Shortly before the Senate confirmed me as director of the Voice of America, I was approached separately by two political figures concerned about what we were going to do to VOA. One, a Democrat, was worried that we might be preparing to turn the institution into the propaganda voice of the right. The other, a Republican, feared we would not be tough enough to change VOA's alleged '50s-liberal slant.
The two represented exactly opposite attitudes toward the VOA, but, as each conversation developed, I found the two agreed on one important point. Both confessed that when abroad they listen to the BBC -- not VOA. Each declared the BBC's programming was far more informative, far more relevant.
Without question, the director of the Voice of America faces an extraordinarily difficult job. Within this institution are Foreign Service diplomats who frequently want to keep the broadcast lid on, VOA journalists who often want to blow the lid off and representative of 42 separate language services, a number of which have a rich tradition of old-world guerrilla warfare. A fact often overlooked in articles about VOA is the managerial task involved in working with groups where interests are so widely separated. But the real challenge facing the new leadership at VOA is not to come up with a new scheme for running a radio station like a city council. The real challenge is to reverse the years of official neglect that constitutes the real source of problems at VOA.
This neglect has deprived us of credibility in strategic portions of the world where the use of old transmitting equipment means that our voice barely can be heard. Equally important, it has resulted in public affairs programming that conservatives and liberals alike recognize as often dull and irrelevant.
The solution to VOA programming inadequacies is really quite simple. The Voice of America should reflect the voices of America.
The principle is an extension of the philosophy on which this nation was founded. The founders believed that a great body of people, when exposed to a diversity of information and opinion, could decide for themselves -- and do it well. That is precisely what we propose to do in broadcasting to the people of the world. Our news at the top of the hour is competitive with any international broadcast organization. In VOA editorials we crisply identify and reflect the views of the U.S. government. But in current affairs programming VOA has never succeeded in reflecting the voices of the nation's opinion leaders on the important issues of the day.
Ironically, it will take greater resources to reflect opinions across the political spectrum. It is far easier and less expensive to produce in-house commentaries than it is to break outside our institution to reflect American viewpoints. But we are going to do this in the months ahead.
Whether those voices will be heard, however, is another issue.
In recent days a cable crossed my desk from an important capital in the Arab world. An American diplomat reported Radio Moscow's signal is loud and clear -- as are the radio voices of numerous other nations large and small. The United States is not among them. VOA's signal is weak and often difficult to receive.
Anyone who wants to can come down to our studios at the base of Capitol Hill and see us broadcasting to the world using vintage 1950s equipment worthy of a broadcast museum. At a key relay station, we are actually using transmitter equipment captured from the Nazis at the end of World War II. So ancient are our facilities that we must maintain a machine shop to fabricate parts because they are no longer made by commercial dealers. The reminders of what this means abound:
In recent weeks, broadcasters from China and India came to tour our headquarters facility. I can only describe their reaction as one of shock. As one put it, "How can the world's most advanced nation be using some of the world's most backward equipment?"
In the last decade the number of high-power, short-wave transmitters worldwide has increased eightfold. During the same period, the VOA has added a number of languages and broadcast hours, but its technical capabilities have remained practically unchanged.
The Soviet Union spends more to jam Western broadcasts coming into the Soviet Union than we allocate for the entire VOA worldwide budget.
There is a bottom line to all this, of course. Listen to the words of a letter we received in recent weeks from Iran: "It bewilders me why a country whose astronauts can easily speak to Earth from outer space is not able to transmit her own voice across the world."
This administration is committed to a technological modernization program that would restore strength to the Voice of America.