Paving the Way for Ideas

When I was named director of the Voice of America early in the Reagan presidency, I discovered that the most challenging job I would ever have also was in theory deceptively simple.

All we had to do was to tell the truth.

With one caveat.

America’s international broadcasters had to be willing to focus on what was important in the world — and be willing to report those stories.

The problem was VOA’s “journalistic” political correctness toward the former Soviet Union in those years sometimes bordered on the preposterous. We discovered VOA routinely quoting Tass and Pravda attacks on U.S. arms-control positions without so much as a word of American response. As I said at the time, stupid on both counts.

As President Reagan well understood (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall”), the biggest story of the ’80s was the failure (and evil) of communism. All we had to do was fully and accurately report that story.

Often our diplomats didn’t like the strained relations created by our revitalized radios. Once Larry Eagleberger called me to the State Department to complain about our attacks on Poland’s Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.

But the Radios did their job — and the rest is history.

Solidarity founder Lech Walesa once was asked if there was a relationship between Radio Free Europe and the fall of communism and the rise of free democratic institutions in Poland. “Would there be an Earth without the sun?” he said — and a host of leaders in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have echoed those words time and again.

Years have passed, and I am discovering a different world as we prepare to return to international broadcasting. [Last week the Senate confirmed President Bush’s nomination of Mr. Tomlinson to chair the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors which oversees America’s international radios.]

In the 1980s America’s radios had a captive (and vast) audience in strategic places throughout the world.

Today that is not necessarily so.

In 1984, in the former Soviet Union some 15 percent of the adult population listened to VOA at least once a week. Today research shows that figure to have dropped to less than 2 percent. The same trend is true for RFE/RL and evident throughout Eastern Europe.

VOA listenership in the Arab world may never have reached the levels of the communist bloc, but there too listenership to America’s radios over the last decade dropped dramatically. Last year, surveys in Saudi Arabia showed a minute .08 percent of the people there listen to VOA, and a large percentage of those listeners were expatriates who were practicing their Arabic.

There are obvious reasons for the decline. Shortwave may still be important for reaching audiences in vast regions of Russia and China, but in urban centers — and in the countries of the Middle East — AM and FM broadcasting is plentiful, as is television.

We also have to face the fact that programming formats — notably those aimed at the Middle East — had grown tired by September 11, 2001, when suddenly we rediscovered the importance of people — especially young people — in far distant lands knowing what America is really about.

One perceptive critic of these formats was Norman Pattiz, the marketing guru and founder of Westwood One, the world’s largest sports and entertainment network. He also was and is an influential member of the BBG.

Along with other activist BBG members, Mr. Pattiz guided the redesign of U.S. broadcasting to the Middle East. Within six months of September 11, America was on the air with Radio Sawa, a new service aimed at the Middle East with a youth-oriented mix of light American rock and the latest Arabic tunes — with dependable, accurate news.

Equally important, the BBG began securing AM and FM outlets in the Middle East countries and reprogramming existing VOA transmitters for the new Radio