Voice of America going ‘over the top’ with its new streaming service


The Voice of America is jumping on the streaming channel bandwagon—think Netflix, Disney+ or Hulu.

VOA’s goal, of course, is much different than just keeping us glued to our couches. The broadcast organization wants to make it easier for people around the world to find their news and information on an on-demand basis.

Jim Tunnessen, VOA’s chief information officer and chief digital officer, said the new OTT, or over the top, product is just getting started as even the name suggests.

Jim Tunnessen is the Voice of America’s chief information officer and chief digital officer.

“We are in the development stages and planning for release. That deals with a lot of coordination between the technical and content sides,” Tunnessen said on Ask the CIO. “We are making sure we have the appropriate infrastructure in place as well as the vendors in place to provide the solution, like the content distribution network (CDN). We have to make sure the CDN is there and can provide the appropriate streaming to the places around the globe that would be using our service on a regular basis.”

He said the OTT product has received a lot of support from the director and deputy director to make the streaming service a reality.

Tunnessen said one of the biggest challenges VOA faces, and it’s why he wears a second hat as the chief digital officer, is to make sure OTT product doesn’t suffer from performance or latency issues.

“We had to focus on moving to the cloud and making sure our content is available. That’s something that is in transition as a lot of our content is contained in our current data centers. We have to move it to the cloud to make it much easier to be accessed and to work on the platform,” he said. “I would love to see it be a complete cloud environment, but we do run into some restrictions in the process with the broadcast operations aspect of things.”

VOA hopes to launch the OTT product by the end of fiscal 2020 in at least a few of the 47 languages the agency provides information and news in for its customers.

The OTT product is intertwined with the content distribution network, which is a major project VOA has been working on for over a year. The agency launched it with two languages so far, English and Korean, and are adding 45 more over the next few years.

“We went with the open source solution of Drupal and wanted to make sure it was cloud based for continuity of operations and for general good practice,” he said. “As you may know, a media content management system is much more difficult or complex than a normal content management system. There are many more tie-ins especially for us being the type of organization that we are with television, radio, digital and social distribution paths. They all feed into each other so for instance our television and radio streams do go into our content management system so that we can provide this content via the web.”

Automated translation service

He said the next languages VOA plans on releasing in the short term would be Persian, Mandarin, Spanish and Russian. By the end of the calendar year 2020, VOA would like news and information in all 47 languages to use the content management system.

The current content management system is a homegrown system developed, built and housed outside of VOA.

“We worked hand-in-hand with the journalists to build a system for them that they wanted to use,” Tunnessen said. “What they have been using is not as efficient or effective as what they would’ve liked to see.”

A key tool that will be a part of the content management system is an automated transcription and translation service using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Tunnessen said through machine learning, the tool, called IPSUM, saves transcribers or journalists a 10x savings of time. For a 30 minutes program, it took 90 minutes to do transcription. The tool can do the transcription or translation and the journalist or transcriber can do some oversight in about nine minutes.

VOA is using IPSUM today for 20 languages for transcription and 40 for translation.

Tunnessen said IPSUM is working well, with a high-90% success rate for English and 85% to 90% in Russian.

“We want people to use the system so that the system learns and they do correction of the content itself and we can feed the machine certain key words to increase its vocabulary as well,” he said.

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