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Sat September 3, 2011
Voice Of America's Role In Internet Age
SCOTT SIMON, host: The Voice of America has a weekly audience of 123 million people around the world. Its highly-regarded news and music programs are heard in 44 different languages, from Afan Oromo and Bosnian to Uzbek and Vietnamese. But in this day of the Internet and social media, and a time of shrinking budgets, what interest does the United States have in spending $200 million dollars on a government broadcast service when there are so many sources of information and entertainment available around the world? We're joined in our studios now by the new head of the Voice of America, David Ensor, who was a correspondent for ABC, CNN, even NPR. Most recently, he was director of communications and public diplomacy for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Mr. Director, thanks for being with us.
DAVID ENSOR: Scott, thank you so much for having me here.
SIMON: I wanted to read a quote to you that New York Times had earlier this summer. They said, quote, "Digital technology risk turning these services" - and they meant VOA, Radio Marti, Radio Sawa in the Middle East - "turning these services into relics of a bygone era when dissidents in closed societies huddled over their transistor radios for scraps of information from the West. Now, dissidents these days we know get a lot of news from Facebook and Twitter, so is the Voice of America still necessary?
ENSOR: It's still very necessary and it's on Facebook and Twitter. And in fact, the dissidents you're speaking of in many of the countries that you just mentioned are tuning in to us through those media. There are lots of new platforms now. The ways that humans communicate with each other are diversifying and changing rapidly. Some people think if a golden era when Voice of America was on shortwave radio and there were the huddled masses listening and then looking for the secret police to knock on the door and hide the radio. That's not where we're at now.
SIMON: Well then let me come at you from the other direction, because next month the VOA plans to end all radio and TV broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese. There's been some criticism of that. The Californian congressman Dana Rohrabacher says it looks like we're succumbing to the wants of the communist Chinese. Now, particularly in a society where Internet communication is so tightly suppressed, isn't there still a lot to be said for those shortwave services?
ENSOR: We had to look at them on a case-by-case basis. Our data shows, for example, that shortwave is still a very good way to reach quite a bit of Africa. It's still probably one of the best ways to reach the North Korean population. It has become far less effective in China. My personal feeling is that China's one of the most important places for us to reach, and some of these new platforms that you're talking about - social media, satellite television - are where we need to be headed in China.
SIMON: I was very moved when I was reading up for this interview to read the first words that the Voice of America ever broadcast. Are you familiar with those?
ENSOR: I'm not.
SIMON: February 1, 1942 - obviously, early days of World War II for this country - they played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and said today and every day from now on, we will be with you from America to talk about the war. The news may be good or bad for us. We will always tell you the truth.
ENSOR: We're still doing that. And we need to do more of it. And what I want to try to help my colleagues to do is get more people out doing more reporting from stories. We've done some very good stuff out of Libya recently. We're telling the story of the drought in the Horn of Africa, which frankly the commercial networks are not covering very well. It's a story that needs to be told. And, by the way, on September 6th, we'll start some special broadcasting. This is kind of surge broadcasting, if you will, where we're going to use the frequencies of one of our sister stations and start broadcasting information that's useful to the refugees. Tell them about where to find shelter, food, medical help and so forth, try to help the NGOs that are working with the starving people of the Horn of Africa to sort of organize things better and help people know what's going on.
SIMON: You expect calls for cutbacks?
ENSOR: At VOA?
ENSOR: I think the whole federal government is going to have to look closely at its budgets. I don't think we're immune. The United States has got a serious economic problem and the government has to do - and we are going to do - more on less. But trying to make a virtue out of it, when you have to cut the budget a bit, you can also make change at the same time. We mentioned shortwave radio. You know, it is less and less useful, and there's a certain amount of money being spent on it that should move quickly, and I will try to accelerate that process, into, you know, new media, into Internet sites that are mobile device-friendly, into satellite television broadcasts that can reach in some of these countries. So, we're working on that hard.
SIMON: David Ensor, new director of the Voice of America. Thanks so much.
ENSOR: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.