(Washington, DC -- December 29, 2007) The following article
appeared in the December 29, 2007 edition of "The Wall Street Journal": COMMENTARY: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
A Voice for Freedom
By MATTHEW KAMINSKI
Prague -- Can radio change the world? It used to. On the walls at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty here hang pictures of Solidarity rallies in Poland and a smiling Vaclav Havel. The message isn't subtle, or inaccurate: This legendary U.S.-funded broadcaster helped win the Cold War.
The glory days are past at RFE/RL, and for American public diplomacy as a whole. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when history ended and freedom triumphed (or so it seemed), Munich-based RFE/RL landed on the chopping block. It was saved, on a threadbare budget, partly thanks to then Czech President Havel. In gratitude, he offered cheaper digs in a communist-era eyesore here in Prague that previously housed the Czechoslovak Parliament. Yet in the public mind, the station founded in 1950 by the likes of George Kennan and John Foster Dulles might as well be gone.
"We're trying to revive it," says Jeffrey Gedmin, the broadcaster's new president. Doing that, and making the station a valued tool of U.S. foreign policy again, won't be easy.
The neoconservative expert on Germany, and longtime denizen of Washington's think-tank world, makes an energetic pitch. In his nine months in office, Mr. Gedmin has told anyone who'll listen that government-funded, robust "surrogate broadcasting" -- a stand-in where the real thing is missing -- matters as much as ever. "Massive evidence suggests that it irritates authoritarian regimes, inspires democrats, and creates greater space for civil society," he says.
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The mission at RFE/RL, a pioneer in U.S. international public broadcasting, didn't end in 1989. It merely moved further east and south. (The Europe in its name is an anachronism; the original Central European stations were shuttered years ago.)
RFE/RL broadcasts in 28 languages to some of the highest-priority and most difficult countries for U.S. foreign policy today. It's the most popular station in Afghanistan (with a 67% market share in a country where radio is the main source of information), and one of the last free broadcast outlets in Russia, Central Asia and Belarus, and the American voice in Persian in Iran.
But there are several strikes against them. The first is the new "media rich" environment. With so much competition from the Internet, podcasts, widespread satellite television and radio -- none of which existed in Cold War days -- the surrogate stations, such as RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia or Radio Marti for Cuba, are struggling to hold on to listeners and influence, along with the rest of old media.
In addition, the "surrogates" suffer from an existential crisis of their own. The nine-person Broadcast Board of Governors, the federal agency responsible for all government-supported international stations, is bipartisan, but deeply politicized and with a reputation for micromanagement. Recent years saw the division blurred between surrogate (epitomized by RFE/RL's stations) and traditional public diplomacy broadcasting that had been the preserve of the Voice of America, which as the name suggests is tasked with explaining U.S. policies to the world.
The board experimented with different approaches, pushing a commercial radio model on the stations intended to win young listeners with music and playing down the old staple of serious programming about politics, the economy and culture. Old timers were aghast. "The war of ideas has been demoted to the battle of the bands," noted one participant at a McCormick Tribune Conference earlier this year on the future of U.S. international broadcasting.
The quality and professionalism of the stations have come under attack as well, most notably at Radio Farda, the Iranian service, until recently run jointly by RFE/RL and Voice of America. Alhurra, the television broadcaster to the Arabic-speaking world, got into political trouble earlier this year for airing interviews with terrorists. Its director resigned.
The final strike is structural. Government-run agencies tend to be bureaucratic and inertia-bound; in other words, wholly ill-suited for the fast-paced media world. Marc Ginsberg, an Arabic-speaking former U.S. ambassador, says "public diplomacy needs to evolve" and tap the best of America's private sector expertise in Hollywood or on Madison Avenue.
Mr. Ginsberg cofounded a nonprofit television production company, Layalina, which makes shows that are then sold to Arab-language networks in the Middle East. Its "On the Road in America," which followed four Arabs on a 10-week trip across the U.S., was one of the most popular shows in the Arab world this year.
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Mr. Gedmin, 49, spent a chunk of his career at the American Enterprise Institute and then ran the Aspen Institute Berlin before taking his current job in Prague. He agrees with a lot of this criticism. Early on he shuffled personnel and pushed RFE/RL back toward its original "surrogate radio" role with the caveat, he says, that when appropriate, the stations shouldn't shy from trying to explain America to a world so rich with anti-Americanism.
"Our mission is news," he says. "It's not psy-ops, it's not U.S.-G [government] line, it's news. But we tell [local staff] two things. It has got to have a purpose -- to be promoting democratic values and institutions. We also tell them to shoot straight. It's indispensable for credibility in our markets. The moment that any country like Iran thinks that we are a front for the Bush administration or for U.S. policy we will lose credibility."
He acknowledges some people in the U.S. won't like it. Aware of the political damage done by Alhurra to the reputation of U.S. international broadcasting, Mr. Gedmin quickly adds that anti-Americanism isn't tolerated and dares anyone to provide proof of it at his shop. But emigre-run stations are prone to factionalism and to broadcast what sometimes sounds strange to American ears.
