Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Andy Ilves '82 with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

June 4, 2003:
Opening up the airwaves
Andy Ilves '82 is director of Radio Free Afghanistan

Recent world events have given most Americans a crash course in the history and politics of Afghanistan. Andy Ilves '82 had a head start — and now he has a chance to observe that country's history and politics close up as the director of Radio Free Afghanistan, a U.S.-sponsored effort to broadcast news and features.

Based in Prague, Czech Republic, since May 2002, Ilves coordinates 12 hours of programming in the Dari and Pashto languages seven days a week. Still considered a start-up operation, RFA nonetheless reaches some six million Afghan listeners weekly, Ilves says, and maintains a bureau in Kabul and correspondents throughout Afghanistan. Additionally, RFA launched a Web site www.azadiradio.org on April 14.

Because of high illiteracy rates, print media is less popular than broadcast via shortwave and medium-wave radio in Afghanistan. As director, Ilves' immediate goal is to provide listeners with impartial news and interesting features. He's made a conscious decision that no editorials or opinions by individuals will be included. "It's not our job to tell people what to think," he says.

However, panel discussions in which a number of views are presented do get airtime, as a way of presenting a model for hashing out conflicting ideas. Case in point: when the Afghan government held a council in June 2002 to consider how democratic efforts should proceed in the next few years, RFA covered the event live. The network also convened a round table of women to offer their impressions of the council.

"It's easy to have women discussing women's rights, but we don't want to trivialize women's views, as if that's the only thing they can talk about," Ilves explains. "Our subtle intent was that perhaps, if some young girl was listening, she would understand that it's OK for women to talk about the future of her country."

This is the second go-round at RFA for Ilves. He helped set up the first RFA broadcasts to Afghanistan soon after graduation from Princeton as a Near Eastern Studies major, when he worked as a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Munich, Germany, from 1984 to 1989. With the end of the Cold War, the Afghanistan operation closed.

At Princeton, Ilves took up Persian and Arabic as he focused on Central Asia and Afghanistan, an interest sparked by the revolution in Iran that installed the Ayattolah Khomeini as its leader and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Ilves wrote his senior thesis on a topic that now seems prescient — the role of Islam as a political factor in Central Asia. He still refers to it. The political players may be different, but there are similarities between then and now, Ilves says. "No matter how you try to impose borders and ideas, political sentiments and a very powerful faith transcend boundaries. The Soviets couldn't stop the growth of Islamic sentiment, and it's clear that it's still growing."

When Ilves returned to the U.S. in 1989, he moved to California and explored other directions as a legislative and media aide for members of the Los Angeles City Council and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; then, as chief of administration for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, he commanded 350 employees and a $32 million budget. From there he spent more than three years as the international executive director of the NAMES Project Foundation, the sponsor of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, an ongoing project in which each of the more than 44,000 colorful panels memorializes the life of a person lost to AIDS.

Ilves' family background adds to his interest in international affairs. His parents fled Soviet-occupied Estonia for New Jersey, where Andres and his brother — the former foreign minister of Estonia and head of a political party there currently — grew up. Ilves has managed one trip to Estonia since his most recent RFA appointment, but hopes for more.

In the meantime, he's more than busy — but managing to squeeze in time to work on a novel. In March he returned to the U.S. for a conference in Pocantico, New York, called Building a Dialogue Between the Muslim and Non-Muslim Worlds, sponsored by the EastWest Institute.

His varied career has meant he's missed all of his major Princeton reunions: fifth reunion (1987) in Germany at RFE/RL; 10th reunion (1992) in Estonia helping manage the first free presidential campaign there; 15th (1997) opening up an international election-monitoring office in Serbia (during the Milosevic era); and 20th (2002) in Prague, directing Radio Free Afghanistan. "I'd like to make it to the 25th!" he says.

"The common denominator in my work is an interest in people the world pays the least attention to, people who don't have a voice," says Ilves. "I have a joke with myself, that in my life I've taken on different issues — Afghanistan, AIDS — but I haven't gotten off the letter 'A' yet and there's so much more to do."

By Maria LoBiondo

Maria LoBiondo is a frequent contributor to PAW.