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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Do We Need a Voice of America 2.0?

Over the past several weeks, America’s consumers lobbied Google, Amazon, Netflix and more to shut off digital media delivery to citizens in Russia. In a cavalcade of announcements, NetflixYouTube PremiumAmazon Prime Video and more have been blocked in Russia. They join a long and growing list of retailers, transportation, financial service and hard goods companies suspending commerce with Russia and Russian citizens.

But is outright shutdown of the massive media delivery pipelines like Netflix, YouTube, Apple App Store etc., to consumers in adversary nations their highest and best use? Should we treat them the same way as other goods and services? Or might it be smarter to leverage our cultural power to influence, and encourage those companies to instead intersperse our wartime Public Service Announcement (PSA) messaging, with a light touch, alongside their content?

When I was a radio DJ in college in the 1980’s, we had a set number of PSA’s per day set by our program director. We read these PSA’s over the air, and needed to do at least one per three-hour show. The director mandated that the PSA’s come from a set of pre-approved scripts, which were stacked to the right of the turntables. You might think the Federal Communications Commission mandates PSA’s, but it turns out that PSA’s are entirely voluntary on behalf of the station. However, the Federal Communications Commission does factor in whether a company is acting in “the public’s interest” when renewing or expanding licenses, so there is a strong qualitative incentive to be a good citizen.

PSA’s generally aim to raise awareness or change behavior. Some of the most common in the United States are for Emergency Preparedness or personal health. And they are pervasive.

In 2014, the amount of donated airtime to television alone generated up to 251 million impressions for each PSA. And that’s just for one campaign, and one media channel: television. If you’ve ever heard about disaster preparedness or getting tested for blood pressure, or getting a COVID booster, chances are it came from a PSA.

Seems to me something analogous to this approach might be beneficial here, too.

Imagine if we had a live, open source media repository of wartime PSA’s ready to go. Such a repository could always be updated and expanded, and would consist of thousands of tagged, browsable and searchable assets in video, audio and written form. There’s no reason this repository couldn’t be publicly available to the US. These would be, of course, messages we’d like to go out to the world. A government agency would act as manager of this repository, approving or denying contributions to it.

Digital media companies have their own brands to protect, of course. So it should be up to them to determine which messages “fit” with their brand, and which do not. They could and should even create their own and “pull-request” them into the media repository. After all, so many of these corporations are phenomenal at consumer marketing and message delivery. Even many of the existing brand-halo commercials tell the story of America and the benefits of freedom.

This would be a live repository with a variety of messages approved by the US government, from which corporations would be encouraged to choose. In the most aggressive cases, they might show the human suffering or destruction on the ground that’s censored from view. But such a heavy-hand is likely to get them immediately expelled. But it’s a continuum, and could change over time.

Digital media corporations could, at their choosing, pick from this repository and intersperse these messages. Just what might encourage the media companies to do so could be a variety of things. It could be voluntary, based entirely on what their own corporate leadership believes is the right amount of good citizenry. A more aggressive approach could be taxation/fees levied by the federal government if they failed to meet thresholds for delivery. Or perhaps it could be flipped, and taxpayers could fund the delivery of these messages, as an extension of Voice of America, for instance. I think it’d probably be best to make it entirely voluntary on the corporations’ behalf initially, but corporations should be encouraged to report their PSA delivery, and how they’ve acted in the public’s interest.

Surely, hostile authoritarian regimes would block platforms which do this over a certain threshold. Surely, Putin’s current threshold is slim to none, so perhaps only the lightest touch would be possible. But isn’t it better for the adversary government to be the one to block all this entertainment from their populace, than to have the US and European-based corporations be the ones who are the bad guys?

Among the challenges with this idea are pre-emptive regulations by hostile regimes to require propaganda insertion. Russia was already threatening to require Netflix to carry its own propaganda before Netflix decided to pull the plug. But an open source repository would, eventually, find its way into the public. Russian citizens have access to virtual private networks (VPN’s), which allow them to bypass geo-fencing. Surely a few enterprising citizens there could disseminate the messages from the repository in thousands of ways we likely won’t think of. So this open source repository should at least be considered, and curated.

This is just a nascent idea at this stage. I haven’t thought carefully through the ramifications of this long-term. But I think there’s a kernel of a much better strategy here which leverages America’s significant cultural and media power, rather than just turning off the spigots outright, as though it were just like any other hard-good resource.

Steve Murch
Steve Murchhttps://stevemurch.com
Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle. More of his writings can be found at stevemurch.com.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. For what it’s worth, BBC announced that it’s bringing back English language shortwave broadcasts, at 15735 and 5875 kHz.

    An advantage they have here is that, while not exactly neutral, England is no longer seen as bent on world hegemony, and for anyone who’s been exposed at all to the outside world, BBC is a gold standard information source. In a situation where your leaders are complaining about “information terrorism”, and compared to carefully crafted messages from the US, that look like propaganda because they really are.

    • Donn, exactly the problem……message neutrality doesn’t exist ; even messaging from the Vatican. RFE was a political sales job that motivated Hungarians 60yrs ago.

  2. It’s wise to be a little leery about government handing out information (state propaganda). Think about what this might mean if someone with little concern for truth had control of the message.

    • But Jean, our government is already handing out information. Voice of America Radio (https://www.voanews.com/) still exists and has a budget of $252,000,000. In other contexts, the CDC, our State Department and the ambassadors employed provide state-sponsored information all the time, including at times, very subjective information.

      The US government subsidizes public radio, public TV, and more, and VOA abroad. It’s already part of what we do. The question in my mind is — should it continue to be primarily in radio form, in an Internet age? Or is there an opportunity to make it more suited to the era.

  3. Older AM or FM analog signals can be broadcast and received without dependence on Internet services that require massive infrastructure. Analog radio is cheap. Listeners don’t need a screen, wi-fi, or power on the grid to get information. It’s another chance for a censored population to ponder three vital questions: Who are you? How do you know? and So what?

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