Behind The Scenes At RFA

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 April 2011 05:11 Written by RFA15 Wednesday, 27 April 2011 08:32

Dan Southerland (left) and RFA's First President Dick Richter with the Dalai Lama during his visit to RFA in 1997.

Dan Southerland, RFA’s Executive Editor and Vice President for Programming, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Asia, based in Tokyo, Saigon, Hong Kong, and Beijing. He was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing from 1985-90 and covered the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Dan worked previously for The Christian Science Monitor, covering the Vietnam War, conflicts in Cambodia and Laos, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the India-Pakistan War of 1971, and the fall of Saigon in 1975. As the Monitor’s diplomatic correspondent, he covered five secretaries of state and traveled to more than 40 countries.

In the summer of 1996, Dan switched from print to radio and helped to start a new, congressionally-funded broadcasting company, Radio Free Asia.

On the occasion of RFA’s 15th anniversary, Dan reflects on RFA’s beginnings. He describes why he decided to leave the relative security of a job at The Washington Post and launch into an untested new venture, one that had yet to hire its first broadcaster.

Q. Why did you leave your job with a prestigious newspaper to help start up a new radio station?

A. I liked working for The Washington Post, but I wanted to get back to using my Asian experience. I had worked for 18 years as a reporter in Asia in all but one of the countries that we would broadcast to. I had studied Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

And I liked the idea of trying something new. Finally, it seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.

Dick Richter, the newly appointed president of RFA, was a respected professional journalist who had held senior editorial and management positions at both ABC and CBS News. Dick convinced me that RFA would do serious journalism. Dick believed in the time-tested virtues of accuracy, fairness, and balance.

Q. What were the initial challenges?

A. When I got to RFA in July 1996, we had a small administrative staff and a few technical people working with us. The tech guys began rapidly building one of the world’s first all-digital broadcasting stations. But we had no broadcast journalists. My first task was to help hire language service directors and broadcasters.

Dick set targets for rapid expansion, aiming within less than two and a half months to put Mandarin Chinese on the air first in September 1996, followed by Tibetan in December. For 1997, the goal was to get five more languages on the air by September. In other words, we had to launch seven languages within one year. My notes show that for Mandarin, we hired seven broadcasters within a week.

The key for our first broadcast was hiring Jennifer Chou, first as senior editor and then as acting Mandarin service director, because she and Alex Tseu, my deputy, knew how to structure programs. As a former producer, Dick himself pitched in with suggestions for the production side. I supplied programming ideas, but Dick, Alex, and Jennifer knew how to make it all work. As Dick later said, it was something of a miracle that we got all those languages going in rapid succession.

Q. How did the original RFA team assemble a staff and get operations off the ground?

When I first arrived in July, RFA had a small administrative and financial staff but no broadcasters. Craig Perry as Vice President for Administration had to quickly assemble a small human resources team headed by Jacqueline Hopkins that could swiftly and efficiently evaluate resumes, interview job candidates, and administer exams.

Jane Wilhelm, Dick Richter’s executive assistant, scheduled events, coordinated meetings and exams, found the best bargains for overseas travel, and kept the details of every process moving forward. Jane was the “glue” that held everything together.

My deputy Alex Tseu and Jennifer Chou, Acting Service Director, did the hard work of planning programs, coaching broadcasters, and working with producers in preparation for RFA’s first broadcast.

On the occasion of our 15th anniversary, I’ve looked back on our first year with Patrick Taylor, RFA’s Chief Financial Officer, who is still with us today. He recalled that at the start, the legislation contained a sunset clause that could theoretically shut down RFA after September 30, 1999 which caused some prospective hires to hesitate. “The hardest part was convincing people that we would still be around after the initial sunset period,” he said.

Patrick also spoke highly of the role played at the outset by BBG Chairman David Burke and board member Bette Bao Lord and recalled that “David Burke and Bette Bao Lord offered the kind of leadership and guidance that a fledgling organization needed at that time.”

Executive Editor Dan Southerland interviews Han Dongfang in RFA's Hong Kong office on January 31, 2009.

Q. What was the atmosphere at RFA like during that first year?

A. It was exhilarating. But along with the excitement of doing something new and worthwhile, we also faced uncertainty and tension from time to time. Under pressure from China, a Central Asian country cancelled a transmission agreement with RFA shortly after we went on the air. Although we had bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress—which supplied the funding—we also had to deal with skeptics both in the government and in the media world who were convinced that we’d get things wrong or end up doing propaganda. We had to earn our credibility one story at a time.

At the start, my job was to ensure that we had multiple sources for stories. Dick called me his “content man.” One source alone would not do. This was easier said than done, because of the media controls and repression that existed in each of the countries that we broadcast to. Some potential sources were simply afraid to talk with us. We had to work hard to protect those sources who did talk or give us tips.

As we began breaking stories, all of the leading wire services and major international newspapers began picking them up. They pursued the stories with reporting of their own, and invariably they discovered that we were accurate.

The Tibetan service offered a special challenge. We were unable to find more than one or two professional Tibetan journalists for our Tibetan broadcasting team. But we did find educated Tibetans – two school superintendents, a former monk, a music teacher, several scholars, and a traditional Tibetan medical doctor, among others – all of whom we provided with training. They learned quickly and became incredibly dedicated broadcasters. And we learned that, thanks to their Tibetan language capability, that they could nail down stories inside Tibet that could not be reached by the average foreign correspondent.

We later went through similar experiences with the launch of several other services. When we began broadcasting in the Uyghur language in 1998, for example, we had an experienced Uyghur television broadcaster on our team. But we also had more scholars than journalists. With training and regular feedback, they also quickly learned – on the job.

In each case, this was more than a job for our broadcasters. It was a mission.


This year, Radio Free Asia celebrates 15 years of bringing objective, accurate, and timely news to people in Asian countries that restrict free speech and free media.
While much has changed at RFA since we began in 1996, our mission has remained the same: to advance the principles of the fundamental right to the free-flow of information and the right to seek, receive, and impart information.
Please take a moment to explore this webpage where you can revisit important milestones, accomplishments, and moments from RFA’s early days to the present.
—Libby Liu, President of RFA

BBG resolution

On December 17, 2010 the Broadcasting Board of Governors passed this resolution celebrating and commemorating RFA's 15 years of impact broadcasting.

Click here to read the resolution (PDF)

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