Reciprocity and radio: The winners are ...

Tuesday, June 14th 2011

“Radio is a supple and durable technology that has outlived quite a few predictions of its demise.”  That statement by John Staudenmaier, editor of the Journal of Technology and Culture, rings true even in this new century of digital social media and the advent of a staggering variety of delivery platforms beyond traditional radio and TV.

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, government funded international broadcasters have been compelled by fiscal constraints and shifting audiences to pursue new media at the expense of the old.  They also have sought to extend their radio reach via national networks or local stations on FM and AM in other countries, in addition to traditional long-distance shortwave transmissions.  This has happened in Africa, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Indonesia, the Balkans, and some former Soviet republics.

More than 150 countries are signatories to the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights which asserts that everyone “has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”  But in societies where information is heavily censored, or where accurate, objective news is still denied to citizens by authoritarian regimes, such relays are prohibited.

Not so in the United States.  It’s open season here for stations funded by the Kremlin or the Chinese Communist Party.  On June 9, Radio Russia launched live radio programming in two principal U.S. media markets, Washington, DC, (1390 AM) and New York City (1430 AM).  Moscow’s official international broadcast station also opened a production center of 15 reporters in the nation’s capital, and now reaches American audiences in English via mobile links in 16 states.

China Radio International also broadcasts in English in the U.S., with radio relays in Washington (1120 AM), Philadelphia (1540 AM), and Galveston, Texas (1540 AM).  The Peoples’ Republic official news agency has a giant billboard in Times Square, New York, headlining events in China and the world and Chinese Central Television (CCTV) has its largest overseas bureau in Washington.  This is ironic, because a post World War II ban prohibiting VOA and other U.S. government media from distributing programs in America means VOA cannot be heard here.

Today, neither Russia nor China permits US government funded radio or television relays within their territories.  In Russia, program placement by Western international broadcasters did blossom briefly from 1991 until 2005.  At one time, US-generated satellite-fed Russian language programs of VOA and Radio Liberty were relayed or simulcast on more than 70 stations in Russia.  But using Russia’s regulatory and licensing regime to pressure broadcasters carrying VOA content, the Kremlin silenced all of these, causing radio listenership to the Western broadcasters in Russia to decline precipitously.

But Beijing never did permit placement of VOA material on local networks.  The PRC since May of 1989 has heavily jammed VOA and later Radio Free Asia shortwave radio transmissions in Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as Tibetan. 

At the recent National Press Club rollout of the locally-produced Radio Russia English language broadcasts, VOA Eurasia Division Director Elez Biberaj, noted the irony of the blackout of programs his Russian Service used to relay via radio stations in Russia.  “Where’s the reciprocity?” he asked.   Indeed, U.S. international broadcasters face a far from level playing field as they beam programs to the very countries enjoying almost unfettered access in the United States.

The silence was compounded three summers ago when the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S.-funded stations, ordered a cessation of VOA Russian radio and TV 12 days before the outbreak of the Russia-Georgian fighting in early August 2008.  The Board said then that audiences were so small in Russia, following the forced closure of the affiliated outlets, that to continue investing in shortwave transmissions was not cost effective.  The Board is applying similar reasoning this year in a plan to cease shortwave radio and TV broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese to the Peoples Republic of China as of October 1.  It says that in both China and Russia, a reconfiguration of delivery systems to allow VOA to focus exclusively on social media and the Internet is now the best way to reach mass audiences.  Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia would continue to beam regionally-relevant programs on radio to Russia and China.

Critics note, however, that in today’s media rich communications environment, reaching high priority audiences via all delivery platforms is more important than ever.  The BBC World Service, its own officials say, had more than 80 million shortwave radio listeners a week as of January this year. Extensive internal shortwave systems (analog and digital) are being built in Russia, China, India and Australia.  To quote Secretary of State Clinton, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last February:  “Even though we’re pushing on-line, we can’t forget TV and radio because,” she said, “most people still get their news from TV and radio.”  It’s all about the free flow of information set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” 

At the inaugural announcement of Radio Russia’s entry into the American market (June 9), that network’s chief executive Andrei Bystritsky extolled the ideal of “more shared knowledge, including a Russian perspective, even to be heard in this country in your own language.”  Alexander Potemkin of the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation advocated joint Radio Russia-VOA co-productions.  In English here, and in Russian there, that would seem to be entirely consistent with the concept of a free flow of information across national borders.  What is lacking is reciprocal access.

A responsibility to inform, however, is a responsibility all signatories to the Universal Declaration are in principle obligated to fulfill.    One would hope that reciprocity in access and dissemination of each other’s media and, at the very least, a cessation of all jamming  would be stressed by Washington policymakers in their increasingly frequent bilateral discussions with their counterparts in Moscow and Beijing.

In China, the cessation of jamming potentially would increase listening to VOA shortwave radio exponentially (if that service survives efforts this year to silence it).  More than half a billion Chinese are not on-line and radio and TV from abroad remain their principal source of uncensored information.

Against this backdrop, the words of BBC Director General Mark Thompson ring true:  “No one medium, neither TV, nor radio, nor print, nor even the web, are sufficient in themselves… those players who have an interest in multiple platforms are capturing the highest amounts of news consumption.”

Alan L. Heil Jr.

Board member

Summary: As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 125 million people in 44 languages.

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Author: Alan Heil

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