In International Broadcasting, Even the Static Must be Credible by Kim Andrew Elliott
Early this year, the Voice of America, the often-overlooked U.S. government-funded international broadcasting service, relished the best publicity of its 69-year history. The high point of that publicity was the January 20th appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” by Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, host and producer of “Parazit,” the weekly satirical show on VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN). “Parazit” (Persian for static, referring to Iranian interference targeting VOA satellite transmissions) is modeled after the “The Daily Show,” except that Iranian life and politics are the objects of its humor.
Hosseini and Arbabi were warmly received by “The Daily Show” audience and by the host Jon Stewart, who said “I’m proud to be considered in the fraternity of humorists that you guys are in, and I’m honored to have you on the show.”
The Daily Show appearance was just one in a stream of coverage for “Parazit.” The show has also been covered in, or on, The National (Abu Dhabi), the Washington Post, CNN, Public Radio International’s “The World,” PBS “Frontline,” PBS “NewsHour,” and “Fox News Sunday.”
The triumph of “Parazit” is gratifying to me because it provides belated support for the hypotheses of my Ph.D. dissertation, An Alternative Programming Strategy for International Radio Broadcasting (University Of Minnesota, 1979). The alternative strategy was in response to years of listening to the dreary talks, commentaries, and analyses that were the staple of international shortwave broadcasts. To a large extent, content that was suitable for print was simply read into a microphone. The result was very boring international broadcasting.
My alternative, or H1, was a more lively approach, something more suited to radio. Entertainment, I argued, could be part of the mix in international broadcasting because it helps to maintain the audience’s attention.
I occasionally injected humor on my own VOA program, “Communications World,” 1995 to 2002. Though my bits were not nearly the caliber of those of “Parazit,” they did encourage at least some listeners to keep tuning to the program.
With “Parazit” providing such good publicity for VOA, and supporting my old graduate school hypotheses, it is with trepidation that I discuss a possible downside. Almost all of the interviews with Hosseini and Arbabi appear to be based on the premise that the purpose of the program and therefore of VOA PNN, is to undermine Iran’s government. As Chris Wallace said on Fox News Sunday, “Parazit takes on the regime by making fun of it.”
As useful as entertainment programming may be to bringing an audience to VOA, VOA’s main value is news that is more comprehensive and reliable than the news the audience gets from their state-controlled state media. To maintain an audience, and to ensure that every news item is believed, credibility must be the primary consideration for an international broadcaster. There is nothing wrong with (and I am sympathetic to) criticism of the Iranian regime. But, if “Parazit” is perceived as an anti-regime program, rather than just a humor program, the audience may wonder what the purpose of VOA PNN is. News and advocacy should be conducted by separate organizations.
While most of the interviews of the “Parazit” team were friendly, proceeding on the assumption that “Parazit” and VOA should prod the Iranian regime, this exchange on NPR’s “On the Media,” January 14, 2011, touched on the issue of credibility:
Kambiz Hosseini: “We use dark humor and angry dark comedy because for me growing up in Iran, I felt a lot of suppression. That caused a lot of anger, not only for me, for my, my generation. Even though we are angry and we are a product of a revolution that we had nothing to do with, we’re trying to manage to control this anger and try to talk to, to Islamic Republic government and say, dude, what you are doing to us is not right and we need our freedom back.”
Bob Garfield (interviewer): “But it is a VOA show, so, literally speaking, you guys are agents of the government of the United States. How does that affect your credibility with your audience?”
Saman Arbabi: “We’ve earned our audience’s trust because we’ve never taken sides with anyone. We’ve criticized Obama in the past. We’ve also criticized the Green Movement within Iran, the opposition leaders. So we’ve gained our credibility by just being balanced.”
If audience research (which can be conducted in Iran, or at least with Iranians abroad) determines that viewers perceive “Parazit” indeed to be balanced in its distribution of humor, no adjustments are required. If the viewers perceive the show to be anti-regime, VOA’s credibility could be affected.
In that case, the solution need not be especially difficult. The “Parazit” team is no doubt capable of spreading the humor out a bit: more about the opposition groups when opportunities arise, and more about other countries, including the United States. This does not have to adhere to a quota system: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others in the Iranian leadership will provide the most fodder for satire.
Humor aimed at politics in the United States may raise eyebrows. Those with old-school, bullet-theory ideas of communication would ask, “Why would ‘Parazit’ want to make fun at the expense of the country that pays for the program?” Nothing would better demonstrate that “Parazit” is qualified to make fun of the Iranian regime than the fact that it, at least occasionally, and in a suitably bipartisan manner, also makes fun of events in the United States.
In the history of radio international broadcasting, there are occasional instances of humor. Charlie and His Orchestra of Germany’s World War II radio broadcasts and “Warmonger’s Monthly” on Radio Moscow’s North American service in the 1980s both, predictably, aimed their invective at the governments of their target countries. They were trying, in vain, to drive a wedge between those governments and their citizens.
In 1967, Radio Sweden’s English Service launched “The Saturday Show,” an improbable and courageous departure from the usual international radio fare of that Cold War era. The program’s humor was aimed at the panoply of nations, including the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union (woe be to the USSR when one of its submarines was detected beneath Swedish waters), and China. Most of the writing of host Roger Wallis and colleagues was, however, directed at the politics and society of Sweden itself.
