Kevin Klose, Part 2: Independent journalism “first partner” of building democracy

RFE headquarters in Prague, photo: archive of RFE

A former Washington Post editor and reporter and NPR president, Kevin Klose headed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the 1990s and is now back at the Prague-based station in an acting capacity. In the second half of a two-part interview, Klose discusses the perception of the US-funded broadcaster in Washington, and elsewhere the challenges facing the radio industry today and more.

Kevin Klose,  photo: Ian Willoughby
But I first asked Mr. Klose about his decade at the helm of National Public Radio, which syndicates to around 900 public stations and is one of the world’s great radio institutions.

“It’s a non-profit. It has the same non-profit status as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, so I was familiar with that.

“At the time that I came there, in 1998, it had been in existence for about 28 years. Each year its audience had gone up in the United States – by about half a million people a year.

“So it was rising. And it now had around 13 million listeners, which it had taken it around 25 years to get to.

“The question was, where can we go? How much more can we do? And what was not being done for the people of the United States, because that’s where it was focused.

“It was almost pre-world wide web, so all that was brand new. It was still only a radio operation.

“What else could we do? I’d come from international broadcasting. I’d come from here [RFE/RL]. I’d come from The Washington Post, which had many foreign reporters and a big ability to cover national news.

“And I thought, we’ve got to grow this thing. I was very fortunate to arrive at a time when the economy of the United States had been generally very positive for a whole number of years.

“What’s unusual about NPR is that it exists essentially on voluntary contributions from listeners and private foundations that believe in the kind of reporting that it does, which is independent, non-polemical, non-politicised and very, very well reported.

“And [it is funded] by wealthy individuals, who patronise their local stations and also the national. I raised an enormous amount of money from foundations and individuals and we grew, grew, grew and over the 10 years we doubled the audience. It’s now around 30-plus million a week.”

Given that in general the media landscape has been changed because of the falloff in advertising revenues, is NPR relatively safe because of its funding model?

“Well, it is secure and stable. But, you know, safety for journalism is never certain. And it has been running a number of annual deficits.

“One of the issues that all of these enterprises face is, how do you do, for example radio, which is high quality audio, how do you get that on the web? How do you have a website that has graphics and photographs and video and text, and do that all in the same… realm that you were living in before?

NPR studio,  photo: Stephen Voss / NPR
“That’s what we all face together, all of us journalists. All of those journalistic enterprises have that. We have that problem here and that does challenge us, and those possible opportunities, here at Radio Free Europe, as you do at Radio Prague.”

The internet and podcasting have transformed radio. Personally I think of it as audio not radio, because I never listen to anything live anymore, or very little. What kind of shape do you think the radio industry is in today?

“I think we’re in an exploratory, transitional state. For radio itself this is actually not unusual. Less than 100 years as a mass medium. All that time it has gone through one transition after another, as technological change has taken it from AM to FM and so forth.

“The big thing about radio, which I love, which is not duplicated by the other means of mass media, is that radio, because you cannot see it, is a mass medium of the imagination.

“It can draw a picture. It can take a person, a listener, out of where they are by reaching inside and touching there… almost inner life. Because the radio is sound in your ears.

“If you have powers of hearing, you can commune with radio and it with you, in a way that no other medium can. You can be riding your bicycle, washing the dishes, having dinner at home alone, and the radio’s there for you as a companion.

“It’s both mass medium and very, very individual. I think it’s a remarkable medium.”

Getting back to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I know that the CIA stopped funding it in the early ‘70s. But is there still a perception among some people that it is a kind of US propaganda?

“I think not any more. Maybe in some of the target countries there might be a sense that it is somehow some kind of a propaganda arm. It is not.

“I would not be there if it did not have the same independence that I enjoyed at The Washington Post and that I enjoyed as president of NPR.

“These journalists who do this work… We are 28 language services, across Eurasia. These journalists on the ground in the bureaus we have, we have 19 bureaus… We are not in the countries that won’t let us open bureaus.

