US to cut VOA broadcasts in Chinese

‘DOWNPAYMENT’::Voice of America plans to lay off 45 Chinese-language staff as part of the US government’s goal to cut US$1.1 trillion from its deficit over the next decade

By William Lowther  /  Staff reporter in Washington

Wed, Feb 16, 2011 - Page 1

Voice of America (VOA) plans to end all radio and TV broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese starting in October amid a budget cut plan announced by US President Barack Obama, reports said yesterday.

The decision is highly controversial and has already engendered some strong reactions among China watchers.

“Shocking and idiotic,” said Arthur Waldron, professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on China.

“Information is our strong point. As true news about China comes out, it will be easier for us to deal with them. Radios are very effective indeed at shaping public opinion,” he said.

“I would think this was bad satire, but I fear it is true. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the world situation and correlation of forces,” Waldron said.

The decision is sure to have an impact on VOA facilities in Taiwan and the many Taiwanese journalists who work for the agency.

The US’ Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is responsible for all US government or government-sponsored, non--military international broadcasting, made the announcement in Washington on Monday as it submitted its budget proposal for next year to US Congress. Insiders said that while there would almost certainly be objections from some members of Congress, there was also enormous pressure to cut spending.

VOA plans to lay off 45 Chinese-language broadcasters, including 38 employees of its Mandarin Service and all Cantonese broadcasters. At present there are 69 employees in the Mandarin Service.

The BBG plans to use its remaining resources to broadcast through the Internet and mobile devices.

VOA launched its broadcasting in China in 1942 and the Chinese service is the second-largest among its more-than-40 language services, broadcasting more than 90 hours of radio and TV programming in Chinese each week.

It has 12 radio and TV affiliates in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

More cuts can be expected in the coming years, with Obama, who unveiled his overall budget for next year on Monday, describing the move as a “downpayment” on future cuts.

The budget aims to cut US$1.1 trillion from the US deficit over a decade.

However, next year’s budget for the BBG actually contains an increase of 2.5 percent over this year.

“As we continue our strategic review of US international broadcasting, we will be seeking to introduce greater innovations and improvements,” BBG chairman Walter Isaacson said.

The formal budget document says that in an effort to “streamline” operations and improve efficiency, the BBG had decided to realign resources “to implement a cost-effective and market-specific strategy to effectively reach target audiences in China.”

It said 45 jobs would be cut at a saving of US$8 million.

According to the budget document, “Research indicates that China has the second-largest number of Internet users in the world — trailing only the US — and, despite blocking by the Chinese government, many survey respondents access BBG Web sites through proxy servers.”

“The agency will shift VOA Mandarin from traditional radio and television broadcasting to a Web-only platform utilizing new media technologies. This strategy recognizes the growing importance of new media in China, and targets niche audiences for VOA Mandarin content,” it said.

VOA would increase funding for content for mobile devices and technical support for censorship circumvention initiatives, it said.

“The BBG will strategically consolidate the network’s shortwave transmissions to ensure availability of peak listening hours for Radio Free Asia [RFA] Mandarin,” the document said.

“RFA will continue its radio broadcasting in Mandarin and exchange some of its off-peak hours for VOA’s preferred broadcast hours, while realizing a significant reduction in its overall transmission expenses. This will be accomplished by decreasing the number of frequencies utilized simultaneously and minimizing the power levels used for each transmission,” it said.

The BBG announcement came just as the BBC World Service confirmed in a press release late last month its own cutbacks. The cuts included five full-language service closures, the end of radio programs in seven languages and a phased reduction from most shortwave and medium-wave distribution of remaining radio services.

While the BBC World Service will cease all radio programming in Mandarin, its Cantonese radio programming would continue, the release said.

Additional reporting by staff writer