Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Times of Our Lives ....

Sunset at Cabbage BeachWhen Sorrows come they come not single spies, but in battalions. (Shakespeare's Hamlet)

There are many problems when there is bread on the table; when there is no bread on the table there is only one problem (Chinese proverb)

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances (Phil 4:11)

So I got passed over for a promotion at work. But I guess I should be happy that I still have a job. If the powers that be have their way, the career I have invested nearly 30 years in could be on the verge of fizzling out. What then?

I have spent the last 16 years working for the U.S. Government in Washington. And this week, the President announced in his fiscal 2007 budget that he would actually increase the money to my agency. The only problem is, the people who run my agency want to spend it on more expensive television programming while eliminating English language radio programming from the Voice of America except for three things: the Website, English to Africa, and Special English, which uses a word list to help teach people English.

So what do the powers want to spend the money on? Television, which is much more expensive to produce than radio, and is broadcast to Iran and Afghanistan, where God only knows who sees it.

The whole idea is that the television programs - and other so-called public diplomacy efforts - will persuade the Iranians not to try to build a nuclear weapon or will help win the "hearts and minds" of the people who could be potential terrorists.

But they want to get the money to do that by cutting off the English radio programming at a time when the Chinese government and Al Jazeera are expanding English programming. Al Jazeera even hired an Iraq war vet, a former Marine no less, to work in its Washington bureau.

And the Bushistas say that this is all part of its "War on Terror." Huh?

Understand, I have been on radio since I was 16. I started in a little 1,000 watt station in North Carolina and the opportunities to cover news and sports worldwide that VOA offered have been irreplaceable. But I always kept the listeners in the back of my mind when I produced something. To me it was "Theatre of the Mind" and I remember one of my journalism professors exhorting us to "take me there" when we wrote. I considered it a privilege.

During my time at VOA I have covered the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NCAA Final Four, the World Track and Field Championships, the World Basketball championships, former President Ronald Reagan's Funeral, the 9-11 remembrance ceremony at the Pentagon, and the Supreme Court battle over the 2000 elections. It has been a true gift and I have gotten to see and go places that I never dreamed of going when I was growing up. I have always wanted to give my listeners not only information, but emotion, feeling.

But now - if things do not change - that door will be inexorably shut. Not only to me, but to those who listen to VOA for information.

I remember Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries who were captured by Islamic militants in the Philippines several years ago. Martin eventually died in a rescue attempt, but Gracia survived.

And when she was released she said that one thing their captors allowed them was to listen to VOA. And she said "We listened to the news, and we listened to the sports, and it was such an encouraging connection to home." And a small, hand-held short-wave radio was able to give them encouragement. Who knows, they might even have listened to one of my sportscasts or one of my reports while they were captives thousands of miles from home. But now, any new missionaries - or anyone else - who is captured or far from home will have only silence to listen to.

There has been a palpable pall over the VOA newsroom since the news was announced. Everybody is trying to keep a brave face, but there seems to be a fatalistic resignation that the cuts will come, no matter what.

Everybody seems to be in fear of their job, because if they can cut English programming -- English, the heart language of the United States, the language of commerce, the international language of airline pilots, the language that people will stop you on the streets of Beijing to practice -- then what's to stop them from cutting the rest of the employees out of the building?

To be fair, English is not the only division that faces the ax. Croatian, Turkish, Greek and a few others are on the chopping block too. For now, it does not directly affect me, but it has the potential to hurt - and toss out - people with whom I have worked and respect.

I have thought of writing my Congressman, but I don't think that would do much good. Four hundred-50 people from VOA sent a petition to Congress last year to ask it to look into the way the Broadcasting Board of Governors was handling VOA. I even wrote to my Congressman and two senators about the situation. I got a letter back from one of them, no response from the other, and a fund raising letter from the third.

So I am not sure that Congress gives a damn. But the American people should. It's their tax money that's being spent and it's their language that will be cut off come October 1st, 2006.

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