R.I.P., Broadcasting by Shawn Powers

In its current manifestation, the term “broadcasting” is relatively young, arriving only in the 1920s to describe transmissions originating from radio stations across Europe and the United States relayed to other states and nations without much specific direction. Originally an agricultural term, meaning to “scatter seed over a broad area rather than sowing it in designated places,” experts thought that it expressed the proper idea behind radio transmissions.[1] Due to developments in beam technology, in 1924 Guglielmo Marconi successfully tested Shortwave (SW) radio and introduced it to the world, firmly establishing “broadcasting” into the lexicon of global communications. Compared to medium- and high-wave broadcasts, SW broadcasts could be received thousands of miles away, using a relatively small amount of electricity. While the sound quality was not as good compared to the other waves, the potential to reach audiences in foreign countries sparked significant interest among governments. Importantly, the genesis of the term broadcasting is an important indicator of the strengths and weaknesses of the particular technological medium: one message, controlled by the broadcaster, disseminated broadly. While there are important uses for this type of communication, it is no longer a sufficient description of the expanded responsibilities for those who have traditionally been known as “international broadcasters.”

Broadcasting was to the 20th century what the World Wide Web has been to the 21st: both were revolutionary mediums enabling people, governments and organizations to communicate with others with more ease. Similar to the difficulty of predicting what will be the next revolution in communication mediums, communications professionals, to a large extent, didn’t foresee a world where broadcasting would no longer be the primary means through which global public communications would take place. Yet, we’ve entered an epoch in which a global communications infrastructure allows for the immediate transmission of digitized signals to be relayed and received from almost everywhere on earth. More importantly, not only are these technologies mobile and increasingly affordable, but unlike the radio receivers of the 20th century, today’s cell phones and laptops enable traditional “audiences” to beam their own messages with extraordinary reach, thus challenging the basic assumptions underlying the term “broadcasting.” To think of government-supported news and information organizations simply as international broadcasters intellectually and practically impedes their ability to adapt to the realities of the 21st century. This is not to say that no role exists for broadcasting in the current climate. To the contrary, in certain contexts and countries, unidirectional, simple flows of accurate and timely information can be critical, particularly in crisis situations. But the scope and talents of these networks need not end there. Indeed, there is tremendous value in engaging audiences in the news making and dissemination process, as the Al Jazeera Network has demonstrated in its world-class coverage of Egypt in February and March 2011.[2]

While one should never read a book by its cover alone, to deny the significance of the book’s jacket altogether is foolish. Similarly, while the terms used to describe government-sponsored communications are not the only element of international communications policy and strategy in need of reconsideration, to deny their importance as organizing principles for both those engaged in what has been traditionally known as “broadcasting” as well as what has traditionally been thought of as mere “audiences” would be shortsighted. There is a reason why National Public Radio changed its name to NPR, and why CNN’s Headline News is now, officially, HLN. In each case, the news organization grew out of its original descriptor, and while wanting to maintain brand recognition, it also wanted to shed the antiquated messages and/or mediums imposed on them from previous eras. NPR is no longer merely a radio broadcaster, but rather a multimedia news organization that fosters the relay of its audio shows and textual transcriptions of said shows, in addition to countless avenues for conversations on topics touched on through their programming. HLN is no longer merely a cable news channel focused on “headline news,” but rather a news organization that produces specialized programming presenting, with some level of interactivity, the softer side of the news. In both cases, the change in name, while symbolic, was meaningful in helping employees and audiences alike understand how each organization was adapting to the needs to a 21st century citizenry.

U.S. government-sponsored international news organizations—the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Marti and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MEBN)—are currently undergoing a strategic review.[3] While the focus of the strategic review includes each organization’s operations, and the overall structure and mission of American intentional broadcasting, it is unclear if it extends to the level of the symbolic structure and leadership—most clearly articulated in the title—of each organization. Even the body overseeing the networks, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is steeped in the language of 20th century global communication flows. The underlying structure of global civil society has fundamentally changed for the better, and it is time that the overbearing structure of U.S. international news organizations reflected their interest and ability to engage in the current information ecology. This means, for starters, new names for the U.S. government- supported networks that draw from their extensive heritage while also signifying the dramatic change required of them to achieve their goals moving forward.

