Monday, October 11, 2004

Beacon No. 2: Radio Rides Out of the West


Fact: Literacy and income in the countries that spawned the 9/11 terrorists are both low.

Fact: People who can't read don't use the Internet, and likely can't afford a TV.

Fact: While Middle East TV penetration is low, radios are everywhere.

The U.S. could be doing more, and getting more bang for its soft-power buck, by sharply expanding its radio broadcasting in the Middle East and around the world, increasing its current reach from 100 million listeners to 2 billion. It should also avoid large investments in TV broadcasting.

Here's why:

U.S. international broadcasting is cost-effective, reaching 100 million listeners in 2003 for just over $503 million , or about $5 a head.

There's just one problem with reaching 100 million people: The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the federal government's non-military international broadcasting outlets like Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, should target something closer to 2 billion listeners. That's how many people Thomas P.M. Barnett identifies as part of the "non-integrating Gap" in his The Pentagon's New Map (Putnam, 2004), and Barnett says those 2 billion—disconnected from a rapidly growing web of global institutions and information, poor and increasingly desperate—are the key to the next century's conflicts.

Reaching them with the messages that BBG stations excel at projecting—broadcasts that strive to be comprehensive, fair and free, showcasing the most important democratic values—is vital to any hope of integration with the rest of the world (ROW) and its institutions, and to lowering the odds that those billions will aid or abet al-Qa'ida's successors.

Reaching those 2 billion will be expensive. Simply multiplying the $503 million it took to reach 100 million listeners by 20 gives a rough idea of the cost: $10 billion or more, considering that any economies of scale might be wiped out by the added cost of serving large, low-density countries like Kazakhstan and the central African nations. It's a necessary expense, though, with such large swaths of the Middle East and ROW uncovered and cut off from the larger world of ideas and information.

If the money was found, how quickly could the BBG's broadcasters expand their operations? Take the example of Radio Sawa, which didn't even exist on paper on 9/11; it now broadcasts in FM in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai); Morocco (Agadir, Casablanca, Fes, Marrakech, Meknes, Rabat, Tangier); Jordan and the Palestinian territories (Amman and the West Bank, Northern Jordan, Bethlehem/Ramallah); Iraq (Baghdad, Basra, Erbil, Mosul, Sulimaniyah), Djibouti; Qatar; Kuwait; and Bahrain. It's also heard on longer-range medium-wave frequencies in Egypt and the Levant, Iraq and the Gulf, and the Sudan and Yemen.

Many have argued that Radio Sawa's mix of programming—heavy on Arab and (occasionally racy) American pop, plus concentrated news blasts and some innovative cultural programming—isn't capturing Middle Eastern attention spans fast enough, but ACNielsen disagrees, reporting that Sawa's average 2003 listenership in Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar and the U.A.E. was 32 percent. More importantly, it's "regarded as a reliable source of news."

In the rest of the world, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty already broadcasts in 28 languages, Voice of America in 40 and Radio Free Asia in seven, while Radio Farda and Radio Martí focus on Farsi and Cuban Spanish, respectively. These operations' range of language skills and broadcasting sites offer a base from which the BBG could aggressively expand.


The BBG has lately begun to expand its TV and Internet programming, including efforts like the Arabic-language TV station Al-Hurra ("the free one"). The Governors reason that this is where populations are heading for news and entertainment as connectivity, income and technological levels slowly rise.

But this strategy is a mistake—at least in the Middle East. Where radio is ubiquitous among the region's 223 million people , there are only about 16.63 million TV households, or roughly one per 13 persons.

Besides low penetration, TV sets are tremendously more expensive, transmitters are fewer and TV signals more easily jammed than radio.

Middle Easterners who do have a TV already have access to satellite broadcasts including CNN, the BBC and others, so it makes less sense for the U.S. to spend a lot entering TV markets already served by a range of news sources.

Radio, as personified by the BBG's stations, seems like the fastest, most cost-effective way to reach vast populations in the regions least-served by reliable news sources—and the U.S. has an opportunity to become their trusted partner, as it was for Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Even if the total cost of doing so seems large, it's worth the investment to move an ever-larger share of those disconnected billions toward the mainstream of global civilization.

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