While a graduate student in Minneapolis, I listened to “The Saturday Show” most Saturdays on my shortwave radio. After a few weeks of listening, it was my impression that Radio Sweden was a very independent station transmitting from a very free country.
RFE/RL’s Voices of Solidarity and CNN’s Freedom Project
On a smaller scale, another entity of U.S. international broadcasting enjoyed a recent burst of publicity. Again, it involved content that might make its audience wonder what the mission of the station is.
During the 2011 New Year’s weekend, Radio Svaboda, the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, broadcast “Voices of Solidarity.” World leaders, including former President George W. Bush, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Czech president Vaclav Havel, read the names of all the hundreds of Belarusian activists jailed after the dubious December 19 election of president Alyaksandr Lukashenka .
In an editorial, the Washington Post wrote, “the gesture offered some needed attention to a country whose holiday season crisis has yet to prompt an adequate reaction from the United States and other Western governments.” “Voices of Solidarity” was also praised in a blog of The Economist.
The event was a good idea, but the selection of RFE/RL to conduct the event was not a good idea. RFE/RL probably has the most substantial external, independent news service available in the Belarusian language. Radio Svaboda’s listeners and website readers must know, without ambiguity, that RFE/RL is a news organization, not an anti-Lukashenka faction.
RFE/RL’s credibility would have been subject to less strain if “Voices of Solidarity” had been conducted by Charter 97, or some other European NGO. Radio Svaboda could have covered the event, live, and almost in its entirety, cutting away just enough to let the audience know that RFE/RL, and not the event organizer, controlled the microphone.
Private U.S. international broadcasters have also blurred the line between advocacy (for good causes) and journalism. An example is: “The CNN Freedom Project: Ending Modern-Day Slavery.” SAME PARAGRAPHQuoted in a March 7, 2011, press release, CNN International managing director Tony Maddox said, “The inhumanity of those who trade humans is truly shocking and should be stopped. Our coverage will spotlight not just those responsible, but the many courageous groups and individuals on the frontlines doing genuinely admirable work.” Maddox also wrote, “CNN will use the full range of our international resources to track and champion this story.”
There is probably no more commendable cause than the campaign against modern-day slavery. But should a news organization use terms such as “should be stopped,” “genuinely admirable,” and “champion”? Reporters do not “champion.” They report. If the reporting on this issue is adequate, the conclusions made by the audience will be predictable.
The BBC’s uncomfortable place
In January 2009, the BBC was asked by the Disasters Emergency Committee in the U.K. to broadcast an appeal to donate to humanitarian assistance for residents of Gaza affected by Israel’s Cast Lead military operation. At a time when there was much concern in Britain about the suffering in Gaza, this would have reaped public relations benefits for the BBC. The BBC, however, declined to participate. BBC Director General Mark Thompson said the decision was because of “a concern whether aid raised by the appeal could actually be delivered on the ground.” Thompson then outlined what he called “a second, more fundamental reason” for the decision:
This is because Gaza remains a major ongoing news story, in which humanitarian issues – the suffering and distress of civilians and combatants on both sides of the conflict, the debate about who is responsible for causing it and what should be done about it – are both at the heart of the story and contentious. We have and will continue to cover the human side of the conflict in Gaza extensively across our news services where we can place all of the issues in context in an objective and balanced way. After looking at all of the circumstances, and in particular after seeking advice from senior leaders in BBC Journalism, we concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in its wider coverage of the story. Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations. The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story. … It is sometimes not a comfortable place to be, but we have a duty to ensure that nothing risks undermining our impartiality. It is to protect that impartiality that we have made this difficult decision.
It was, indeed, “not a comfortable place” for the BBC. Five thousand protesters demonstrated in front of BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. The Archbishop of Canterbury criticized the decision. Actors vowed to reject future BBC work. The BBC, nevertheless, did not change its mind.
The BBC World Service supports worthy causes, such as women’s rights, HIV/AIDS prevention, and environmental protection, through its independently and charitably funded BBC World Service Trust. In general, however, the projects of BBC WST are not incorporated into the programming of BBC World Service radio or BBC World News (the global English news channel). They are, instead, conducted through partners, including local media and NGOs in various countries. This arrangement allows BBC to be involved in virtuous international projects, while keeping the BBC world services out of the business of advocacy.
The international broadcasting of news, information-rich but message-free, may seem a sterile and heartless endeavor. It certainly is not a fast track to humanitarian awards. The work of international broadcasters who fastidiously adhere to the principles of journalism nevertheless serves the profound human need for accurate information.
Kim Andrew Elliott, expressing his own views, is an audience research analyst in the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau. From 1995 to 2002, he was producer and host of Communications World, a popular weekly Voice of America program about electronic media and international broadcasting. Before he came to the Voice of America in 1985, Dr. Elliott was on the faculties of communication at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He has a B.A. in international affairs from the George Washington University and an M.A. (and Ph.D. in communication from the University of Minnesota. He reports on international broadcasting at www.kimandrewelliott.com.