After a 15-year pause, the United Nations is reviving daily radio newscasts in the organization's six official languages. RFE/RL Correspondent Robert McMahon looks at a pilot project that aims to capitalize on the UN's vast network of expertise to spread its message more effectively.
United Nations, 18 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the basement of its headquarters building in New York, the United Nations is experimenting with an old form of communication.
UN Radio, known mostly as a source of taped programming, is returning to its origins as a broadcaster of news. A pilot project authorized by the General Assembly this year provides 15 minutes a day of news and current affairs broadcast in the UN's six official languages -- English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic.
The project is far from the high point of UN Radio in the 1950s and 1960s, when it broadcast up to six hours daily in 33 languages. But if the pilot programs proves popular among UN member states, it could lead to a return of more comprehensive daily programming.
The objective now, as it was in the UN's early days, is to provide more exposure to the organization's ideals. They include the promotion of peace, respect for human rights, gender equality, and addressing health emergencies.
The project's executive producer, David Smith, says one basic goal is to alert listeners to UN activities.
"We want to make it easier than ever for people to know what the UN is saying, not just about itself, but about the world. It's no secret, a lot of people out there on all continents don't necessarily know what the UN is doing."
UN Radio has already begun broadcasts in English, French, and Spanish and plans to have programs in all six official languages on the air by the end of this month. For the trial period, broadcasts are just 15 minutes long, consisting of five minutes of news and 10 minutes of features tailored to each region by language. Russian-language broadcasts, for example, will be transmitted primarily to the former Soviet Union.
UN Radio is currently discussing rebroadcast agreements with radio executives in several former Soviet states. In most of Africa, it plans to transmit programs via shortwave. Elsewhere, Smith says, it will make its programs available via satellite, ftp (acronym generally used for the phrase, file transfer protocol) files or the UN Radio web site (http://www.un.org/av/radio).
Aside from radio programs run by its peacekeeping department, the United Nations has not transmitted regular newscasts since 1985. At the time, the news programs were ended because of a sudden rise in shortwave transmission charges.
Since then, UN Radio has offered a steady supply of taped feature programming on issues ranging from family planning to coping with land mines. But for Smith, it seemed strange for the organization to be issuing non-news programming when it possessed an enviable network of experts and field offices ready to comment on breaking news. He wants to use the pilot period to capitalize on that network.
"We should be able to put together some of the best current affairs programs this planet has to offer."
Fifteen years after the UN suspended newscasts, the world has experienced a telecommunications revolution. But radio is still considered the best way to reach the broadest number of people worldwide. Smith explains:
"Radio cuts through problems with literacy, problems with transport infrastructure and, with shortwave, it cuts across the problem of any political interference there may be where some state governments tend to be 'his masters' voice' and don't allow opposing thoughts on the air. Shortwave gets around that."
Spreading the UN message to a bigger audience is welcome news to civil society organizations and human rights groups. And in extreme cases, as in conflict zones, UN Radio could serve as an important counter to so-called "hate radio" stations. The most notorious recent example was in Rwanda, where the station Milles Collines ( meaning: 1,000 Hills) was seen as responsible for spurring on ethnic violence in 1994.
A specialist on the media at the U.S.-based Freedom House, Leonard Sussman, says UN broadcasts on matters such as health and the environment would be especially useful, given the stature of UN agencies such as the World Health Organization.
But Sussman says he expects UN Radio to be neutral politically, careful not to offend member states, which are its main constituents. It will not be expected to offer dissenting views, he says, in countries where media is state controlled.
"Certainly, there can be a good deal of importance transmitted on the UN radios, and I think that's all to the good. Where these issues, even AIDS, for example, become political issues, I think you'd find then that the UN radios will be very hesitant to play a role that would in any way conflict with the domestic political position of any country."
For the moment, says executive producer Smith, member states are expressing support for the revival of UN Radio, not trying to block it. The only concern so far, he says, is over the cost of the programs -- but that has been easy to deal with. UN Radio is offered free of charge.