Does radio still play a role in a world where that is increasingly cyber-connected and populated by smart phone users? The answer, according to Google’s Director of Policy and Planning Bob Boorstin, is very much a “yes.”
At a panel discussion of the new media and foreign policy hosted by the World Affairs Councils of America at the Mayflower Hotel on November 5, 2010, Boorstin declared himself a big supporter of radio, reminding the audience that “there are many areas of the world which do not have access to the Internet, or even electricity.” In those areas, radio is the only way to reach an audience. The same goes for disaster areas like Haiti. In many countries, moreover, the government seeks to control Internet and cell phone networks, making them vulnerable media.
It is therefore stunning to find that these simple and evident truths have lost support at the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is tasked with overseeing U.S. international broadcasting. Despite the fact that the budget of the BBG has increased significantly in recent years, the board has cited budget shortfalls for decisions to curtail short wave radio transmissions around the globe, focusing in stead on television (which is far more expensive to produce than radio) and Internet (which is far more vulnerable to interference). Equally, or even more importantly, there is also a sense at the BBG that radio itself is so “yesterday,” a medium of the past. As important a language as Russian was eliminated several years ago, and the VOA’s Russian service now only exists as a web-based presence.
In early October, directions went out from the VOA management that all shortwave transmissions on Voice of America (the flag ship of the U.S. international broadcasting complex) in several major world languages would be eliminated by October 31. This would effectively remove VOA’s reach throughout a large swath of the globe. The language services affected would be Mandarin, Spanish, French to Africa, and Indonesian. Just think about it for a moment: these are some of the most widely spoken languages around the world.
Yet, the BBG budget allocation for 2010 was $745.5 million, up by almost 4 percent from the year before, and steadily increasing for the past several years. Either death by a thousands cuts is the strategy that is being applied to short-wave radio, or budgetary planning at the BBG and VOA leaves a lot to be desired. Considering that the BBG proposed in its 2010 budget shutting down the Greenville, South Carolina, transmitting station (the last U.S. government owned short-wave transmitted on continental U.S. soil), one might well conclude that the former is the case.
Thankfully, cooler heads seem to have prevailed for now. The decision to shut down short-wave transmissions in Spanish, Mandarin, Indonesian, and French to Africa was put on hold by VOA management on October 28, just days before the great silence would have set in. To eliminate short-wave radio (the vast preponderance of VOA radio transmissions) from the set of tools possessed by the U.S. government in its outreach to the world would be extraordinarily shortsighted.
Helle C. Dale is senior fellow in public diplomacy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.