“I opened a bureau in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in my first round at RFE/RL, back in the ‘90s, and the Uzbek authorities shut it down some years ago. So we don’t have a bureau there – we’re banned in some places.

“These people do every day courageous work. They are working in places where uncensored journalism is feared and despised by the powers that be. It’s a classic authoritarian situation.

Photo: archive of RFE
“We work in those places anyway. We have listeners and viewers and readers and social media participants by the millions across this remarkable region of the earth.

“So, yes, we have those challenges. But we also have new mechanisms by which we can reach people. And they can tell us what they are interested in, what they are observing.

“We have a lot of video. We have a lot of powerful, spontaneous citizen-based audio and images, from individual private citizens in countries where the notion of individual liberty and actual rights of privacy by the individual are always under assault by the authoritarian regimes.

“That happens anyway. It’s a spontaneous space. We’re in it, we’re learning from it and we’re serving it with independent, non-partisan, non-polemical, careful, fact-based reporting. And that’s why I came back when they asked me to come back.”

What’s the relationship between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America? Do you overlap in some way? Or do you have clearly different areas that you cover or things that you do?

“In general we’re different in this fashion: We are much more like a local news organisation as compared to an international news organisation, in the sense that we are targeted by our languages and specifically do news in that language, in that country, in its time zone, in its events, and focus on there in ways that set a standard for independent, uncensored journalism, in the context of the people of that place.

“We have small but important services that speak only Chechen, Avar and Circassian, for example. In the Balkans we speak in the Balkan languages and we have people on the ground who are reporting on each one of the different regions and states, in the Balkans and so forth. So we’re local.

“VOA, Voice of America, is primarily international. And it’s also the story of America. It reports on American foreign policy and also reports on American life and politics.

“Because America continues to be, with all its flaws and all our flaws and our failures and our challenges, we also are continuously an experimental democracy.

“Hillary Clinton, when she came her to Prague in 1996, on the 4th of July, and delivered a speech to the people of Eastern European and the former Soviet Union, right from the former building of the Czechoslovak former [communist-era] parliament building, she said, you know, democracy is not easy. If you don’t work at it, it changes. And if you work at it, it changes the way you want it to. She was very clear about that.

“These democratic, self-governing societies are always challenged to find the path forward. By putting it in the hands of the electorate, the people, and providing them with what you do and, what we hope to do, in these kinds of journalistic enterprises…to provide independent, fact-based information about what is happening country by country, for the people in that country, so they can make their own decisions on the basis of good information.

RFE headquarters in Prague,  photo: archive of RFE
“That’s the purpose of why we do our work. I think this kind of journalism is the first partner of building democracy, and helping it stay strong and vital.”

I presume a lot of politicians in Washington know little or nothing about the places you are broadcasting to, the languages you’re broadcasting in. Do you have to lobby hard to ensure funding in Washington?

“I think that we’re actually in a period right now where many members of Congress, even newly arrived members, are increasingly aware that the world which we thought for a long time at the Cold War… that the world would be a much more peaceable and stable place, and that there would be steady towards self-governance.

“I will say that I think it’s in the mutual national security interests of the peoples of the New World and the Old World that there be self-governing democracies.

“I think history has shown that democracies don’t normally come to blows against each other. So it’s in the national security interests of democracies to have democracy spread.

“We’re a very small piece of the vast federal budget, but those members of Congress who find their way towards international issues, towards foreign policy, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they pretty soon come to see and to learn about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, if they hadn’t known about it before…

“I find that they’re very interested and eager to learn how we do our work and how we can be funded.

“In fact, as we speak, with the federal budget having gone through and now being signed by the president, we think it’s a new era of fiscal stability for us.

“We feel very well supported by the US government. And I think that there’s a real feeling among people who are engaged in international issues that the radios are very important to the future of us all.”