BROOKE GLADSTONE: Myrna Whitworth is a 28-year veteran of VOA and has on three separate occasions filled in as head of that agency.
MYRNA WHITWORTH: I was acting director on September 11th, 2001, and I must say I was very proud of the way VOA reacted immediately in terms of adding programming in Arabic, adding programming in our two languages to Afghanistan -- Pashtu and Dari. We went on the air 24 hours a day with an all-news format, and we were broadcasting at the time in 54 languages. VOA now only broadcasts in 44, but on the 20th of September, we had an opportunity to interview Mullah Omar, the leader of Afghanistan at the time. He was head of the Taliban. Mullah Omar listened to VOA every day. I think it's important for people to understand that at the time, Voice of America was listened to by approximately 80 percent of the male population of Afghanistan. And we did an interview with him--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You didn't run it uncut. You edited it.
MYRNA WHITWORTH: Oh, drastically. In fact, I think it turned out to be like 22 seconds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet you got an avalanche of criticism.
MYRNA WHITWORTH: Well, it created a firestorm -- very high level officials. Both the State Department and the National Security Council phoned members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, arguing that this should not be aired in any form. Many people said that we were giving a voice to terrorists. Shortly after the report was aired, I was removed as acting director and replaced by a gentleman who had strong ties to the National Security Council, and the head of our Pashtu service was removed and given a rather menial position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well what do you think the value was of broadcasting Mullah Omar?
MYRNA WHITWORTH: News organizations around the world were trying to get Mullah Omar, and the Voice of America got him -- that, in a sense, was news itself. And I think we showed who he was, both to his countrymen and to the world. And we put what he was saying on context. All that we can do as a legitimate news organization is provide the information and hope that, by providing objective and accurate information, that our audience is able to make reasoned decisions and conclusions, and that, I believe, is our role.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And is that currently, do you believe, the role of VOA?
MYRNA WHITWORTH: I think that's what VOA should be, and I think that the majority of those people who signed the petition recently fear that it's becoming not the case. What they're saying is that content is very important, and the American taxpayer is not spending the, you know, 500 million dollars a year for international broadcasting to play music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're talking about Radio Sawa?
MYRNA WHITWORTH: Radio Sawa. Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what do you think about the notion that America needs to be pouring its resources into winning the hearts and minds of young people throughout the Arab world, and that the way to do that is to program less talk and more pop music and features?
MYRNA WHITWORTH: The audience in the Middle East can get music. They don't need the Voice of America to get their music. It's very easy to get a deejay and get a bunch of western pop music and Arabic pop music with headline type of news and put it on the air. And there's some question about how much of the headline news is actually listened to by that young audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken Tomlinson told us that 25 percent of Radio Sawa's programming is news and information.
MYRNA WHITWORTH: That may be true, but nobody knows. The Broadcasting Board of Governors requires that every one of its language services under its purview -- from VOA, from Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia -- have an annual review of content analysis. Since Radio Sawa began 26 months ago, it has never undergone that review.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He says that Radio SAWA is undergoing a review right now, as a matter of fact.
MYRNA WHITWORTH: Well, I think we're all going to be very interested to see what the results are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Myrna, thank you very much.
MYRNA WHITWORTH: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Myrna Whitworth is the former acting director of the Voice of America. [MUSIC]