Voice of America, 70 Years Later, Faces Bureaucratic Troubles

But some see a necessity and a vision for the U.S. broadcaster.

Technicians working in the master control room at a Voice of America facility.

Technicians working in the master control room at a Voice of America facility.

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When prominent Burmese dissident-turned-opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi visited Washington last month, she made a stop at a nondescript WWII-era government building on Independence Avenue for an interview that would be broadcast throughout Burma. The broadcaster, Voice of America, has been the U.S. government's method of communication with populations abroad since 1942, when the institution broadcast anti-Nazi radio addresses to the German people in their native language.

Today, the service broadcasts in 43 languages in various formats, including radio, television, and social media, and boasts a weekly audience of 141 million. It employs 1,115 federal workers and 650 contractors, more than Fox News Channel's reported workforce last year. It also remains an important tool of public diplomacy. For 2012, VOA and its five smaller sister stations requested a budget of $767 million—$230 million more than the State Department budgeted for overall public diplomacy that year.

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But 70 years after taking on Adolf Hitler and then communism, VOA is plagued with bureaucratic problems, including a bloated budget, redundant programming, and a uninterested board of governors. And despite the broadcaster's ubiquity abroad, a number of Americans do not even know VOA exists. In part, this may be due to federal law that prevents VOA's reports from being broadcast within America.

"Government building #38," jokes VOA executive editor Steve Redisch, who came to the broadcaster after a two-decade long career at CNN.

(Slideshow provided by Voice of America)

David Ensor, who became the head of VOA a year ago after a stint at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and three decades in journalism, says the broadcaster's problems are more about its makeup.

"This is a big, complex organism," he says.

VOA has five smaller sister broadcasters to augment what it does: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the International Broadcasting Bureau. They all work under an umbrella agency called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, made up of an 8-person, bipartisan panel chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The secretary of state serves as a ninth, ex officio, member.

VOA provides soft and hard news, satire and investigative reports, two-minute radio shows and feature length broadcasts. Delivery is also growing more complex. VOA once broadcast only over television and short-wave radio. Now apps, podcasts, toll-free numbers, text messages, newsletters and the Web have been added to that list. The method of delivery often needs to be adapted to the target audience: in Iran, newsletters are delivered by proxy servers because of government censorship of regular servers; in China, TV shows are fed by satellite because the Chinese government jams other broadcasts.

As VOA's reporting has grown over the last decade, so has the cost. Managers say the institution's expanded budget is a direct result of Congress's reaction to Sept. 11. The 9/11 Commission, which investigated the terrorist attacks, recommended that VOA's board "has asked for much larger resources. ...It should get them."

September 11 "unleashed a torrent of public diplomacy efforts," says Bruce Sherman, who oversees the global strategy and research for VOA's board. "Remember when George [W.] Bush said just after 9/11: 'Why do they hate us so much?'...At that time it was not about ending duplication but cranking up more. Our marching orders: get going, go out there and address that hatred, address that anti-Americanism. That's where the collective mind was."

The budget of the board that oversees VOA was $451 million in 2001. By 2004, the number had swelled to more than $591 million.

That same year, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying VOA and its sister entities had problems of "overlapping language services, duplication of program content, redundant newsgathering and support services, and difficulties coordinating broadcast efforts."

Clarification, 10/23/12: A previous version of this story described a proposed 40 percent cut to VOA’s workforce. The cut was for the newsroom staff. The story also describes a broadcast to Nigeria. The broadcast was made by VOA’s Nigerian language service.