India Set to Lose Voice of America
Friday, September 12, 2008
NEW DELHI -- At the height of the Cold War, as India leaned resolutely toward the Soviet Union, one direct line of communication remained open from Washington to India's teeming millions: Voice of America, the U.S. government's radio network.
Rangisah Prasad, 70, recalls the days when there was just one radio set in his village, and Voice of America's Hindi-language broadcasts provided an escape from the dull drone of India's state-controlled radio news.
The Cold War is over, but Prasad's devotion to VOA lives on. "I have been hearing this station for 40 years now. Their tone was always friendly and informal. People gathered around the radio in the village square and listened to Voice of America," Prasad said in a telephone interview from Dumarsan village in the Indian state of Bihar. "We understood the world through their programs."
But in a move that reflects shifts in U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors has decided that VOA's seven-hour Hindi-language radio service will end this month, after 53 years. VOA will also eliminate radio broadcasts in three Eastern European languages. Radio broadcasts in Russian went off the air in July.
The news is unwelcome indeed for several dozen "VOA listeners clubs" in small towns and villages across India, where radio is still a part of daily life. People there have no Internet, cable television or even reliable electricity. But they have radio.
Prasad's son, Hira Lal, is a goldsmith and heads the village radio club. There is no power in his village, so small groups crowd around battery-powered radios. Sitting by a kerosene lamp, they have listened to and taken part in the popular call-in shows "Hello America" and "Hello India."
VOA goes to considerable trouble to get listeners on the air. First, people send Hindi-language postcards to Washington, announcing their desire to participate and giving a cellphone number. When the show begins, the U.S. studio calls them and for a brief time, they are on the air.
"I am very sad because radio is our life here," said Lal, 30. "VOA is the only station that gives the price of gold and silver around the world. This is very useful for my business. I also like programs about successful Indians in America. They are our estranged brothers, and I ask them questions sitting in my village."
VOA is the largest American broadcaster, reaching a global audience of 134 million by radio, TV and Internet in 45 languages. In India, the VOA Hindi service attracts a weekly audience of more than 8 million people.
Radio news in India is a government monopoly. What gets on the air is strictly controlled and censored by bureaucrats. For decades, Indians have often first learned of big news in their country -- for example, communal riots -- through VOA or BBC radio, because government radio considered the news incendiary or was slow in airing it.
Several reporters who work for the Hindi radio service said the move to kill it is shortsighted. They argued that the United States needs to remain engaged with India because of broadening economic ties, a new deal for nuclear cooperation and the powerful Indian American community.
One VOA editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media, said resources will now be deployed to the government's Middle East broadcast operations. But an official at the broadcasting board said there was no "one-to-one correlation" between the two. The official said that in the past seven years, VOA has sharpened its focus in the non-Arabic Muslim world, including Iran, Indonesia, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
"It's a mystery why they want to shut Hindi radio. India is the largest democracy and has the second-largest Muslim population in the world," said Tim Shamble, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, the union that represents broadcasters and journalists at VOA. "The region has two nuclear powers and several hot spots."
Shamble said shortwave radio should continue because it is an effective way of reaching conflict spots where the Internet and satellite TV can be blocked by hostile governments. He said his opposition is not about job loss but the erosion of a powerful tool of public diplomacy.
The board, however, maintains that radio is no longer the most effective medium for India, which has had an explosion of private TV news channels in the past eight years.
"In response to the growing and diverse media market in India, we have decided to end VOA's Hindi radio. But Hindi service will continue to go to television and the Web," said Letitia King, acting director of public affairs at the Broadcast Board of Governors in Washington.
"It is a difficult decision, but we had to see how our resources could be used in the most effective manner. Radio is not fruitful in getting us the market share."
The annual budget for VOA's Hindi service in radio, TV and Internet is $2 million.
Although BBC radio has been a bigger name in India, listeners said VOA's signal is easier to catch and voice clarity is better. In addition to those call-in shows, Lal said, VOA pampers its listeners with pens, caps, diaries, T-shirts and key chains. Probably the most popular freebie is the colorful VOA calendar that adorns the mud walls of many rural homes. It shows images of the Grand Canyon, Capitol Hill and other classic American scenes.
"Radio listening in these villages is a time to sit together and share experiences," said Janki Kathayat, who coordinates listeners club activities for VOA in India. "We also enlist the clubs for public health campaigns like anti-polio in the village. It will be a shame to let go of this audience nurtured over generations."
"VOA was America's invisible weapon of the Cold War. But that war is over now, and VOA won in India. I am not surprised they now want to focus on the Muslim world, where the new war for people's hearts and minds is being fought," said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Center for Media Studies in New Delhi.
Rao conducted a study for the American government in 1974 to assess the impact of VOA among Indian youth.
"Just look at the number of Indians who went to America during the Cold War versus those who went and settled in Russia. That is how effective their propaganda was," he said.