01 November 2010

The Challenges to US International Broadcasting in the 21st Century

(Note: I was invited by John Brown to speak to students in his graduate class at Georgetown University recently on “The Challenges to U.S. International Broadcasting in the 21st Century.” Here is a first excerpt from my remarks. Unless otherwise specified, the views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of VOA.)

Things are no longer as simple as when international broadcasters just did shortwave transmissions to the world. Now we have to adapt to a world where more people want TV than radio – and where the Internet is expanding its reach daily. We have to have a presence on the net and on the various social media sites. And we have to have a mobile phone presence. This has meant staffers need to develop new skills. And it has increased our overall costs, especially to do television.

So when I told senior managers at VOA and the BBG about this event, and solicited their views on the greatest challenges, invariably some of them first mentioned budget. Although our funding has generally been increasing, it’s never enough to do all that we’d like to do.

Another challenge is increased competition – and not just from traditional competitors like the BBC, Deutsche Welle and the like. China, Russia, Iran – they are all pouring tens of millions of dollars into global broadcasting efforts. And that’s not all. With the Internet, everyone is potentially an international broadcaster. That means we've got to be creative about how attract audiences. No longer can we just roll out "the news" and expect people to watch, listen or read.

Yet another possible challenge is posed by those who question why U.S. International Broadcasting needs several entities versus one comprehensive one. The stock answer is that VOA emphasizes international and regional news and in-depth coverage of the United States while entities like Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and TV Marti emphasize domestic news of the countries they broadcast to. That distinction has been blurred over time and can be debated.

But the biggest challenge is one we've faced since we started broadcasting in 1942: maintaining credibility and trust with our audiences.

This is not only my view, it’s the view of VOA Director Danforth Austin. In a message to me, he said:

“The way people consume media, including news media, is changing rapidly around the globe, and keeping up with those changing habits is critical for a news organization like VOA. But if the content we deliver, whether via shortwave radio or mobile device, can't be believed or trusted, we've accomplished nothing. Credibility trumps everything else when it comes our role as a government funded international broadcaster.”

(In the next excerpt, I will raise the question of whether the credibility of a U.S. government financed news organization is automatically suspect by virtue of its funding source.)


John Brown said...

Alex -- Thank you again for addressing us! Your thought-provoking presentation was a highlight of our class. Best, John

Sten Dellby said...

I allow myself to disagree with Mr Belida and Director Austin. The real question is not whether VoA is believed or trusted. The problem is to how to do interesting programming.

The success in the US of Fox News perhaps proves my point. The Iranians and Russians are rapidly learning how to do such TV.

The international media landscape changed when state-run TV from countries like Russia and Iran began to produce programming in the US.

And now its looks like USA is allowing itself to be outcommunicated (see The Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Walter Isaacson via RT http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtyemTT8fXY&feature=related ).

And this is done with the help of American production companies. The American comedian/economist Max Keiser is thus aired on both Russian RT and Iranian PressTV.

It must be noted that the Iranians and their American allies made a good job following the American mid-term election. See American Dream http://www.presstv.ir/program/149296.html . Did VoA do anything as good?