As a boy in Cuba, I’d sit next to my father and listen to “La Voz de America” or the Spanish version of The Voice of America. My parents listened to President Kennedy’s missile crisis speech and the Kennedy funeral on their Phillips short wave radio in our living room in Cuba. Later, I bought my own shortwave radio and would catch a Sunday night English show of news headlines. I recall the host once saying that 100 million people were listening.
Here lately, VOA is sounding too much like NPR. It’s time for a change. I like this one from Michael Rubin:
The problem is leadership.
President Barack Obama appointed Amanda Bennett, a professional journalist, and wife of the Washington Post CEO, to head VOA in March 2016. After President Joe Biden nominated her, the Democrat-led Senate confirmed Bennett to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media in September 2022. There is nothing wrong with a political appointee at the helm, but competence matters. Bennett was an accomplished journalist and editor, but had considerably less management experience. She has fumbled her tenure in three ways.
First, she arbitrarily reduced the number of staffers who could attend editorial meetings. VOA’s choice of coverage should not be secret, however, nor should Bennett avoid debate. Especially, that is, as she is a non-expert presiding over area experts not only at VOA, but across America’s other government-sponsored broadcast platforms.
Second, she has also assembled a top-heavy team, appointing deputies and senior advisors where none existed before and draining resources away from programming.
Lastly, she fails to understand the audience and mission. Documentaries may make sense for a traditional American for-profit network or streaming service, but they are a waste of money for VOA and its partners. Nor, should television necessarily be dominant.
Once upon a time, VOA was about promoting US interests in a Cold War era. That was the VOA my father and I used to listen to. Here, recently, VOA sounds a lot like NPR or too much talk about racism in US history or gender equity or reproductive rights.
Maybe VOA has outlived its Cold War usefulness, epitomized by Willis Conover and the Voice of America Jazz Hour aired for the Soviet bloc. I’m hoping that new leadership will discover a new audience and broadcast news to millions living under censorship. A lot has changed since I listened to the news with my father in Cuba, but the world is still starving for honest reporting fighting the anti-US lies spread by Putin, China, Venezuela and others. That should be the mission of a revived VOA!