Chief, VOA Learning English
Hai Do is the Chief of Learning English, VOA’s multimedia source of news and information for millions of English learners worldwide. He first became familiar with the Voice of America when listening to shortwave broadcasts while growing up in South Vietnam and gained a solid appreciation for the agency. That appreciation has shaped his thinking as Chief of Learning English, knowing how he depended on VOA in his youth, many people are relying on his respected VOA branch to help them understand the English language.
Do you feel an added motivation to succeed because you’re targeting audiences trying to learn English?
“As an English learner myself, I have a very strong kinship with the millions of English learners around the world. I go to work everyday thinking about the difficulties I had trying to learn English. That’s enough motivation to do all you can to help our audiences succeed.”
You have years of web, mobile, social media and management experience. How does that play into your role as Chief of the Learning English branch?
“I believe my experience in web, social media and management help to make the staff’s transition from broadcasting on shortwave radio to delivering content on all digital platforms much easier.”
How critical in your branch are social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter?
“Social media are very important. They are one of the key drivers of our growth. We deliver our content wherever people gather, and we go beyond Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For example, as more and more people in Asia and Iran start using the messaging app Telegram, we have established a Learning English channel to reach them.”
What has surprised you the most in Learning English?
“I’m just blown away by our staff’s dedication to the mission of Learning English and the audience’s loyalty to our programs.”
How long did you serve as Acting Chief of Learning English? Was that your first position at VOA when you came to the agency in 2014?
“I arrived at VOA as Internet Managing Editor for the Learning English website in January 2014. Later that summer, Sheila, Kelu and Andre asked me to serve as Acting Chief for the branch. I was then appointed Chief in April 2016.”
Under your leadership as Acting Chief, Learning English saw huge growth both online and in social media. How did you make that happen?
“First, we changed the site navigation to make it easier for our target audience to find our content. Then, we relied on metrics to change the mix of content on our site and engaged new readers on social media. For example, knowing that we have a large audience in East Asia and Southeast Asia, our staff focused on news of the conflict in the South China Sea and the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. We focused on telling America’s stories to the world with programs like “The Making of the Constitution” and “Route 66.” We launched more education programs to help English learners with tips on speaking, writing and grammar.”
How do you maintain that momentum?
“It comes back to people. On many occasions, I said to staff members that the routine day-to-day work should only occupy between 75 to 80 percent of everyone’s time. I want the staff to have the time to think and to be creative. Because of the success of our new programs, everyone is energized and wants to do more. Hardly a day has gone by without someone suggesting a new idea, a new program or a new way to do something. Just the past few months, we launched Let’s Learn English, America’s National Parks, People in America, English @ the Movies, and Everyday Grammar TV. Honestly, the staff initiated these ideas and ran with them.”
Before coming to VOA, you were an Assistant Managing Editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, responsible for its website, multimedia and national and foreign news. You also worked as a reporter, photographer and director of photography for United Press International, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Gannett Newspapers. What are the most important aspects from those experiences that you’ve applied to VOA?
“My first job was a part-time lab tech position at a small daily where I mixed chemistry and mopped the darkroom floor on the weekend. In between, I learned to shoot photos when staff photographers were not available. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to work in many positions with several news organizations. In each and every position, I have never stopped learning from people around me and have always tried to share what I have learned with others.”
What kind of an appreciation did you gain for VOA by listening to the network’s shortwave broadcasts while growing up in South Vietnam?
When I was a child, there were several changes of government in South Vietnam. Without fail, every general that came to power would capture the radio station first to broadcast messages from the new regime. When you open the daily newspapers, there would be black ink running through paragraph after paragraph of the news reports. You have to live in a society like that to really appreciate what a lifeline the free flow of information from VOA really means.
In 1975, you and your family left South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon on a cargo ship and were rescued by a U.S. warship in the South China Sea. Tell me more about that experience. Was it harrowing?
“It was not scary at all. I have said many times to friends and family members that leaving Saigon was easy. Since my father was a high-ranking military officer, we really did not have much of a future if we had stayed behind. Besides, without food and water, I passed out after a few days at sea.”
How did you end up in the United States?
“After about seven days at sea, our vessel was discovered by an American warship in the South China Sea. The warship escorted us to Subic Bay in the Philippines, and the U.S. government brought us to America.”
Because you had to flee your home country while it was being taken over by Communist forces, how important is the message of democracy to you?
“In 1986, I became a naturalized citizen of the United States. The first thing I did was to register to vote, and I have voted in every election ever since. Why is it so important? I still remember the time President Nguyen Van Thieu changed South Vietnam’s Constitution to disqualify all other potential candidates from running against him. Living without democracy is the best way I know to really understand how precious democracy is.”
What has your experience at VOA meant for you professionally and personally?
“I have worked as a journalist for over 30 years, but the last two years at VOA have been especially rewarding. Because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our audience around the world, I leave work each day knowing that we’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”
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