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BBG: Nostalgia Doesn’t Get the Job Done

The Web supports a dynamic interactive with our audience, allowing us to get news and then share it with remarkable immediacy.

(click thumbnail)Vincent NowickiJack Quinn and Nick Olguin’s guest commentary on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“Don’t Close Shortwaves, Improve Them,” Feb. 1) is out of step with the realities of today’s sophisticated audience and the strategic media markets for U.S. international broadcasting.

The BBG is keenly aware of the value of shortwave in distinct markets such as some parts of Africa and parts of Asia. Shortwave sustained international broadcasting throughout the Cold War and still makes a significant mark today in the global war on terror.

However, nostalgia for Cold War methods does not get the job done in the new millennium. We need only look at a few recent events to vividly illustrate that point.

Old meets new

In September 2007, Burma’s junta cracked down on the demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. BBG doubled Voice of America and Radio Free Asia (RFA) Burmese broadcasts in shortwave and medium wave. At the same time, daily Web traffic to VOA’s site increased by 186 percent and remains 95 percent above pre-crisis levels. There were real-time exchanges of video and sound from eyewitnesses’ cell phones and handheld devices.

Here, old and new technologies were blended with great effect. The Web supports a dynamic interactive with our audience, allowing us to get news and then share it with remarkable immediacy. The Board’s FY 2009 budget request reflects the need to invest in these transformative technologies while sustaining the proven broadcast facilities as appropriate.

In November 2007, the Pakistani government shut down all independent media inside Pakistan including VOA’s TV programs on local channels. We expanded VOA Urdu-language broadcasts from five to 12-1/2 hours daily using primarily medium wave.

Research tells us that in Pakistan, after TV, FM is the dominant medium followed by AM. Shortwave is the least popular by a wide margin, with only 8 percent ownership. Notably, there is a sharp rise in mobile phone ownership and along with it, FM radio access. In this hostile climate the solution requires determination and creativity but clearly not shortwave.

In Russia we face an even more complex challenge. The Committee to Protect Journalists described in August 2007 that: “In the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections … Russian authorities have consolidated their control on the influential broadcast media.” The CPJ described restrictive media laws, pressure, intimidation and imprisonment of journalists. Specifically, “14 journalist murders committed since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000 remain unsolved.”

BBG access to domestic radio and TV outlets has dropped, due to Russian government pressures, from 97 in 2005 to 19 today. However, only 2 percent of Russians use shortwave radio on a weekly basis, and AM usage is similarly low at just 5 percent weekly, while weekly Internet use stands at 15 percent. The Internet and other new media have become the default delivery options. Transforming our programming and shifting technical resources to reach both the policy-influencing elite and the “digital generation” is our immediate test.

Effective distribution

Our strategic approach, including network realignments and expanding our broadcasting platforms in places like the Middle East, has been pivotal to increasing our audience.

It is true that we closed our transmitting stations in Playa de Pals, Spain, in 2001 and Kavala, Greece, in 2006. However, surplus equipment from such shifts is economically and effectively redeployed at other BBG facilities on a regular basis.

In general, the shortwave broadcasting mission European-based stations have capably served for more than half a century has shifted eastward to Asia.

Our engineers successfully added more than 50 FM transmitters to our inventory over the past several years. Most operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 2007, the BBG transmitted more total hours of radio than any previous year in the last decade. In addition we operate four local television transmitters in Iraq to broadcast one of three 24-hour streams of our Arabic news and information channel, Alhurra.

Since 2002 VOA’s television production has grown significantly and its worldwide TV audience has quadrupled with television programming in 25 of its 45 languages. Collectively, this new broadcasting has boosted the BBG’s global audience levels from 100 million to 155 million in the past six years.

The single greatest challenge we face is to ensure effective distribution. Too many of the countries to which the BBG broadcasts try to jam our direct broadcasts, limit or prohibit local distribution via affiliates, enforce laws that restrict broadcast content and block our Internet sites.

We broadcast in 60 languages to more than 80 countries. Our global network of more than 60 transmitting facilities includes about 175 transmitters and 400 antennas with a combined power capability of more than 38 million watts. To track the effectiveness of and drive continuous improvements in our broadcasts, the BBG spends $9 million a year on market and audience research.

The BBG has its eyes wide open as it directs U.S. international broadcasting. Using the correct media mix — be it Internet, TV, AM, FM or shortwave radio — preferred by the audience, and not simply grasping on to old approaches, is the only way we can reach today’s worldwide audience.

This is a challenging assignment, but U.S. taxpayers can trust that we are doing our homework.