Waste of Dollars

Persian broadcasting service in its present form


Waste of Dollars
by Mehdi Khalaji

Whatever policy the United States adopts toward Iran, it will need to communicate it to the Iranian people. This will not be easy. Iranians are subject to heavy anti-American propaganda from the Islamic government. Not only are there no diplomatic relations, Tehran even creates many problems for people-to-people exchanges like student scholarship programs. The main tool of U.S. public diplomacy toward Iran is generous government funding of Voice of America's Persian TV (Persian News Network, or PNN) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian program (Radio Farda). While radio is a useful complement, TV is the best medium to reach ordinary people in Iran, so PNN is the more important of the two.

Along with a few Iran experts with backgrounds in journalism, I monitored PNN for a year. We found that PNN was consistently ignoring the professional rules of TV production. Its programs are generally poor both in format and content. The problem is that PNN is run like a government agency, not like a news organization.

America has successful models for how to run public broadcasting: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and the many public TV stations. These are not run as government agencies.

It is no accident that the most successful foreign television news broadcasts to Iran are produced by an independent government-supported entity, the BBC. While the BBC's foreign services are funded by the British government, the BBC is not a government agency. The majority of those who have satellite in Iran indisputably watch BBC Persian TV. According to the most recent surveys, BBC Persian has at least twice as many viewers as PNN. BBC Persian was launched in 2008, years after PNN started broadcasting to Iran. BBC Persian has almost the same annual budget as PNN (more than $20 million). BBC uses the money to gather news, with many more correspondents around the world than PNN. By contrast, PNN has a much larger staff at headquarters than BBC Persian -- just what you would expect from a government agency.

PNN uses formats that are out-of-date and boring. Rarely are there outside shots of correspondents -- for instance, in front of Congress or the White House -- much less reporting by PNN foreign correspondents. Just on presentation alone, PNN cannot capture the attention of Iranian youth. The content is also editorially incoherent. The selection of topics covered is weak. BBC Persian, not PNN, often has special coverage of top stories from the United States, such as Obama's inaugural. PNN rarely interviews the experts about Iran who appear on U.S. television networks. There are few, if any, editorial guidelines.

PNN has to compete with the Iranian regime's dozens of TV stations. Although Iranian state media is highly ideological and shamelessly spreads lies, its propaganda machinery is professionally run. It is exciting to watch; PNN is not. The regime's TV stations have an impact on a large portion of Iranian society.

For entertainment, millions of Iranian who have access to satellite TV watch private broadcasts from abroad, especially Manoto and Farsi One. But these are largely or entirely entertainment networks, with little if any news. They shy away from socio-political entertainment. To its credit, PNN has put on an excellent satirical show, Parazit, which gets many more viewers than other PNN shows. As you would expect from a government agency, rather than build on Parazit's success by developing other entertaining shows, PNN has not put into Parazit the resources necessary to hire good writers, develop a strong support team, or to encourage continuing innovations. In other words, whatever extra funds devoted to Parazit, it has not been targeted at professionalizing it. As a result, Parazit viewership has dropped significantly.

PNN is run like a government agency. The PNN director is required to have a security clearance, so selection of the director is heavily influenced by factors other than experience in journalism. Poorly qualified TV producers were recruited at high salaries and now in practice cannot be dismissed. While the average age of VOA employees is 64, the age of average Iranians is 32.

In order to solve the problem, it seems that the only option is to convert PNN from a government agency, transforming it to a public media that follows the most successful examples in American public broadcasting like National Public Radio. A public PNN would be able to receive funds from the government and also from non-government sources and advertising. Without government bureaucratic impediments, an independent public TV or radio station would be in a much stronger position to hire the most qualified journalists, producers and editors. In its present structure, PNN is unable to communicate effectively with Iranians and a waste of American tax payers' money.

In September 2010, when President Barack Obama wanted to talk with Iranians, he chose BBC Persian over its own Voice of America Farsi station. Policymakers should think about how they can make Voice of America so credible and trustworthy that when American officials want to communicate with other nations they would not have to resort to the media of another country.

First published in washingtoninstitute.org.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He previously worked as a producer and broadcaster at BBC and Radio Free Europe.


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Nader Vanaki

My take on VOA

by Nader Vanaki on

The budget is running out so basically they are letting the program crap itself out.  The reason BBC is so much ahead in their programs on Iran is that they are closer, simple as that.  Three hour difference from Tehran they can catch news and broadcast immediately into Irooni homes and elsewhere.  They have always had good sources to interview with and that is mainly credit to their staff.  The VOA staff is basically کارمند دولت for the U.S. but the kind that will get budgetted out and not kept until retirement to produce carbon monoxide in their office.  That is the distinction.

Dr. Mohandes


by Dr. Mohandes on

What they say about the VE being nipped in the butt right after it was up and running is a big huge fat rumor. In fact it is fun keeping  in touch with them and saying hello and good morning to them (hey want me to walk your dog or anything?) to them every morning. :))))

All you need is a reliable VPN and you are back in buizz and good ta go:)

My 5000 tomani! 


I don't know about VOA as a whole...

by Bavafa on

But I know one of their program 'Parazit' lost me as a viewer due to lack of creativity and objectivity.

A program full of yelling and void of any [real and useful] content can carry its viewer for only few episods.

 'Hambastegi' is the main key to victory 



Or you can regroup, refocus, and work harder

by bahmani on

It is easy to criticize from the cheap seats. While I'm not going to try to compare PNN/VOA to the BBC, the measurement of success is I think worth including.

What is after all, the entire point of the US broadcasting into Iran?

Are the broadcasts blocked by the government, and are they even seen? Who knows this? How do they know this?

All valid questions in the ever widening political and cultural chasm between Iran and the US.

Obama using the BBC to broadcast into Iran is an obvious choice given that the UK has an embassy in the US and it's media is more likely allowed in, than using VOA from the US which has no embassy, and even it's Virtual Embassy is blocked not 6 hours after going online.

You try anything when you're trying to get the simplest message across.

You might be correct in suggesting that PNN needs to adjust the programming, the age of it's correspondents, and come up with a snazzy new message or add a hot Iranian girl in the logo. Ok maybe you didn't actually say add a hot Iranian girl, but from your words, I took that as their meaning. Sorry, as a free Iranian with some level of intellect, I am allowed to take meaning from your words. Nothing you can do about that unfortunately. This is kind of how Iran works too.

But while you are Monday morning armchair quarterbacking, you have to also include and consider that of all the media, VOA/PNN is the main target of avoidance by the Iranians, and that this makes even Khalaji-perfect-productions near impossible to broadcast.

The very failure of PNN to break into Iran, even with your recommended sweeps-week tactics is in the end more of a reflection of the extent of tyranny, oppression, and complete utter censorship inside Iran, than the result of your criticisms based on your claimed knowledge of the inner workings of PNN and their operational procedural failures.

You might even be right about ALL of this, but what really irks me about your one sided half blind viewpoint, is that you systematically fail to address the main elephant in the room. With extreme cowardice I might add. Cowardice that is completely understandable given once again, the realities of the world we have the misfortune to live in.

Iran's suppression of freedom, not PNN's internal politics is at the real core of this opinion, the main cause of the great failure to communicate.

Maybe you should also occasionally focus your not too small intellectual powers of obvious observation on what Iran does wrong in this equation, as well as offer the usual, boring, cafeteria, buffet style, drive-thru, easy-bake, and risk-free commentary about everything that is wrong on this side.

Oh wait, you're not allowed to do that!

Pas Intor.

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