Budget Proposal Cuts English-Language Broadcasts President Bush's new budget would increase spending for Voice of America, but the proposal would effectively eliminate English-language broadcasts, considered by many loyalists to be the backbone of the service. Other broadcasters are stepping in to fill the void.

Budget Proposal Cuts English-Language Broadcasts

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush's budget plans contain big changes for the Voice of America. The White House would boost satellite television programming to Iran, Afghanistan and Venezuela. But as NPR's David Folkenflik explains, it would come at the cost of most English-language short wave broadcasts.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The Voice of America was set up by the American government in 1942. Here's how it sounded on its first day, charged with beaming real news into Nazi controlled lands.


FOLKENFLIK: Our voices are coming to you from New York, across the Atlantic Ocean to London, from where they are relayed to you in Germany.

FOLKENFLIK: The VOA has continued to cover the news, warts and all, including the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the impeachment of President Clinton, for listeners across the globe. But under the budget proposed by the Bush administration, almost all of English-language short wave radio broadcasts would be eliminated. Broadcasts in Greek, Turkish, Tai, Hindi and several other languages would also be cut.

Kenneth Tomlinson is chairman of the presidentially appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors. The board overseas the VOA and other international broadcasters owned by the U.S. government. Tomlinson says English language radio service has fallen victim to shrinking listenership for short wave broadcasts at a time when dollars are tight.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: There's no question the post-Katrina budget has forced us to take steps that we are not thrilled about having to take.

FOLKENFLIK: But the administration would increase overall spending on the VOA. With Tomlinson's guidance, VOA intends to create new satellite TV shows for trouble spots such as Afghanistan, Iran and Venezuela.

TOMLINSON: It is simply a matter of priorities. If you have to choose between broadcasting in English to Iran or Persian to Iran, you go Persian. You go with the native language.

FOLKENFLIK: The president's budget is not cast in stone. Congress often amends it. Aids to key lawmakers say they have not yet focused on spending levels for the VOA. NPR interviewed a half dozen veterans of Voice of America for this story. They say the English-language newsroom is the core of the broadcasters news service. Dan Robinson has worked for Voice of America for 27 years, and is now its congressional correspondent, and he says the symbolism of eliminating English is devastating.

DAN ROBINSON: This is the language of the world. For VOA to do away with that, for the board to make a decision like that is just unthinkable.

FOLKENFLIK: Robinson says part of VOA's heritage is its ability to broadcast straight news, not propaganda.

ROBINSON: The Voice of America has provided a valuable service and a journalistic service reflecting the standards of American journalism to the world.

FOLKENFLIK: These aren't the first cuts for the agency. VOA's Arab-language services were replaced several years ago by Al-Hurrah Television and Radio Sawa. They are owned by the government, but aren't part of the VOA. Last year, some critics contended VOA's leadership was putting pressure on its journalists to reflect favorably on the Bush administration, a claim VOA rejected.

Sandy Unger was the director of the Voice of America from 1999 to 2001. He says the proposed cuts are part of a shift away from objective journalism.

SANDY UNGER: The Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Bush administration are eliminating the heart and soul of the Voice of America. It would be better if they would just say that they intend to destroy the Voice of America and be honest about it.

FOLKENFLIK: Unger points to other international broadcasters and governments that are increasing English-language news programming.

UNGER: It is as if to say that we, as a country and as a political culture, prefer that people around the world not get their news from the United States in English. We prefer they get it from Al-Jazeera, China, Russia, France, Australia, all sorts of people who are broadcasting in English.

FOLKENFLIK: We asked Voice of America director David Jackson for interviews several times, but he declined. But Broadcasting Board chairman Ken Tomlinson says the VOA is belatedly embracing new technology.

TOMLINSON: At Voice of America, we're going to look at expanding our satellite television broadcasting. Satellite television is to the future what short wave is to the past. And we also plan to focus on the internet because, again, this is the future.

FOLKENFLIK: English-language broadcasts to Africa would not be affected.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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