- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

There has been a great deal of attention recently about a new U.S.-sponsored operation known as the Middle East Radio Network (MERN) broadcasting as Radio Sawa ("together" in Arabic), designed to reach the youth of the Middle East through pop music both Arabic and American currently with a modicum of news.
The program reportedly is an overnight success in attracting Arabic youth with its formula of entertainment and minimum demand for attention to serious international, let alone American, policies and actions. All this at the direction of the presidentially appointed independent Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) seeking to remedy acknowledged inadequacies in the reach and impact of the country's international broadcasting programs.
The intent of these actions by the BBG are not in question. However, two troublesome aspects of this new broadcast formula have not received sufficient attention: First, the Radio Sawa programs currently transmitted over FM reach only limited portions of the intended audience and the transmission over existing AM facilities (the same ones used earlier by the Voice of America (VOA) which the critics said reached only 2 percent of the audience) has only this same limited reach into such critical areas as Egypt and Iraq.
And, second, most important of all, in this commentator's view, the stories about this new program make little mention of the fact that its initiation was accompanied by total elimination of VOA broadcasts in Arabic, a program that goes back at least to the early '50s.
The very disturbing result is that in this critical time of the present attempts by the United States to defuse the crisis in Palestine and the growing focus by this country on Saddam Hussein, the United States today is not broadcasting one single word in the Arab language under its own well-established broadcast network, the Voice of America, to the vast critical Arab-speaking world from North Africa to the Gulf.
The justification for this dismantling of VOA is not financial Congress recently provided $34 million dollars additional funding to the BBG for Middle East programs. Rather, the explanation is that VOA programs were "stodgy," "dull," "not exciting," with no appeal to the youth of the area.
One newspaper story had this "critical" description by one of the new service's correspondents about VOA Arabic's "sparse" audience: "a group limited to elites political officials, academics, journalists and a handful of others." This of course is a base audience for which most foreign broadcasters would give their eyeteeth and on which they would build in times of crisis.
So in place of VOA Arabic, we now have Radio Sawa as an unidentified substitute for VOA, seeking to reach just the youth of the region. Anecdotal evidence indicates the program is achieving this goal; so well in fact, that one young Arab listener in Amman says "One English song. One Arab song. Some news. It has got everything. It has nothing to do with being American."
The BBG has said it will gradually increase the substantive content of Radio Sawa. One estimate is that eventually a third of content will be informational. But that begs the question "to what end?" Is it certain that what works commercially in the U.S. for the sale of consumer goods is valid necessarily in Baghdad and Cairo and Damascus, for developing positive understanding of the U.S. and its policies. Where will the "political officials, academics, journalists and a handful of others" be while this gradual build-up of "nothing to do with being American" content takes place?
Will they ever come to a Radio Sawa?
Of even further concern, the formula is being touted as a prototype for other areas. Already, there has been an announcement that VOA Farsi to Iran will be subject to the same formula. Then what? VOA Russian? VOA Mandarin to China? Perhaps even VOA English? These are established names in which the United States has invested 60 years of manpower and treasure and which have through the dedicated efforts of many hundreds of professional broadcasters developed a reputation for credibility and acceptance, even if that audience in today's world of seamless communication is limited to the elites the "political officials, etc. "
There is nothing wrong in trying innovative programs to reach desired audiences in this case, the youth of the Middle East, or of other areas as well. More power to the effort. Modernize and experiment in today's saturated telecommunications marketplace. The VOA did it through its "Music USA" for 40 years.
Today's VOA programs should certainly be improved where needed. If VOA programs are dull, improve them. If VOA facilities are inadequate, strengthen them. If another medium is more effective, use it. But it is a grievous misjudgment to couple the initiation of the Radio Sawa formula (or any other innovative approach for new listeners) with abandonment of established VOA core programs that important elements of the target audiences accept as the channels of information and explanation of American principles, policies and actions.

Barry Zorthian, a partner in the Washington area firm of Alcalde & Fay, was program manager of the Voice of America from 1956-1961 and is a retired Foreign Service officer.

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