Instead of the Voice of America—the network most closely aligned and charged with, at times, airing an official explanation of American policies—why not the Voices of America, emphasizing the diversity and plurality of opinions represented in the American republic? As for RFE and RFA, why not something along the lines of the European and Asian Networks for Freedom, emphasizing their history in promoting free speech, expression and thought, while also embracing the organizing principle of the 21st century: networks.[4] MEBN, the youngest of all of the American-supported international news networks, is in need of the most dramatic reform, a topic that has been discussed in great detail elsewhere.[5] But it is also the network most able to benefit from a re-chartered outlook on news production for the 21st century. In no other regions have the burgeoning voices of the youth been so clearly aligned and amplified with new media technologies, as they have been in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere where recent large-scale protests have occurred.  A network strategically enabled to tap into and encourage the responsible and thoughtful expression of opinions in the Middle East, using all of the different technologies available to reporters and citizens alike, would be a tremendous asset in a region that continues to be dominated by state and self censorship. Building on the plurality and diversity of the “Voices of America,” perhaps something along the lines of “Voices of the Middle East” would be an appropriate name for a network that emboldened, trained and curated underrepresented perspectives from around the region.

The practice of broadcasting is, of course, far from obsolete, as there will always be a need for quick and accurate flows of information from one to many. But it should no longer be the organizing principle by which U.S. news and information organizations see their mission, operation and mandate. If the current strategic review is to achieve the dramatic re-working of the traditional international broadcasters, then it is important to not only look at the micro processes underlying the day-to-day operations of news gathering and dissemination, but also the macro level structures and symbols that serve as the critical organizing principles of any organization. Put another way, we need to think less in terms of spreading our intellectual seeds from one to many, and more in terms of establishing, maintaining and building robust and authentic networks of knowledge for global citizens to engage with each other, our government, and civil society. R.I.P. broadcasting; long live networks of knowledge!

By Dr. Shawn Powers, Assistant Professor, Georgia State University; Associate Director, Center for International Media Education.


[1] Hanson, Elizabeth C. (2008). The Information Revolution and World Politics (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc), page 24.

[2] Powers, Shawn. (2011) “From Broadcast to Networked Journalism: The Case of Al-Jazeera English.” In Histories of Public Service Broadcasters Online (Eds. Brugger, N. and Maureen Burns). Peter Lang Publishing, New York.

[3] Broadcasting Board of Governors, “Board Continues Strategic Review,” Jan 10, 2011 < http://www.bbg.gov/pressroom/press-releases/Board_Continues_Strategic_Review___.html>

[4] Castells, Manuel. (2000). The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell).

[5] While Alhurra in particular has made strides in reform (for example, see: Broadcasting Board of Governors, “Quarter of Egyptians Tune to Alhurra During Recent Crisis, Feb 17, 2011 < http://www.bbg.gov/pressroom/press-releases/Quarter_of_Egyptians_Tune_to_Alhurra_During_Recent_Crisis.html>), many have criticized the network as poorly structured and designed given the current news climate in the region. For example, see: USC Center on Public Diplomacy (2008). An Evaluation of Alhurra TV; Powers, S. & el-Gody, A. (2009). The Lessons of Al Hurra. In Toward a New Public Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy, (Ed, Seib, P.) Palgrave Macmillan, New York; Marwan M. Kraidy, “Arab Media and US Policy: A Public Diplomacy Reset,” Stanley Foundation Policy Analysis Brief, January (2008); William A. Rugh, “Broadcasting and American Public Diplomacy,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies, vol. 14 (Spring 2005); Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

2 Responses to “R.I.P., Broadcasting”

  1. [...] Diplomacy” – Alan Heil, “VOA and BBC at a Crossroads” – Shawn Powers, “R.I.P., Broadcasting” – Philip Seib, “Al Jazeera English in Focus” – Oliver Zollner, [...]

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