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Q & A with the VOA's Alan L. Heil Jr. - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- Alan L. Heil, Jr. was Deputy Director at the Voice of America (VOA), the international radio and television broadcasting service of the United States between 1996 and 1998. Since retiring, Heil has actively followed the developments of VOA and all international broadcasts. Heil’s book on the history of the VOA, called Voice of America: A History, was published by Columbia University Press in 2003 and was been reissued in its third edition in paperback during July 2006.

Q) Does the Voice of America still exist?

A) Certainly! It has been running now for almost 65 years and will celebrate its 65th anniversary next February. The VOA has over 100 million listeners and viewers around the world every week. At this stage, however, it is in many ways an endangered network, because of cuts that have been proposed by the Bush administration for the coming year. Its 65th birthday will either be a very happy occasion, building on strengths that the VOA has established over the years, its credibility and respective audiences around the world or it will be a very unhappy occasion, when the VOA will be abolished in the English language, a language spoken by at least 700 million people around the world. In every part of the world, the VOA will disappear in the English language except in Africa. It will lose, or could lose, the Turkish language completely on radio and television, and the Russian language on radio, and then perhaps three or four other languages in other parts of the world including in the Balkans, so it would be a diminished VOA on its 65th birthday. However, the U.S. Congress could reverse the administration’s plan to reduce the VOA and that is why it would either be a very happy or very sad year ahead.

There is also another very important anniversary and really quite salient to what we are talking about, and that is, of course, the fifth anniversary of 9/11. At this time of international crises, most notably and recently in the war between Israel and Hezbollah, the devastation of the Lebanese countryside during that war, and the death of some Israeli citizens as well, in those circumstances, I say that America needs a Voice that is even stronger than the one that it has now. It cannot afford to cut the Voice in any language, to any area of the world, or via any of the delivery systems of the VOA, given the current world situation. Americans are gradually coming to realize that we are engaged in a near perfect storm of international crises and in those circumstances, it is essential to have an official Voice. To do otherwise in those circumstances is to fly in the face of reason.

Q) Has it been confirmed that you will lose the Voice in the Turkish language and other languages?

A) In congress at present, very much to its credit, the House of Representatives has come up with language in its budget bill, which says that all language services and the English services of VOA, shall be preserved as they are at present. The Senate still must act on that, and most people feel that the Senate will act on it at the earliest in September but possibly not until even after the election. However, will it pass the budget bill? Then in the complicated process that is the US legislative process, what happens is when each of those chambers of Congress passes a budget bill, based on the President’s request made several months ago, they have to get together in a conference committee. They then agree on a common appropriations measure. Then, the reconciled bills move again to the full floor of the Senate and the full floor of the House, and then the final appropriation, passed by both of them, goes to the President for signature. Therefore, there are quite a number of steps to get through before the Voice can be satisfied that it will remain at its present level, or dismayed by even more severe cuts.

Q) Could you tell us about the Arabic section of the Voice of America?

A) The Arabic section was a distinguished bright star among the major language services of VOA from the Second World War until April 2002 when it was replaced by Radio Sawa, which is a largely youth-oriented pop music station, with very little in the way of information provided to the audiences of the Arab world. That happened in the spring of 2002. The architects of Radio Sawa felt that it was necessary to get a much larger share of the Arab audience than the old VOA Arabic service managed to obtain and they thought they would do so by changing the format and by extending and investing in FM stations throughout the Arab world. They succeeded in expanding the audience amongst youth in the Arab world. On the other hand, when crises occur, the old VOA Arabic service, it seems to me that because of its staff, its training, its news disciplines, and its reportorial skills, was far better positioned to reflect, not only what was going on in the area, but the international reaction to events and US reactions to events in the Middle East. When there was a crisis during the 2003 Iraq War, it is true that Radio Sawa opened its window somewhat to news reporting, but nowhere near to the level that the VOA Arabic service had reached during the 1991 Gulf War and during other Arab-Israeli wars from 1948 onward.

The VOA had a team of analysts and a team of reporters in the region, both for the central room in English and for the Arabic branch itself. We know how valuable the VOA Arabic service was during the Gulf Crisis and War in 1990 and 1991. The VOA on its special telephone news service, received more than 75,000 calls during those months for the latest information and developments on the crisis and then in the war that lasted from January until the end of February 1991. Even Saddam Hussein listened.

I think the important asset that the Voice has always had is its credibility. People can count on it if they tune into it. Sadly, today, the VOA is silent in Arabic and to the Arab world. It is silent virtually in English with very little of its English broadcasts now transmitted via short wave to the Middle East. I would only hope that someday the VOA would be able to take advantage or at least share those vital technical resources that Radio Sawa brought with it to that part of the world.

Q) Are there any plans to bring the VOA Arabic service back?

