The complementary deficiencies of VOA and RFE/RL.

Posted: 28 Jul 2009   Print   Send a link
On 23 July, the House of Representatives Europe subcommittee held the hearing, “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America: Soft Power and the Free Flow of Information." (See previous post.) The witnesses were Voice of America director Dan Austin and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty director Jeffrey Gedmin. The subcommittee chairman Robert Wexler asked why both stations exist...
     Wexler: "Yesterday, Mr. Austin, I was somewhat fascinated when we had an opportunity to speak, and you, just in an organization sense, shared with me why it is we have a Radio Free Europe and a Voice of America. Could you just share with the committee and with the audience why we have both, and the two roles that you play in a complementary fashion?
     Austin: I’d be happy to Mr. Chairman, and Jeff please weigh in as well. We very much see our roles as complementary to each other. As you mentioned earlier, sir, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty functions very much as a surrogate media. And that is to say they function as media would function if media were allowed to be free in the countries where they operate. The Voice of America functions more as an international newsgathering organization. We report on local events, but we put them in context of the region and the world and we also explain to that world about our country, our policies, our people, and our culture. So we have different but very complementary roles. If you line up our content on any given day, you will see that. And we both support and reinforce, I think, each other's mission."
     Wexler: Dr. Gedmin?
     Gedmin: It’s hard to be more succinct or eloquent than that, but I’ll just reinforce it. We listen to our audiences very carefully. And we, Dan and I, and our colleagues here, regularly … they need surrogate broadcasting, they need information that is about them. That is, reliable and accurate and fair-minded, and that is principally what we do as a so-called surrogate broadcaster. I mentioned in Ukraine, quality maternal care, or how do you cope with problems of pollution, it may be a corruption issue, it may be social affairs, domestic development. A wide variety of things that they would have if they had their own free independent media. And we like to say that we are the oxygen of civil society. We support and we promote all those good democratic values that hopefully will mature into institutions and the real habits and values and behaviors of democracies.
     But we too, Mr. Chairman, hear constantly about Dan’s work and Voice of America. CNN is not enough. They want quality, rich, broad programming that offers a US perspective, and illuminates … gives a window on American society, American thinking, American culture, American politics, is a serious, credible, truthful way. I do believe that they are distinct, but I’m a strong believer that they are complementary, mutually reinforcing, and both very much needed." [End of excerpt.]
     Is Mr. Austin implying that RFE/RL does not put its news "in context of the region and the world"? And is Dr. Gedmin is implying that VOA does not do news about "them," i.e., the audience's own country?
     Audience research (and I have seen a lot of it) indicates that where audiences for international broadcasting are large, the audience is interested primarily in news about their own country, but also to a large extent in news about the rest of the world, and to a more limited extent in news about the broadcaster's country. The station that provides news in the desired ratio, with the most resources and most credibility, wins.
     BBC World Service is famous for the news that it provides about its target countries, but also for its global news coverage. Somehow they manage to pack both into the convenience of one station.
     US international broadcasting, for its budget of 668 million dollars, has an all-media weekly audience of 175 million. The BBC world services, for their budget of 416 million dollars, have an all-media weekly audience of 233 million.