelling story using pictures.

My third pick is Leo Sarkisian, who recently retired from VOA at the age of 91. He’s a musicologist, musician and a wonderful DJ. For many decades, Leo did incredible things for African music and for VOA’s impact throughout Africa. He’s been a cultural ambassador for our country throughout that continent. This year is the 70th birthday year of Voice of America, and Leo was here for most of that time, making our country proud.

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