The great history of radio as a bearer of free information remains a potent force in bringing the values of freedom and dignity into the developing world.
A Voice for Freedom
U.S.-backed broadcasts remain the ultimate in “soft power.”
BY MATTHEW KAMINSKI
Saturday, December 29, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
PRAGUE–Can radio change the world? It used to. On the walls at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty here hang pictures of Solidarity rallies in Poland and a smiling Vaclav Havel. The message isn’t subtle, or inaccurate: This legendary U.S.-funded broadcaster helped win the Cold War.
The glory days are past at RFE/RL, and for American public diplomacy as a whole. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when history ended and freedom triumphed (or so it seemed), Munich-based RFE/RL landed on the chopping block. It was saved, on a threadbare budget, partly thanks to then Czech President Havel. In gratitude, he offered cheaper digs in a communist-era eyesore here in Prague that previously housed the Czechoslovak Parliament. Yet in the public mind, the station founded in 1950 by the likes of George Kennan and John Foster Dulles might as well be gone.
“We’re trying to revive it,” says Jeffrey Gedmin, the broadcaster’s new president.
Doing that, and making the station a valued tool of U.S. foreign policy again, won’t be easy.
The neoconservative expert on Germany, and longtime denizen of Washington’s think-tank world, makes an energetic pitch. In his nine months in office, Mr. Gedmin has told anyone who’ll listen that government-funded, robust “surrogate broadcasting”–a stand-in where the real thing is missing–matters as much as ever. “Massive evidence suggests that it irritates authoritarian regimes, inspires democrats, and creates greater space for civil society,” he says.
The mission at RFE/RL, a pioneer in U.S. international public broadcasting, didn’t end in 1989. It merely moved further east and south. (The Europe in its name is an anachronism; the original Central European stations were shuttered years ago.)
RFE/RL broadcasts in 28 languages to some of the highest-priority and most difficult countries for U.S. foreign policy today. It’s the most popular station in Afghanistan (with a 67% market share in a country where radio is the main source of information), and one of the last free broadcast outlets in Russia, Central Asia and Belarus, and the American voice in Persian in Iran.
But there are several strikes against them. The first is the new “media rich” environment. With so much competition from the Internet, podcasts, widespread satellite television and radio–none of which existed in Cold War days–the surrogate stations, such as RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia or Radio Marti for Cuba, are struggling to hold on to listeners and influence, along with the rest of old media.
In addition, the “surrogates” suffer from an existential crisis of their own. The nine-person Broadcast Board of Governors, the federal agency responsible for all government-supported international stations, is bipartisan, but deeply politicized and with a reputation for micromanagement. Recent years saw the division blurred between surrogate (epitomized by RFE/RL’s stations) and traditional public diplomacy broadcasting that had been the preserve of the Voice of America, which as the name suggests is tasked with explaining U.S. policies to the world.
The board experimented with different approaches, pushing a commercial radio model on the stations intended to win young listeners with music and playing down the old staple of serious programming about politics, the economy and culture. Old timers were aghast. “The war of ideas has been demoted to the battle of the bands,” noted one participant at a McCormick Tribune Conference earlier this year on the future of U.S. international broadcasting.
The quality and professionalism of the stations have come under attack as well, most notably at Radio Farda, the Iranian service, until recently run jointly by RFE/RL and Voice of America. Alhurra, the television broadcaster to the Arabic-speaking world, got into political trouble earlier this year for airing interviews with terrorists. Its director resigned.
The final strike is structural. Government-run agencies tend to be bureaucratic and inertia-bound; in other words, wholly ill-suited for the fast-paced media world. Marc Ginsberg, an Arabic-speaking former U.S. ambassador, says “public diplomacy needs to evolve” and tap the best of America’s private sector expertise in Hollywood or on Madison Avenue.
Mr. Ginsberg co-founded a nonprofit television production company, Layalina, which makes shows that are then sold to Arab-language networks in the Middle East. Its “On the Road in America,” which followed four Arabs on a 10-week trip across the U.S., was one of the most popular shows in the Arab world this year.