Afghan Crisis Response Team, 2022 winner
Following the US handover of a military base in Helmand province on May 2, 2021, fighting between the Afghan government and the Taliban intensified in the region. As that summer wore on, Afghanistan’s democratically elected government was looking increasingly fragile as the Taliban successfully retook control over more and more territory. In Taliban-controlled towns, local broadcasters were censored or shut down, prompting USAGM’s Office of Technology, Services, and Innovation (TSI) to take extraordinary measures to ensure Afghans’ continued access to VOA and RFE/RL television and radio programming.
Keeping USAGM Radio On the Air
According to a 2018 national survey, USAGM’s audiences in Afghanistan are overwhelmingly dependent on local broadcasts, with approximately 90% of the large weekly audience using only radio, TV, or some combination of the two to consume news from VOA and/or RFE/RL. Overall, USAGM networks reach just over half of adult Afghans (51.1%) each week on radio and just under half (47.1%) on TV.
While USAGM does broadcast on shortwave to Afghanistan from outside the country, local audiences relied mostly on the agency’s in-country network of 15 FM and two medium wave (MW) radio transmission sites, all but one of which were located at facilities belonging to Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA).
The Broadcast Technologies division, led by Ken Claerbout, worked closely with a fearless, dedicated local contractor and team to keep the agency’s FM and MW radio sites on air throughout the country. Contractor staff were occasionally forced to flee as the sites came under mortar shelling and occasional small arms fire, and in a handful of occasions even sustained minor injuries. Despite this, when safe to return to the sites, TSI contractors did so and made repairs, as necessary.
Thanks to their collective efforts, USAGM’s local radio transmission capability sustained only brief, temporary outages during the fighting, and until December 1, 2022, the network had remained on the air.
Ken and his division also negotiated with the Tajikistan state broadcaster to reprogram one of their powerful MW transmitters to change from VOA Urdu to VOA and RFE/RL Afghan programming. This move ensured that even when the Taliban shut down in-country MWs at Kabul and Khost on December 1, 2022, USAGM content is still available to Afghans in the medium wave band.
USAGM on Affiliate and Satellite TV
In 2021 TSI’s Office of Business Development, led by Joan Mower, was negotiating with major Afghan outlet Shamshad TV to place VOA Afghan programming, promising to lift VOA’s access to TV audiences in the country significantly. Regional Marketing Officer Adam Gartner landed the deal, which remained in effect until March 2022, when the Taliban barred local stations from carrying VOA and other foreign news content.
The Office of Business Development’s International Training and Development division also secured $1.3 million in funding in 2021 to conduct anti-narcotics journalism training and fund VOA and RFE/RL production of anti-narcotics programming for TV, radio, and social media. Audience research in 2022 indicates that this content reached nearly half (49%) of Afghanistan’s adult population, even after the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
In late summer 2021, anticipating the possibility that the Taliban would require TV affiliates to discontinue airing USAGM programming, TSI’s Global Networks division, led by James Russell, moved quickly to contract for space on Yahsat Y1A, one of the region’s most popular direct-to-home (DTH) TV satellites.
By September 2021, Gregory Gibbs and Neil Kennedy in Global Networks’ satellite team had negotiated bandwidth on Yahsat’s Afghanistan transponder, permitting VOA to launch a 24/7 television channel in the country’s Dari and Pashto languages. When, in March 2022, the Taliban bared affiliates ToloNEWS and Shamshad TV from airing VOA shows, the satellite channel allowed VOA to ramp up delivery of original content to eight hours per day.