The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act recently went into effect, which has public diplomacy wonks and civil liberties experts worried about the loosening of the 1948 law that both established the Voice of America (VOA) and limited its ability to “propagandize” American citizens. (They may have forgotten for a moment that just as quietly the Defense Department began making available its own Armed Forces Network broadcasts on the Pentagon Channel, available now to most cable providers.)
But this domestic access is great news for the Voice of America, the embattled foreign broadcast arm of the U.S. government. Because now that American broadcasters, cable networks and satellite dish service providers – and who knows, Hulu? – can have access to VOA shows, the Voice will at last be able to build a domestic audience. And with that, a political constituency, which is critical to how the broadcaster survives and flourishes.
For those not familiar with the Smith-Mundt Act, the law established the Voice of America and several affiliated “grantee” entities – eventually Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio/TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network – after World War II under the U.S. Information Service to broadcast news and commentary to parts of the world that either lacked a robust press or whose press was completely controlled by their governments. It is a sad state of affairs that VOA is still needed after the Cold War. But as a result it has a devoted audience of tens of millions around the world. In fact, in reach and languages, VOA and its contact affiliates, VOA rivals the BBC. The Broadcasting Board of Governors puts its audience at 203 million weekly in more than 45 languages.
But for those who know and love the BBC for its programming (I’m thinking of you, Downton Abbey fans), and were delighted to hear the BBC World Service on AM radio while abroad, there the similarities end. The BBC is virtually a media monopoly in Great Britain, and its foreign broadcasting arm takes full advantage of that position. VOA, on the other hand, is not even a foreign extension of PBS or NPR (themselves wholly independent 501(c)(3)s funded indirectly, and in part, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and which hardly have the enviable position in the United States that the BBC has in the United Kingdom. But in this context, the VOA’s achievement abroad is all the more extraordinary.
Unfortunately, because it has no domestic presence, the Voice has virtually no public exposure – and as a result, no one willing to fight for it – in the United States. As an example, when I visited VOA headquarters in Washington as a tourist last year, I joined a group that included an American family from New England – NPR affiliate broadcasters, no less – and an Iranian-American couple who brought their in-laws from Tehran to visit. The New Englanders were hazily familiar with the Voice. The Iranian/American family were huge fans, particularly of VOA’s “Daily Show”-like weekly broadcast “Parazit”. This was the young couple’s third visit to the headquarters. If anyone would go to the mat for VOA, it would be the visitors from Iran. But they don’t have a vote in Congress.
State-side broadcasting could build that kind of fan base – a domestic, voting constituency – for the Voice in the United States. With more people watching and invested in VOA’s mission and programming, more resources will be in the offing. And with that, any concern about “propagandizing” will evaporate as well. The Voice has never been a propaganda outlet – it hires the best journalists in the world, and its reportorial mandate is above reproach – and it couldn’t give the BBC such a run for its money if it were. Anyway, an American audience would sniff out propaganda right away. But especially for the growing immigrant communities in the United States, who crave news from the old country, the Voice will provide them information they have a hard time coming by. That investment will help keep the Voice relevant and strong amid the increasing din of rumor and hearsay that constitutes international news coverage.