Monday, July 31, 2006

Joshua S. Fouts

Slight break from sequence this morning to welcome Joshua S. Fouts, director of USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy and co-director of the Center’s "Public Diplomacy in Virtual Worlds" project. Previously he was co-founder and director of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism & Communication Program and editor of the program's flagship effort, the Online Journalism Review, as well as deputy chief of staff at the Voice of America. Here are his takes on the best episode of public diplomacy and the most influential element of soft power.--PK

Public Diplomacy Dateline 1994: From Monologue to Dialogue as VOA Picks up the Phone

In 1993, shortly after taking over the helm of the Voice of America, director Geoffrey Cowan said that it was time to stop talking to audiences overseas and time to start listening. One of the hallmarks of U.S. democracy, he noted, was our ability to tell the good with the bad and, perhaps more importantly, to engage in debates about them in an open forum. Why not bring the world audience into the conversation?

At the time, China still jammed VOA broadcasts quite heavily, and anecdotal evidence in Iran told us that equipment that could be used to access overseas broadcasts—satellite receivers, for example—was heavily banned by the Mullahs. But we knew were getting through.

Cowan announced that we would start a call-in show to these regions—first in Mandarin and later in Farsi. VOA had hosted call-in shows before, but never on a regular basis and infrequently in languages of countries in which jamming was prevalent. Further, he pushed us to embrace the evolving pace of technologies and make the information accessible on multiple venues—satellite and Internet.

This led to the creation, in 1994, of a simulcast in which, quite radically at the time, television cameras were put into the radio booths, allowing the feed to be transmitted via the traditional shortwave, but also via satellite television signals, and using a relatively new Internet audio streaming technology run by a small company called Progressive Networks.

To describe the first shows as emotional is an understatement. Listeners embraced the platform and filled up the phone lines. They asked tough questions of guests from the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, to a stream of politicians, diplomats and pundits. More importantly, we listened, we discussed and debated. And the world talked back.

Soft Power: The Internet

Although its influence is still evolving, and its mark on history not yet a blip, the Internet's impact will surely be felt and noted by historians as nothing short of significant for our era.

Created originally as a post-apocalyptic communication tool by the U.S. Defense Department, the Internet has become the current definitive venue for global outreach and cultural influence. From redefining communities online to democratizing everything from play to politics to publishing, the Internet is where the world makes its opinion heard, seen and replayed to multitudinous echoes, iterations and edits.

Its where we learn about each other—from reading the weblog of a vice president in Iran (Mohammed Ali Abtahi) to keeping current with U.S. soldiers in Iraq to sharing and building memorials in virtual worlds reacting to the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah.

Coming Tuesday: Mark Safranski of ZenPundit

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