Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Duel of the Acronyms


It's hard to imagine a more unlikely fight than the one brewing between Voice of America and National Public Radio, yet here we have it. From Spiegel Online.

The Berlin frequency 87.9 FM has been in American government hands since the end of World War II. But the frequency is now up for renewal and venerated US public broadcaster National Public Radio is mounting serious competition for the government propaganda channel. The battle has exposed the ugly underbelly of the Bush Administration's public relations strategy.

At first glance, the cause of the controversy seems pedestrian enough. The radio frequency 87.9 is up for grabs in Berlin and there are a number of aspirants hoping to take it over. Radio business as usual. Yawn.

But what would normally be a boring procedural matter become a struggle for the image of the United States abroad. The 87.9 FM frequency in Berlin is currently in the hands of Voice of America (VOA), the US government sponsored station that broadcasts in dozens of countries around the world.

With VOA's license coming up for renewal, a new hat has been thrown into the ring. National Public Radio (NPR), the respected US public news and entertainment broadcaster, is hoping to take over the slot on the Berlin FM dial. But VOA isn't letting go without a fight -- and it has powerful supporters.

"The frequency 87.9 was always the American station," said Ingeborg Zahrnt of the Medienanstalt Berlin-Brandenburg, the organization that has the final say in the matter and will likely announce its decision in early December. "Of course the US government wants Voice of America to be awarded the frequency. It's their radio station. It's a question of how you present yourself as a country."

In recent years, the US has allowed its 87.9 FM outpost on the Berlin airwaves to languish. Today, it's a skeleton of the station that once brought jazz, American literature and daily news to a divided city. On Aug. 4, 1945, just months after Soviet forces marched into the city on behalf of the Allied forces, Washington began broadcasting the American Forces Network (AFN) in the German capital. The station -- of which many Berliners still have fond memories -- provided an important democratic voice that could be heard on both sides of the Berlin Wall.

But the fall of the Wall in 1989 led to a waning US military presence in Europe and diminished interest on the part of the US government in sponsoring radio in Europe. Since 1997, the 87.9 frequency has been used to provide a dwindling number of listeners a few minutes of VOA news every hour with the rest of the 60 minutes taken up by rock-music station Star FM.

VOA's neglect has apparently not limited US zeal to hang on to the frequency, though. Critics say the US government acts as if it owns the 87.9 slot and, while Zahrnt insists that official pressure on her organization has been kept to a minimum ("It's not like Bush has called up or anything!") she does admit, "there are those in the government who we talk with, of course."

But the pressure is there -- not only on officials here in Berlin, but also on NPR. In addition to emphasizing the US government's decades-long presence on the Berlin airwaves, the Bush administration -- or at least its political appointees heading up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington -- has been on the war path against National Public Radio. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels tax dollars into public television and radio broadcasters in the US, has significantly cut the amount allocated to NPR. Earlier this year the corporation's board also told staff it should consider redirecting money away from NPR news programs and toward music programs.
[Emphasis added]

Keep in mind that one Mr. Tomlinson, who recently resigned as CEO of the Coporation for Public Broadcasting under pressure because of an investigation into his illegal moves to make the public airwaves more conservative, did not resign from his post as Chairman of the Board of CPB. He still has the clout, shored up by the other conservative Bush appointees, to run the CPB into the ground.

That said, I find it ludicrous that the VOA, now a mere shell of what it was during its anti-communism days, wants to fight over this piece of turf. After all, three minutes of VOA propaganda and fifty-seven minutes of canned rock music is hardly worth the effort or the expense. I think a better way to show Berliners that Americans are basically decent folks with a sense of humor would be to air regular episodes of "Car Talk," along with "A Prairie Home Companion," "This American Life," "Fresh Air," and "The Splendid Table."

Those shows would sure beat the heck out of speechifying by the likes of Condi Rice and Dick Cheney if we really wanted to improve our image.

Now if the Berliners will just call the appropriate agency and suggest that NPR replace VOA...


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