Numbers Don’t Lie – radio play about Voice of America
“Numbers Don’t Lie” is a fictional, satirical one-act radio play of how the name Voice of America was discarded seventy years ago during the war with Nazi Germany and Japan because modern audience research techniques were used.
This is a parody intended as a news commentary on the functioning of a public institution funded with U.S. taxpayers’ money. While some of the statements in the play may appear to resemble loosely some of the statements and reported proceedings of the modern-day Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the events described in the play took place 70 years ago, and the events and characters in the play are fictional, and any similarity to any current or former U.S. government official or any other person dead or alive is purely coincidental. If you are likely to be offended by this play or any form of parody and satire, please do not read any more text and leave this website.
After the attacks of 9/11, the Broadcasting Board of Governors members and their audience research experts decided to end Voice of America programs in Arabic because they concluded that any reference in the program’s name to America will not be well received by the audience. They created two new programs with different names.
The author dedicates this play to all the Voice of America employees, past and present, to honor the 70th anniversary of the first VOA radio broadcast to Germany, which thankfully went out under the Voice of America name.
Numbers Don’t Lie
January 1942. The presidentially-appointed Broadcasting Board of Industrial and Political Contributors meets in secret on the third floor of the federal building on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC to discuss U.S. radio broadcasts to Europe. Five of the nine board members and several government executives and audience research experts are present.
Chairman Donovan: I call the secret meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Industrial and Political Contributors to order. All who are in this room have a top-secret security clearance. I see that at least five Board members are present and we have Jack Spender on the phone with us in Georgia, using a secure line, I should add. So we do have a quorum. Jack, can you hear us?
(Chairman Donovan hears Jack but the rest of the people in the room can’t hear him because the speakers don’t work.)
Board member Spender: Sorry, Bill, that I can’t be with you all. I’m here with Eleanor at a fundraiser for FDR and we’re having a helluva time.
Chairman Donovan (muttering to himself): He’s after my job.
Chairman Donovan (loudly): We can’t get the speakers to work in the room even though we are a broadcasting organization. But don’t let these minor technical problems bother you. Jack can hear us just fine and says that he’s working hard to generate public support for our overseas radio programs in support of freedom and democracy. In any case, I’m excited having been told by our very talented technical staff that we are well on schedule to start our first Voice of America radio broadcast to Germany in a few days. That should scare the pants off Herr Goebbels.
Board Member Ivan Turnsky: Chairman Donovan, let’s not rush in and think about it for a moment. I mean the Voice of America. I used to run the largest commercial radio network in this country and we didn’t launch any new program without first doing extensive audience and market research. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as patriotic as anyone else in this room, but something tells me calling this station Voice of America is a bad idea.
Chairman Donovan: Why so?
Board Member Turnsky: We must be above all research-driven. Even though this is at least for now the U.S. government, which does things its own inefficient way, we should not discard the vast experience of commercial broadcasting and advertising. They could teach us a lot about psychographics.
Chairman Donovan: So what does a commercial radio and advertising expert recommend?
Board Member Turnsky: I say if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it well, or not at all. Market research and audience preferences are what this is all about. You give them what they want rather than what you think they want or need. And you find out what they like through market research. As we say, it’s about them, not about you, stupid. I’m not going to play Negro music on a white radio station in Alabama even if my kids in New York like that sort of thing. Research doesn’t support it.
Chairman Donovan: So tell us, Ivan, what do you know that we don’t know?
Board Member Turnsky: I have here in my briefcase a secret research report prepared by our Office of Strategic Planning that clearly proves that the vast majority of people in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan hate the United States and most things American.
(Turnsky pulls a report out of his briefcase and waves it.)
If you care about your audience, you can’t give them something they dislike, so I say we should not call it Voice of America. (He read each letter as in A-M-E-R-I-C-A.) And whose Goddamn voice is it going to be anyway? We should look for a neutral name. Something like Global News Network, for example. I would say it should not even be a U.S. government-run station. We could do it much more cheaply using private contractors. I know quite a few who could do it much better than these government workers. With the money we save, we could pay higher bonuses to our managers and hire even more contractors.
(Chairman Donovan pauses for a moment and appears to listen to a phone receiver still in his hand.)
Chairman Donovan: Jack Spender just told me — we still can’t get him on the speakers — that we’re having a serious problem with paying our contractors on time. Some kind of bureaucratic delays. But Jack also says that with the money saved from not giving them any employment benefits we might be able to offer them free TB immunization shots so they don’t infect our management team. I hope that will be fine with you all.
Board Member Alex Fox: I completely agree with Ivan. Privatize and rely on audience research. We do the same thing in Hollywood. It’s called focus groups. They’ll tell you what your audience wants and doesn’t want. By the way, where is that foreigner you selected to be the Voice of America director? Housemeister, something or other. Isn’t that a Jewish name?