"You've got to create space to let them find their own voice to talk to their own people," Mr. Gedmin says. "It is not my voice. My voice doesn't translate well into Persian."
Radio Farda is the priority fix. He wrested full control over the station from Voice of America upon taking office, and put in new Iranian management. Next he looked at the programming.
"The editorial content was very weak, and very underwhelming, and in some cases just downright misguided," Mr. Gedmin says. "When I came they thought, 'Oh my gosh, Washington, Bush, neocon.' All I did was I sat down with them day after day and said, 'What kind of groups do you want to reach inside Iran?' And they said, 'Labor, students, women -- a political class open to political change.' And I said, 'Do we do that?' 'Not really,' they said. 'Ok, so what are the issues [they care about]?' I asked." The response: "Economy, corruption are very big. Human rights."
Radio Farda has moved to push these different kinds of stories more forcefully. Its news and commentary is now supposed to be geared at an elite audience.
There as elsewhere, the idea behind surrogate broadcasting is to inform as well as to start a conversation and encourage critical thinking inside those countries by injecting independent news and ideas unavailable in the local media. Mr. Gedmin cites the coverage of fuel rationing this summer in Iran, which the state-run broadcasters avoided.
"We sent reporters to gas stations who went up to people who said, 'I've been waiting for five hours in my car and this government is giving my money to Hezbollah. I'm furious.' We put it on the Web site, we put it on the radio. We had about three hundred calls."
Mehdi Khalaji, a former Farda staffer now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who put out a critical report about the station just before Mr. Gedmin took over, says quality control and training remain a problem. "[Mr. Gedmin] needs to hire impartial journalists to monitor Radio Farda," he says. Mr. Gedmin says attracting top journalists to Prague, and on contracts paid in the sinking U.S. dollar, is a challenge. But he says the station is now on the right track.
Most of the region covered by Prague-based stations is on the wrong track, marked by rising authoritarianism (and anti-Americanism), particularly in Russia. Prague has, reprising the role played by Munich, become one meeting point for people interested in championing the free press and democracy in Russia, the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia.
In October, the station marked the one year anniversary of the assassination of Russia's best-known journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, with a large conference. A small research team, though a shadow of its Cold War self, looks at media and political trends in its new region. It's probably too small. The McCormick Tribune report notes "substantial analytical research capability" is a "prerequisite for fully effective 'surrogate' broadcasting."
Mr. Gedmin says the radio needs to push further into cell phone texting, podcasts and other new technology to deliver its programming. He hired a new editor for its dowdy Internet site.
With the crackdown on independent voices in Vladimir Putin's Russia, the Russian-language Radio Liberty will have to find new ways to broadcast radio, television and written news and analysis into the country through the Web. "The Russians are kicking us off the air," Mr. Gedmin says. "Pretty soon we're going to have to go to an Internet strategy. If we get it right, it could be the refuge for liberal thought in Russia."
Its effect is hard to gauge and a source of dispute -- in the target countries and in budget battles on Capitol Hill. Radio Farda is listened to by about 13.5% of the radio audience, according to telephone surveys. For all 28 services, the average is 10%. "We care about audience size," Mr. Gedmin says. "Never misunderstand me. But you can't measure our success by audience size alone."
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As far as its importance goes, Mr. Gedmin cites all the efforts made by governments to jam the radio signal, block the Web site and publicly denounce RFE/RL. Its journalists, as others in repressive countries, take considerable risks to do their jobs. This year, two RFE/RL reporters have been killed and one kidnapped (and freed after two weeks) in Iraq, two went missing for several weeks in Turkmenistan, two fled Russia, one was detained in Iran for eight months, and two Afghans were threatened with beheading by the Taliban and one kidnapped.
A 26-year-old reporter for the Uzbek service was shot and killed in October in front of his office in Kyrgyzstan. He had told colleagues in Prague that he had been followed by Uzbek security.
Skeptics notice the early changes. "Jeff's the best thing to happen to RFE/RL in a decade," says Enders Wimbush, a vocal critic who headed Radio Liberty in 1987-93 and currently works at Washington's Hudson Institute.
Yet the outcome of Mr. Gedmin's battle to convince Congress that American taxpayers ought to pick up more of the tab won't be known for a while. Its budget, at $77 million this year, is down from $230 million in 1995, when the U.S. cashed the "peace dividend." None of Mr. Gedmin's successors managed to get Capitol Hill to commit any new resources in 12 years.
How to put American public diplomacy in support of democracy back in high gear is an immediate challenge, no matter who ends up living in the White House. Mr. Gedmin wants to get international surrogate broadcasters back into the discussion. "At a time when everybody is arguing 'soft power' is so important, this kind of broadcast is the ultimate in soft power," he says. "It costs peanuts. And it has a measurable impact of success." Mr. Kaminski is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.