Africa: Voice of America will adapt to the Digital Age

Technology & Convergence

"Our strategy for reaching audiences is market- and research-driven," VOA Director Dan Austin said in a recent interview. "People in Nigeria get most of their news via shortwave radio, so we're there in that market with radio. Many people in Iran get their news through satellite TV, and we're there in TV. If mobile devices [cell phones] are what young people in key markets are using, we're going to be there" broadcasting to them in that format too.

Austin said Africa is where information technology is literally "leapfrogging."

"Where they didn't have a hard-wired infrastructure, some countries have gone from shortwave broadcast to text messaging, SMS [short message service], to mobile devices," he said. In Zimbabwe, for example, "we have used SMS with some success, although we still broadcast there from [shortwave] and medium-wave transmitters in Botswana."

"We are investing a fair amount of money into our technological infrastructure," Austin said. "Right now, we have one foot in the analog world and one foot in the digital world."

"But, bit by bit, we're putting together a [digital] system," he said, that eliminates tapes and similar recording and playing equipment, relying instead on computerization to get better quality quickly and cost-effectively.

The U.S. government's premier international radio and television broadcast organization -- the Voice of America (VOA) -- will continue to provide timely news and information to more than 130 million people worldwide while pursing innovative ways to engage this audience, says VOA Director Dan Austin.

"Everything I have seen or heard from the new [Obama] administration and from people [in Congress] is that there is an understanding that what we do, dollar for dollar, is one of the better investments the American taxpayer can make," Austin told America.gov March 4.

"Our task is still to provide accurate, balanced and comprehensive news and information programs for foreign audiences. We are just expanding our technical ability to do that while at the same time using state-of-the-art information technology to have a dialogue with people."

Increasingly, VOA is using the Internet to interact with its audience. In addition to transmitting news and information, it operates social networking programs on its Web site and uses blogs and webchats to encourage audience participation, Austin said.

It also uses the Internet for English language learning programs. In 2008, VOA awarded a contract to Alelo Inc. to develop an interactive Web-based learning portal to teach English as a second language. The portal is extremely popular with college-age students in China and Iran.

VOA now broadcasts 1,500 hours of radio and television news and feature programs each week for a foreign audience of 134 million people. Its 1,100 journalists and technicians broadcast in 45 languages (25 through its television arm), using a growing network of 1,200 local radio and television stations, as well as cable systems.