Chairman Donovan: We’re not sure whether he has an American passport yet or a security clearance, so I told him to stay away. Don’t know whether he’s Jewish or not, but aren’t we all Americans? (Donovan hesitates for a moment.) Well, with the exception of Housemeister perhaps until his citizenship status is cleared up. But what does it matter? I think Housemeister could also be a German name.
Board Member Fox: It doesn’t matter to me since I’m also Jewish, but haven’t you heard that the Nazis hate the Jews. And whether we like it or not, most Germans are Nazis. Do you really want to alienate the vast majority of your potential listeners?
Chairman Donovan: OK, OK, I get it, even if I don’t like it. I’ll tell Housemeister to change his name to something American when he gets his papers. By the way, I like Ivan’s suggestion of “Global News Network.” You know, I used to be the CEO of WNN, World News Network. I agree that we shouldn’t let lofty ideals prevent us from maximizing our audience. Whom are we going to influence if no one listens?
Board Member Molot: I think a more neutral approach will also help us in Russia. Who knows, Uncle Joe might even allow us on his state radio network. That would really give us a vast number of patriotic Russian listeners. Board Member Brown and I have just returned from Moscow where we had very productive discussions with Commissar Molotov about placing our health programs on Comintern Radio. Molotov gave us a list of people they don’t want to hear in our programs and we should seriously consider it. I told Molotov, or was it Litvinov, that we are ready to listen to everybody. If the White Russians protest, we’ll tell these fascists to go to hell or go back to Russia to work on collective farms. I hope you all read my memo that we should get Hoover to investigate these White Russians, otherwise, they might start to demonstrate in front of our building. Speaking of research, I’m totally convinced that we definitely need to target young Soviet Communists, but what is our target audience in Germany?
Chairman Donovan: I thought it’s anybody who’s opposed to Hitler.
Board Member Alan Smith: You mean the Communists?
Chairman Donovan: I think Socialists might be a better term. We have to be mindful of what people in Congress might think if we talk about Communists, even though Stalin and the Soviets are now our allies. Old prejudices die hard. We already have some good Communists working for us, but we better not advertise that.
Board Member Fox: I agree that it may be a problem, Mr. Chairman. We don’t want Congressmen Smith and Mundt to think we want to indoctrinate the American public with FDR’s socialist ideas either. They may try to prevent us from broadcasting on domestic stations, some of which members of our Board own or have an interest in, not to mention all the contractors we can hire to sell these programs domestically. This could be very good business for us. We can tell the people on the Hill that these broadcasts on American stations will prevent the Japs in Minnesota from becoming the Fifth Column.
Board Member Smith: But aren’t all Japanese Americans already in concentration camps? I think the Administration is doing everything possible to protect real Americans who speak English and have American names.
Chairman Donovan: Well, we can say that we will also indoctrinate the Krauts in Minnesota and have Japanese programs in those internment camps.
Board Member Smith: Going back to Socialists, don’t the Nazis call themselves National Socialists, that means Socialists who love their country. We can’t very well tell people in Congress that we’re targeting the Nazis. And by the way, aren’t all German Communists dead or in concentration camps, which have no radios?
Chairman Donovan: You have a good point there, Alan. Wait a second. My staffer has just whispered in my ear that all the Jews in Germany had to turn in their radio sets to the authorities. So what do you think our target audience should be in Germany? If not Communists and Socialists, then who?
Board Member Smith: Bill, it’s even more complicated than that. That’s why we set up the Office of Strategic Planning and they produced for us the five-year strategic plan. You know, like those famous Soviet five-year plans. According to our own experts, it’s not only that we need to identify our key audience to optimize the programming and presentation to the target audience for each of our markets, we must also use and emphasize the distribution platforms that our target audiences prefer and use.
Chairman Donovan: What do you mean by that?
Board Member Smith: I mean we must be platform agnostic and we must be clever.
Chairman Donovan: Platform agnostic? Do you mean we can’t have religious programs because we are the U.S. government? I’ve said all along we should privatize. I’ll tell you why. When two of the OWI guys I brought on board arranged for an interview with FDR, one of those government workers who fancies himself to be a real journalist refused to do it because he didn’t like the questions we sent in advance to the White House. Imagine that. These government workers couldn’t even get an interview with the New York City mayor if you asked them. And if we’re not a U.S. government operation and on top of that don’t call ourselves Voice of America, the Germans, and the Russians can’t say we are a government propaganda station. But what is this platform-agnostic business anyway?
Board Member Turnsky: It means that if Communists in Nazi concentration camps have no access to radio, we could for example send them letters with anti-Hitler news from a neutral country like Switzerland. Platform neutral means we don’t care how we deliver or what we deliver as long as it is received.
Board Member Irene Brown: I’d like to say something.
Chairman Donovan: Of course, Irene. Let’s hear from our one and only female Board member. What do you have to tell us?
