By Alan Heil
"New media and old media converge to become now media." That maxim, so persuasively articulated by 21st century public diplomacy guru Matt Armstrong, has now become real in a Voice of America Persian language television program called Parazit. That virtual Comedy Central to Iran airs a half hour every Friday evening, and features a pair of comedian-satirists named Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi.
Parazit means "static" in Persian, and VOA audiences can't seem to get enough of it because its targeted treatment of Iranian political figures and political practice are a welcome relief from the tiresome monotony of state television in Iran. Last month, about 19 million people visited Parazit's Facebook page to get a taste of its irreverent humor. Over the past six months, the program's popularity has surged to unprecedented heights. Not only does it attract many of VOA's 15 million regular viewers to its Persian News Network (PNN), it has caused an enormous surge in the number of VOA's Parazit Facebook friends (now close to 300,000 people). In the last month, Facebook recorded more than 20 million impressions on Parazit's page.
Authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East, including Iran, are trembling as pro-democracy demonstrations topple long-established dictatorships. This week, VOA faces increased satellite signal interference and a web Domain Name System (DNS) used by hackers to disrupt users interested in Iran. Web users attempting to access VOA's Persian News Network site containing news of the popular uprisings and information about Parazit were directed to another site claiming to be run by a group called the Iranian Cyber Army.
Referring to events in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan and Algeria that seemed inspired by the earlier revolts that ousted dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Walter Isaacson said: "Our broadcasters are at the forefront of reporting the most tumultuous events we have seen unfold since 1989. It is a testament to their vital role that they are subject to the work of hackers and signal interference." The BBG oversees VOA, RFE/RL and other U.S.-funded civilian international broadcasting networks.
Parazit also has attracted widespread attention in the U.S., far more than a single American publicly-funded overseas broadcast program usually receives. In addition to Comedy Central, there have been reports on CNN International, National Public Radio, and on the front page of the Washington Post. Jon Stewart told Parazit's Hosseini and Arbabi (and a nationwide TV audience): "You're like our show but with real guts... I'm proud to be considered in the fraternity of humorists that you guys are in."
Or, as VOA Director Danforth Austin put it: "The show resonates with people in Iran because it talks about issues and policies that are not discussed in official government-controlled media, and it does so in an entertaining, humorous way." That seems to work well. More than one out of ten VOA listeners and viewers worldwide now hear programs targeted to Iran. Parazit along with good solid reportage from throughout the region may push that percentage even higher in 2011.
Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former deputy director of VOA, the largest and only global U.S. government funded overseas network. Alan is author of "Voice of America: A History," Columbia University Press, New York, 2003/2006, and editor of an anthology of media specialists published by the Public Diplomacy Council in 2008, "Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media."
Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.us. They are published here to further the discourse on America's global engagement.