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Keep the Voice of America speaking loud and clear

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These are challenging times for the various government broadcasting entities charged with telling the American story abroad.

First, there is plenty of competition for the ears and eyes of targeted audiences. Britain's BBC is a primary international broadcaster. A string of other governments from Germany to France and China to Iran are in the business of explaining their policies and cultures over the air waves to the widest audience they can reach.

Second, the technology for communicating is changing. Though short-wave radio still reaches millions, there is greater use of much more costly television, and the Internet, to reach mass audiences.

Third, US government broadcasters are beset by budget problems as they are called upon to ramp up programs to newly-important audiences such as those in Iran and throughout the Arab world.

Here I must proclaim some loyalties that do not make me an entirely dispassionate commentator.

I have long been an admirer of the Voice of America (VOA), the flagship of the family of US government broadcasting operations. While a foreign correspondent, VOA was a personal informational lifeline for me in many countries where the truth was difficult to come by. In Africa I watched peasant farmers cluster around their village's single short-wave radio to tune in to VOA from America. In China I marveled as hotel workers listened earnestly to the VOA's "special English" programs – English spoken slowly and with a limited vocabulary – that taught large numbers of Chinese to use the English language.

Years later, while serving as VOA director, I was moved by the messages that reached me from listeners living in dictatorial countries pleading to keep the VOA's uncensored news of America and the world coming to them, even though they sometimes listened at great peril.

Afterward, I chaired a presidential commission to weigh the post-cold war utility of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the government radio programs that produced unique programs for Eastern Europe and Russia, respectively. The commission decided their mission should continue. Still later, I chaired a bipartisan congressional commission that launched Radio Free Asia. And, as a final disclosure of any conflict, I must record that my wife was a senior staff member at Radio Martí, the US government radio that broadcasts to Cuba.


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