A) I am unaware of any plans to revive the VOA Arabic, unfortunately. It may be that in due course people will realize that the two services might be very complementary. In other words, you might need a music and youth service along the lines of Radio Sawa for some hours of the day. You certainly will need a revival of a VOA Arabic service or one like it. Such a service would fully reflect events in the area right up to moment. It would be engaged in a constant dialogue with people in the region via call-ins and expert interviews of those in the US and certainly those who live there. It would offer a whole spectrum of views about events that are taking place so that you would again have a credible American voice for the entire Arab world. Perhaps that will happen someday – you will have a combination of radio services to the Arab Middle East, which would be a perfect combination in my view. Now that does not address the other big spheres that are emerging in Arab public media. Television today is dominant among these, and there are or will be many networks such as Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera and the new BBC Arabic television service, which is expected to resume broadcasting in 2007. All of these TV outlets are attracting many more viewers than radio has been able to reach as listeners in the recent past. Therefore, I would hope that overall US broadcasting strategy to the Middle East would take into account these new media, not only TV, but the Internet and the growing potential of mobile phones to access information, the growing potential of what’s called RSS, really simple kinds of news bulletins, and the growing potential of podcasts.

The new and established forms of media such as radio have to be arrayed, coordinated in concert but using the basic information that I call the radio base. This is so that the listener in the Arab world, and for that matter, listeners throughout the Muslim world and beyond, will have the fullest diet of information on a daily basis. I remember several years ago, thousands of dollars were spent on a consultant to come up with a new slogan that reflects what VOA is all about. However, a group of retired technicians in Bethany, Ohio, who had been in the VOA’s Bethany relay station, a short wave station in 1996, which was closed for budget reasons, decided to do the job free. To describe the VOA, they came up with the following slogan, “Tell the truth, and let the world decide.” I don’t think there has ever been a more concise definition of what the VOA at its best has been and continues to be, in most areas of the world.

Q) A number of people in the US accuse the VOA, especially the Arabic section, during the Gulf War, of taking sides in favor of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Others have criticized the VOA stating that it favors Palestinians over Israelis. As a former official of the VOA, what are your comments on that?

A) I watched, and in a way, directed the Arabic and English broadcasts of the Voice of America from August 2, 1990, through to February 28, 1991, the last day of that war. I can assure you that VOA editors in all sections including the Arabic and English sections were on notice that they were to tell it as it happened, tell it as it was. We subsequently made many checks in response to some of the aforementioned criticisms to see whether the VOA came down on one side or another, and we concluded that it did not. It followed what we call the American and US journalistic canon of accurate, objective and comprehensive news. Of course, when the Baghdad government came out with a statement, VOA reported it, that was its duty. Of course, when there were daily coalition military briefings, the VOA reported those. The Arabic service of the VOA, I think, broadcasted around 40 live simultaneous translations of what President Bush was saying at the time. However, to say that it was pro-Baghdad or pro-Palestinian is preposterous. Independent think tanks such as the Center for Strategic International Studies and the Hudson Institute looked exhaustively at the VOA content during those months, and concluded that it had fulfilled its charter and its mandate in reporting the news and the events of that war to the millions of people in the Arab world who listened.

Q) Why is America canceling VOA Arabic in your opinion?

A) I believe that the reason is probably related to the size of the audience. The small size of the audience is not because of the content of the VOA Arabic service which followed the same principles and practices right up until the last day, but rather because of the delivery system that fell behind the delivery systems of other broadcasters. The VOA had no FM wavelength presence in the Middle East until April 2002 when Radio Sawa replaced the VOA Arabic Service. That was a major failing perhaps understandable in the post-Cold War period because the VOA was making cuts everywhere. Some of us realized that we needed better medium wave transmission… and certainly in the Arab world. Although the Kuwait transmitter and the Rhodes transmitter in Greece were doing a good job by the end of the 1990’s, we knew that we needed more FM. But in fact, many of the other VOA broadcast language services were being abolished or cut, particularly those to Eastern Europe. We were actually having to fire people in services that were eliminated or reduced in size, not because of their actions but because they happened to be in the wrong service at the wrong time. So for management to propose an expansion in FM in those days would have been exceedingly difficult. However, with the board’s changing composition, and the impetus of 9/11, it was possible for a changed board to sell the notion of a new, more commercial but less public-oriented broadcast service in Arabic that would gain listeners. At the same time, the board could more easily persuade the administration and congress to get the money to improve the delivery system that would reach more people via FM radio, TV and the Internet.

However, many experts today believe the new services in Arabic are not reaching many of the people who are in most need of information and those who use it the most that is the people in government, the people in media, and those in opposition to the Arab world. All of these curious, thinking groups, you could say, “drink the news” and “drink analyses” on a daily basis. I think “drink” is a word in Arabic that explains more accurately than in English the feeling of absorbing information and of having that information become part of the dialogue in civil societies on the ground. The single most important attribute of international broadcasting and the single most important test of its value is if somebody says at noon “Did you hear on the Voice of America this morning that…” and that is the kind of reputation that the VOA Arabic service had in its half century of existence before 2002. It really made a difference.