- The Washington Times - Monday, August 5, 2002

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 Sawa service.
Gaining access to AM/FM transmitters is difficult and costly, and replacing traditional American broadcasting has not been without controversy. Critics roamed Capitol Hill complaining that hard-line American broadcasting aimed at Iraq and Iran was being replaced by the sounds of rock.
One conservative member of Congress asked a visiting Kurdish leader about the program changes, expecting him to echo the critics. Instead the Kurd said: "The music is very good. Our people like it."
No one is more demanding of in-depth, fact-based international broadcasting than is this old Cold Warrior. But we first must have an audience. Critics forget that in the 1950s a contract VOA jazz programmer named Willis Conover revolutionized music tastes from Moscow to Warsaw paving the way for the ideas that eventually would bring freedom to those lands. (In the more than 40 years Mr. Conover graced the Voice of America, he never accepted the civil service protection of VOA employment.)
Indeed, The Washington Post recently reported that in Jordan BBG Radio Sawa is seemingly an overnight success. "Everyone in Amman is listening," said one recent college graduate whom The Post noted is of "an age group in the Arab world that often talks about boycotting American products" as opposed to listening to American radio.
With audience growth, Radio Sawa will also develop other programming initiatives including dynamic public affairs programs. We also will encourage youths on Arab streets to ask America tough questions and we will give them strong answers.
America's success in marketing and attracting huge entertainment audiences is not a coincidence. Rather it is based on free markets, free expression and tolerance. As Radio Sawa (which means "together" in Arabic) grows, its listeners will discover these benefits as they do the other blessings and warts of modern liberal Democracy.
Meanwhile, the BBG will be exploring ways to integrate America's numerous broadcast outlets Radio Free Asia has been an important addition to international broadcasting for Radio Sawa-style initiatives in other strategic areas of the world. For example, we should be broadcasting the Yankees or at least major league baseball on Radio Marti to Cuba.
There has been a sharp drop in post Cold War spending on America's Radios which makes the success of Radio Sawa even more remarkable. But the cutbacks have not been without consequences. For example, the end of broadcasts to Brazil which is currently weathering a resurgence of the radical left.
But in recent months I have seen a greater commitment in the Bush White House to broadcasting including the desire to explore satellite television to the Middle East than I have experienced working in four different administrations.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden could not be a stronger supporter of U.S. broadcasting. Equally important is Mr. Biden's insistence that U.S. broadcasting be shielded from the short-term influence of diplomats a Damoclean sword that always hangs over the Radios, and one which, if it were to fall, would guarantee a worldwide audience of other diplomats only.
One thing hasn't changed since the '80s. The most important asset of American broadcasting is that we endeavor to report the truth. And focus on what is important in America and to the world.

Ken Tomlinson retired as editor in chief of Reader's Digest in 1996 after a 28-year career with the magazine. He currently serves on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and was confirmed by the Senate last week as its new chairman.

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