Board Member Brown: As chairwoman of our New Media Committee, I’m very happy to report that we are working on a number of new and exciting program delivery platforms. We have identified a private firm in California that has developed an innovative invisible ink technology that would be perfect for sneaking in secret messages in letters to German concentration camp inmates. I know some great people at the California firm. As with new technologies, it is very expensive. We may have to cut our radio transmissions to pay for it, but our Strategic Planning Department tells me it is well worth it. We may also have to bring in a few contractors to teach our staff how to write letters with invisible ink. This will cost us extra, but the Nazis will never guess what’s in those letters. It’s a wonderful circumvention technology tool. I also think we should ask Congress to give us extra money to develop it further.
Board Member Smith: Also thinking out of the box, we could even try to trick the Nazis by giving free records with English lessons to Voice of Germany and hope that they might use them. Everybody likes to get something for nothing. Of course, we would have to do it through a neutral third party without revealing they come from us. We could even hire a cute high school or college intern to teach them decadent American youth slang.
(Chairman Donovan and others are heard laughing after the cute intern comment.)
Board Member Smith:
Over time, the knowledge of these expressions should weaken their fighting spirit. After learning about heavy petting, they might be less likely to volunteer for suicide missions to blow up our schools and hospitals and kill innocent children and patients. You couldn’t market it as Voice of America English lessons, of course, but under a different name they surely would give us the large reach we want in Germany on a real network, a reach we can measure, unlike the unknown listeners to these shortwave radio transmissions that the Nazis will most likely jam anyway. We should, however, put a warning on those letters that if found they can get you a few years in a concentration camp.
Board Member Brown: Our New Media Committee completely agrees. Research shows that almost no one in Germany or Russia listens to shortwave radio. If you have to do radio, domestic AM and long wave state network distribution is the only thing that produces a large audience and we must offer them the right program to get it. That’s why VOA is such a bad name. We can’t use it, especially if we’re thinking about the future. Besides, VOA is only good for radio. The future is in moving pictures, television, and most of all in invisible ink. The potential for audience growth is only in new media that young people use. They are future leaders. It’s useless to target the elites. They’re too small and too old and too scared to use new technologies. They listen to the radio because it’s safe.
Chairman Donovan (exited): I get it. We need to go after German high school and college students and other young Germans. Don’t they say that young people are the future of their nation? It may take 20 or 30 years, but someone who listens to our English lessons or American music today will be the next Hitler or Goebbels.
Board Member Fox: I’m glad you said that Mr. Chairman. I was going to propose that 60 percent of our program to Germany be music: American, German, and other European hits. Music is, as they say, the universal language and does not offend anyone unless it has obscene lyrics, which we will ban. Speaking about the focus being on the audience. English lessons are fine, but I don’t agree with Irene that we should teach them American slang. We can’t afford to offend any Germans. Those we offend might later shoot at our American soldiers, and we wouldn’t want that. Our research also shows that young Germans like listening to American jazz more than they like listening to news programs. If it were up to me, I would call our broadcasts Universal Music Network. We could even drop records with American music from our planes flying over Germany. We must reach our target audiences on their primary platforms or we will fail.
Board Member Turnsky: You’re absolutely right. We’ve done audience surveys and focus groups and the only people who listen to the news are old white guys over 50. I was going to propose that no news segment to Germany or to Russia be more than three minutes long. After that it gets boring. We don’t want to bore our enemies or our friends. I say more music, less boring news and information.
Chairman Donovan: This has been a most enlightening discussion. Let me make the motion that our target audience in Germany and the Soviet Union are the young people with access to radios, record players, or a permanent mailing address, even in a concentration camp or Gulag. Do I have a second?
Board Member Turnsky: I second the motion. I would also propose that we start our broadcasts to the Soviet Union on the anniversary of the Great October Revolution, which I think coincides with the start of our fiscal year. Or is it in November? We’ll ask our Strategic Planning Department.
Chairman Donovan: All those in favor say aye. Those opposed say nay.
(All Board members say aye.)
I hear no nays. The motion to define our target audience as those 25 and younger is approved.
Board Member Smith: Mr. Chairman, may I also propose the motion that we will remain platform and media agnostic? I’m told by our Strategic Planning Department that everybody will soon be watching this thing called television. We don’t want to tie ourselves to outdated technologies.
Chairman Donovan: I second the motion. All those in favor say aye. Those opposed say nay. The ayes have it. The motion to confirm that we are platform-neutral, or should I say agnostic, is approved.
Board Member Smith: This leaves only the name issue. I propose that we drop the Voice of America name as unsupported by research and bad for program placement and marketing. While I like the Universal Music Network idea, I think Global News Network will be easier to sell to Congress. And while we’re at it, I would also make a motion that music shall be no less than 60 percent of our programs and that no news segment shall be longer than three minutes. And furthermore, let’s agree that the Global News Network should be de-federalized and privatized while we continue to be funded in full by Congress. That will keep Congress off our backs while they give us the money to do what we want and what is best for our country.
Chairman Donovan: Do we have a second?
Board Member Brown: I second the motion.
Chairman Donovan: All those in favor say aye. Those opposed say nay. The ayes have it. From now on we will call ourselves the private and independent Global News Network. Let us now stand and sing the national anthem.