Voice of America expands Latin American audience

By Juan O. Tamayo
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

MIAMI -- Facing a group of presidents loudly critical of Washington, the U.S. government's Voice of America broadcast is expanding its audience in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, VOA officials said.

VOA's Spanish-language division also will step up its use of Radio/TV Marti's production facilities in Miami because of budget pressures on both broadcasters, the officials added.

The VOA effort to grow its Latin American audience comes as the Obama administration tries to counter the attacks on U.S. policies by several presidents in the region: Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

"Our focus is on the Andean region because of the upheavals that are going on there," said Alberto Mascaro, Spanish division director. "Our second priority is Central America, especially Nicaragua and Honduras."

The Andean region includes Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, a Chávez ally, was ousted in July and is seeking to return to power.

VOA -- which only broadcasts internationally -- transmits its reports via shortwave radio, local FM affiliates and satellite television as well as its Web pages. Funded by the government, it is required to observe standards of "accuracy, balance, comprehensiveness, and objectivity."

''We need to contribute to informed dialogue" in the Andean region and Central America, Joan Mower, VOA public relations and development director, told El Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview from Washington.

Mower said VOA has 319 affiliated radio stations in the Andean region that broadcast its free programs -- 199 in Bolivia, 77 in Colombia and seven each in Ecuador and Peru. It also has 95 television affiliates, with the largest number, 23, in Colombia. The Spanish division has 21 staffers and a 2009 budget of $3.1 million.

VOA's ruling Board of Broadcasting Governors decided to increase the broadcaster's reach into the Andes and Central America after three board members toured the two regions this summer, Mower said.

The broadcaster, looking to hire a marketing specialist to increase the number of affiliates, recently completed a major update of its Spanish-language Web site and last month gathered 17 Latin American freelancers in Washington for training, she added.

Starting next month, VOA will run training sessions for journalists in Bolivia, Argentina, Panama and Haiti on how to cover the swine flu epidemic. It's also working to give affiliates easier Internet access to broadcast-quality video and audio materials.

VOA's most recent surveys in the five Andean countries plus Cuba showed a total audience of 1.9 million adults -- 1.4 million on radio, 500,000 on television and 200,000 on the Internet, Mower said.

Mascaro said the increased use of Radio/TV Marti's Miami studios is the result of budget pressures on both broadcasters.

''In a time of tight budgets, we see a need to maximize resources, and the OCB has a great infrastructure," said Mascaro, a Cuban American who was chief of staff at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), in charge of the Marti operations. He was hired by VOA in August.

Radio/TV Marti now has about 170 employees and a 2009 budget of $34.8 million, but its 2010 budget is under attack by congressional critics who argue that Cuban government jamming blocks virtually all TV Marti reception on the island.

-- Miami Herald

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