Joaquin F. Blaya is a member of the United State’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees US government run broadcasting networks like Voice of America and Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which includes Al Hurra Television. Al Hurra (meaning “the free one”) broadcasts to 22 countries in the Middle East, Iraq and Europes. Governor Blaya had a principal role in developing Al Hurra’s “Al Youm” (meaning “today”), a daily three-hour news and “infotainment” program broadcasting live from five cities simultaneously: Dubai, Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo and Washington D.C.
The US government has funded the Middle East Broadcasting Network with around half a billion dollars since its launch in 2004, and requested $113 million from the US congress in the 2010 fiscal year budget. Governor Blaya previously served as chairman of Radio Unica, a Spanish-language radio network, and as CEO of the Telemundo Group, Inc., the US’ second-largest Spanish-language television network. He spoke with EXECUTIVE from the US by phone to discuss Al Hurra’s controversial past and its future in the Middle East
E Can you tell us what the mission of Al Hurra is?
I think Al Hurra’s mission is the same mission as all the US international broadcasting networks: to provide news and information in an accurate manner to the world, which people don’t have access to, or in places like the Middle East, Arab countries, where there is access to information but there are some subjects are not discussed on a regular basis, like women’s rights and gynecology and other elements.
E Why is Al Hurra prohibited from being broadcast in the US?
It goes back to the origins of America. The concern among members of congress was that the administration would use it as a vehicle to propagandize the population.
E No matter how the US spins its policies, it has always been viewed with suspicion in the Arab world. Why has Al Hurra continued to exist when evidence suggests that is has failed to penetrate the Middle East’s media landscape?
That is the language that is used by people who oppose the Al Hurra idea. I would offer you the numbers, and I live by the numbers. Al Hurra has up to 27 million weekly viewers, according to AC Nielsen [a US media research company], so someone is watching. And this, mind you, is a region where this was talked about as an American channel.
In my [experience], people watch what they want to watch, and they particularly seem, in this part of the world, to watch news and information that can be credible. So when people say Al Hurra has been a failure, I say we’ve gone from 1 million [viewers] to 27 million. I don’t think that is a failure. Is there more to be done? Obviously, there is always more to be done. Therefore the importance of [Al Youm]… Al Hurra is not a one trick pony.
E With all due respect, those audience numbers have been called into question by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) and research done by Zogby and the University of Maryland. Even if the Nielsen numbers are accurate, Al Hurra is getting less than 10 percent of the market.
The Zogby survey is not audience research. That is where confusion lies, because we are comparing apples and oranges.
E And the GAO report?
No, no, no. This was about three years ago, the year the GAO had some questions based on some of the methodology that Nielsen was employing at the time. That was corrected. Every number you see coming from Nielsen [meets] GAO standards. What I’m saying is that that is old news.
E But President Barack Obama chose to appear on Al Arabiya in his first interview with an Arabic language news channel. Isn’t that a signal that the White House doesn’t have much faith in Al Hurra?
Actually it’s not. The White House is very supportive of Al Hurra, as indicated by the budget, which is what really matters in Washington. I should not express a political point of view, but I think as a citizen. I would understand why Obama would select an Arab channel for this first approach to the Arab world. But… [Al Hurra] had Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton, Vice President [Joe] Biden, Senator [John] Kerry, this is what we do. One of the strengths of Al Hurra, for obvious reasons, is that they are the experts in Washington, and have access to all these people. So I would not think more of that issue.
E If Obama is appearing on Al Arabiya because it is an Arab network then what is the role of Al Hurra? Isn’t it supposed to be the mouthpiece through which the US government speaks to the Arab world?
Sure it does, but not exclusively. I’m not a political figure, I’m a broadcaster, but I would think that [Obama] was extending himself to use an Arab-owned based media instead of an American media for his first approach.
E How do you make sure that US’s foreign and domestic policy stances don’t enter into the editorial line of the network?
Back to old history of Al Hurra; there were mistakes made, but they were mistakes not in content, but of the programming standards. It is not a good idea to put a speech from [Hassan] Nasrallah or anybody else for one hour on the air. It doesn’t make ‘audience sense,’ it doesn’t make for good programming. The questions was not whether we would put on-air opinions of people who disagree with us, we do that, but we do it in a balanced way.
E Al Hurra’s President, Brian Conniff, doesn’t speak Arabic. The Executive Producer of Al Hurra’s new program, “Al Youm,” Fran Mires, doesn’t speak Arabic and has only visited the region a few times on brief trips. If Al Hurra’s goal is to reach out to 300 million Arabic speakers, then why wasn’t someone who speaks the language and understands the nuances of the culture chosen to run “Al Youm?”
We have brought in tens of producers and executive producers, but what we needed was someone who had experience putting together these kinds of programs, someone who spent 20 years doing shows like this, an Emmy winning producer. Having said that, we have brought in around 150 Arabic speakers to produce Al Youm who are contributing sensitivity to the issues in the region. Hiring 150 people from the Arab world [who are] professionals is quite an accomplishment.
E We all know about the problems Al Hurra has had in terms of credibility, what are you doing to change this image?
When I was being [grilled] in [the] US congress… I said that we needed to put a structure in place that was not there, things as simple as an assignment desk.
E That seems pretty obvious…
Yeah, doesn’t it? For people like us who have worked in the [news] business, you don’t need any description of what that means. And Al Hurra didn’t have one. So [as] the first step… we implemented an assignment desk with standards where you know what it is your reporting. So, I cannot overstate the importance of that in Al Hurra, and what it has done to the operation. That’s why in the last two years these issues you were referring to have not occurred. Someone is minding the store, basically. That in itself was the first major step.
Second, it took over a year and a half to put together “Al Youm,” first, because of complexity of the program, but as important, because of criticism [of Al Hurra] that occurred for those two years; Al Hurra had to reestablish credibility in Washington. So while we were being criticized, I was proposing these changes, and proposing this new window, but it took some time to build that credibility. So this has been a major effort on our part to walk the walk, to put the editorial controls in place, to run professionally, and then build the show in the region. So it goes beyond just a window to America, or world, platform, because I feel as important [as it is] to provide news and information, it’s important to serve as a vehicle so that people in the region can talk to each other, and argue with each other, and bring new ideas.