BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The Voice of America is getting hoarse -- its employees disgruntled, its mission, they say, muddled. This month, about half of VOA's one thousand staffers petitioned Congress, charging the Broadcasting Board of Governors, appointed by the president, with killing the Voice. The broadcasting board was created in the '90s to serve as editorial fire wall between the government and VOA's journalists. Since 9/11, the board has slashed the English-language broadcast hours and abolished several foreign language services, including the Arabic service. Instead, it's plowed millions of dollars into youth-oriented entertainment-driven programs in what many staffers see as a misguided effort to win hearts and minds in the Middle East.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How on earth, they wonder, did the VOA go from this: [TAPE PLAYS W/ARABIC LANGUAGE GREETING] to this: [TAPE PLAYS - POP MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's Radio Sawa.
TIM SHAMBLE: They eliminated the Voice of America Arabic service and replaced it with a top 40 format.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim Shamble is a radio production specialist at the VOA.
TIM SHAMBLE: In the Middle East, you have mullahs telling young kids that it's okay to strap bombs around your waist, blow yourself up and murder innocent people. By us playing Britney Spears, you're not counteracting that.
KEN TOMLINSON: As much as I like old Tim, that just doesn't make any sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken Tomlinson, a former director of VOA, now is the head of the president's broadcasting Board of Governors.
KEN TOMLINSON: You use music to attract audiences for news and information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He ushered in the creation not only of Radio SAWA but also Al Hurra, an Arabic language satellite TV network.
KEN TOMLINSON: We were able to get Al Hurra Television on the air in a matter of months. If we had waited for VOA to do it, with its civil service regulations and union rules, it would have taken years. The war against terror is now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken, what was wrong with the way VOA was doing its job before?
KEN TOMLINSON: Well, in the first place, they were using short wave to a part of the world where short wave is yesterday. In the second place, it was slow and stodgy. It was not oriented to attract a younger audience. It wasn't "with it," as it were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you say to the argument that the service was under-funded? It was costing only 4 million dollars. Rather than update it and put money into that, it killed it and launched Radio SAWA which cost 36 million dollars.
KEN TOMLINSON: VOA has always been under-funded. But the VOA leadership did not have the foresight to develop a plan for a youth-oriented radio station like this, just like the leadership of VOA in the 1990s remained stuck in the short wave model, as opposed to moving to the future of satellite television.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about Al Hurra. That cost about a hundred million U.S. tax dollars to launch, and on Al Hurra, the petition asserts, the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Yasin was basically not reported when it happened; it aired a French cooking show instead. A major bomb attack in Baghdad was not reported. The station stayed with a Jim Carrey documentary. U.S. attacks on insurgents in Fallujah --again, it stayed with pre-recorded programming. In other words, not very responsive to the news that the Iraqis care about.
KEN TOMLINSON: Out of context, in the early days of Al Hurra, in each of those cases, you're talking about not being reported one hour but being fully reported within a couple of hours. If that happened today, we'd be interrupting the program instantly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Point taken. But I still have to wonder why was Al Hurra ever, in these troubled times, airing a French cooking show, a Jim Carrey documentary, the Actors Studio program?
KEN TOMLINSON: Well, in the first place, I wish we had had for the launch the hundred million you talked about. We didn't have that much. It takes a lot of money to do all-news television. We fortunately, in the new appropriations bill, are going to have more money, and we're going to apply that money to news coverage. But on the other hand, one of the reasons to have a television service like this is to give the people of the Middle East a sense of what's happening elsewhere in the world, and American film is an important aspect of what we export.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's been commonly observed, however, that just because young Arabic men and women like Britney Spears, it isn't going to make them like America, and that seems to be the driving force behind some of the programming decisions that are made, especially on Radio Sawa.
KEN TOMLINSON: Only on Radio Sawa. We don't have music on Al Hurra. But look, the music that I enjoy is not the music my sons enjoy. If we want to attract a younger audience, we better play music that attracts that younger audience. Voice of America, throughout its history, has used music to attract audiences. In the 1940s and '50s we used jazz, and some of the same kinds of people who complain about the popular rock music we are using now on Sawa complained about jazz in the 1940s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But on Radio Sawa, where you're using music to attract an audience, you're not really providing them with news and information. I think by, by any standard that the VOA might apply. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
KEN TOMLINSON: We have 30, we-- Twenty five percent of Sawa is news and current affairs. There are very thoughtful, lengthy current affairs shows that, frankly, rival what we have on NPR.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have spoken to critics of Al Hurra in Iraq who say that there is very little on that station and Radio SAWA with regard to news that they can use that actually informs their lives.
KEN TOMLINSON: Well, as you well know, critics of news can be difficult to satisfy. Look at the critics of NPR's coverage in the Middle East. I do not speak Arabic, but I've talked to others who do know Arabic, and they think the journalism of Al Hurra is top notch. But it's-- news is, is tough to judge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Ken Tomlinson, thank you very much.
KEN TOMLINSON: Great to talk to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken Tomlinson is chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Directors and also the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has given support to NPR, WNYC and this program.