- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2000

The Voice of America, the foreign broadcast arm of the United States, Thursday announced deep cuts in its East European broadcasting staff to focus efforts on other regions of the post-Cold War world.
VOA Director Sanford J. Ungar revealed the firings at a staff meeting Thursday afternoon. A total of 51 positions will be eliminated in the European and East Asian divisions, including six of the nine Czech-language broadcasters, 11 of 14 Hungarian broadcasters, and 16 of 19 Polish broadcasters.
"This has quickly become known as 'Black Thursday' around here," said one VOA veteran as word of the firings spread.
"The VOA is not just another government agency," said Gary A. Marco, president of the agency's union local representing radio technicians. "What management is doing here is messing with an institution for reasons a lot of us don't find very convincing."
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has overseen VOA since it was made an independent agency last fall, stressed in a 19-point fact sheet distributed to employees that none of the agency's 53 languages were being eliminated entirely.
The cuts, which followed the first congressionally mandated review of the agency's foreign language broadcasts, were "made to shift resources and broadcast hours away from stable democracies to regions of the world where information sources are more restricted," according to the handout.
While the VOA was a bulwark of U.S. diplomacy during the Cold War, today its largest audiences are found in Nigeria, Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
"Unless people are prepared to say we can have unlimited money for an unlimited time, we have to make some choices," Mr. Ungar said in a telephone interview.
"It's better to make strategic choices than panic choices," Mr. Ungar added, saying the cuts had been "personally very painful" for him.
With Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic solid U.S. allies and members of NATO, the old Cold War staffing levels and broadcast schedules no longer made sense, the board said.
VOA employees will learn by the end of June who will be let go, with the firings taking effect by the end of August.
Other services being cut back include broadcasters of Latvian, Lithuanian, Slovene and Romanian, as well as five news division staffers in VOA's New York and Chicago bureaus. In addition, the agency said that three of the nine positions in the Lao bureau, broadcasting in Burmese, Khmer, Laotian, and Vietnamese will be eliminated.
The agency said that, "if sufficient funds become available," the VOA hopes to enhance its reach in Africa, Indonesia, Macedonia, and Colombia.
Mr. Ungar said that any expansion will have to wait until the agency determines how expensive the severance costs will be from Thursday's reductions.
Mr. Ungar said cuts were not the result of a budget squeeze, nor were they the byproduct of the agency's recent attempts to expand its presence in television and on the Internet.
Chris Madison, press secretary to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he thought the VOA board's action would find support on Capitol Hill, even though layoffs are "always unpopular."
"Congress has told the broadcast agencies again and again to make sure their dollars are being spent wisely," Mr. Madison said.
The 51 layoffs represent about 4.6 percent of the agency's total work force.

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