By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007
Back home on a farm in Uzbekistan, Navbahor Imamova's mother and siblings crowd around their cranky, Soviet-made radio and tune in daily to Voice of America broadcasts in Uzbek. Though frequently scrambled by Chinese martial music, the VOA journalist said, the broadcast is her family's chief source of credible, uncensored foreign news in the authoritarian Central Asian country.
But that source is due to be silenced. For the second year running, the board overseeing the government-funded VOA has plans to wipe out news in several languages, including its flagship English-language "News Now" programming.
"This is big," said Imamova, one of seven people who put together the Uzbek service from Washington. "It's not a secret that Uzbekistan is one of the most politically oppressed countries. There's not a single outlet that can call itself independent there."
The Broadcast Board of Governors, which oversees VOA and six other government-funded international broadcasters, said this month that the cutbacks are being made in an effort to shift resources to new technology and "critical audiences" in the Middle East, North Korea, Somalia and Cuba.
"The current budget climate requires that we utilize our funds to effectively adapt to changing viewing habits and new technology, and respond to the nation's most immediate and vital national security challenges," the board said in a statement.
The board's $668.2 million budget request calls for a 3.8 percent increase from its anticipated fiscal 2007 level. The increase would fund the expansion of programming to North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as to the Arab-language satellite network Alhurra TV and its pop music and news counterpart, Radio Sawa.
Board spokesman Larry Hart said the decision to scrap the services largely reflects their diminishing audiences. "The world has changed, and our independent surveys show year after year that fewer and fewer people use shortwave radio," Hart said. "Now, that differs dramatically in different parts of the world. But satellite TV, FM radio and the Internet are the way of the future."
VOA employees and advocates counter that their programming is a model of open media and a crucial source of trustworthy news and information for decision makers and influential figures worldwide, a demographic that is difficult to quantify.
Since VOA's inaugural radio broadcast into Nazi Germany 65 years ago, the network has expanded into television and across the globe, and in its heyday, it carried programming in more than 50 languages. In the past few years, services were cut in 10 former Soviet bloc countries that have since joined the European Union. Other services have come and gone only to appear again.
VOA advocates and employees said that among the more dire changes being planned is elimination of "News Now," which feeds the broadcaster's 45 language services and includes reports from Washington and around the world. VOA would continue to offer Web-based English-language content, as well as English to sub-Saharan Africa and news for listeners with a limited English vocabulary.
"This is the VOA. Everything else is patterned on it. This has been our identity since 1942," said Neil Currie, a senior anchor with "News Now" and 23-year veteran of the agency. The English-language program has already suffered the effects of drastic cuts, he said, with staff whittled down in the past two years from more than 50 people to 14. Broadcasts have been reduced dramatically. On Sundays, Currie said, he is alone in the VOA newsroom putting together hours' worth of news.
"It is very hard to think of a parallel to killing the English-language services of VOA America. I can't think of an analogy absurd enough," said Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College in Maryland and VOA's director from 1999 to 2001. "Would Radio Moscow stop broadcasting in Russian? Would Radio Beijing stop broadcasting in Chinese? Radio France in French? The BBC in English?"
Alan L. Heil Jr., a former deputy director of VOA and author of "Voice of America: A History," said, "We need Voice of America more than ever, and yet here we are silencing ourselves on radio." For Heil, the plan is particularly shortsighted when English is spoken by more than a quarter of the world's population and when Russia, China, Iran and al-Jazeera are expanding their TV and Internet programming in English.
Based on figures from the research group InterMedia Survey Institute, Heil calculated that total audience losses worldwide under the budget plan could run to 18.5 million listeners, with 10.5 million lost for the English broadcasts alone.
But Hart, the broadcast board's spokesman, said the priority is to use the limited funds available to target information-deprived indigenous speakers in their own languages, rather than English-speakers traveling abroad. "People who are information-deprived or who don't have access to satellite TV or who don't have hookups to the BBC or CNN -- they don't speak English, and those are the people we need to reach," he said.
Ungar, who was director of VOA when it started offering 24-hour news on the Internet, does not dispute the value of new technology. "But VOA radio is a great bargain," he said. "It costs so little to do it, and is vastly less expensive than TV."
Advocates say shortwave radio should hardly be dismissed as an anachronism. Battery-operated radios are cheap and easy to procure worldwide. Not so with satellite TVs or even Internet service, both of which can be blocked more easily and efficiently than shortwave frequencies. And unlike FM, which transmits up to 75 miles, shortwave can be broadcast over vast distances.
VOA advocates contend that the broadcast board has opted to bulldoze the agency rather than explore alternatives, including asking for greater appropriations to cover the cost of the doomed services, which come to $22 million, or about 3.5 percent of the budget.
For Imamova, the broadcaster in the Uzbek service, the plan is devastating. "VOA Uzbek is the only source of U.S. and international news in the region. It is a critical service," especially in light of a crackdown on news media in Uzbekistan, she said, adding that her comments reflect her personal views.
The Uzbek government has crippled reception of the multimedia service, which costs VOA $600,000 a year and also reaches Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and parts of China. But researcher InterMedia also notes the likelihood of a significant audience undercount because of respondent wariness in the country.
But virtually all the countries listed for eliminations are critical, Heil said. Russian President Vladimir Putin "could pull the plug on TV any day, the Balkans are something of a tinderbox with the Kosovo crisis coming to a head, and Tibetan services are absolutely critical in a country with no other independent information."
"You have to keep up with new technology, but at the same time you need a measured approach to keep your audience base," Heil added. "The stronger you are as a news gatherer, the closer you come to fulfilling VOA's mission: 'The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.' "