The BBG’s current USIB organizational chart. (Click to Enlarge)
international broadcasting (USIB) is at a critical juncture as it faces new,
21st century challenges.
In a recent Woodrow Wilson Center paper, we proposed a new vision for U.S. international
broadcasting: a single, non-federal, congressionally-funded broadcasting
organization that unites the current six USIB
entities into one, with a revitalized mission employing the latest
technologies in an “audience-centric” communications strategy.
This reform will be
essential to maintain an effective U.S. presence in an often hostile
international media milieu.
the leading edge of American soft power; the principal means by which theUnited
States speaks directly to less free and impoverished nations, including North Korea, Iran, China, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Russia, Belarus and Cuba.
but not nearly as well as it could. Its Cold War organizational legacy of
broadcasting organizations detracts from maximizing its potential reach and impact.
Legacy hampers innovation
The Cold War role of
USIB, as a highly effective tool of U.S. “soft power,” has been widely acknowledged.
Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty all made important
contributions to the political, economic and social transformation of Eastern
Europe and the USSR, in moving away from communist authoritarianism.
By denying controlled state
media the monopoly on information and public discussion, USIB helped keep
critical thinking alive and fostered an understanding of democratic
However, the two-pronged Cold
War communications strategy of “telling America’s story” (VOA) and providing a
“surrogate free press focused on domestic issues” (RFE and RL) is no longer
relevant in the new international media environment.
Moreover, two USIB
organizations, VOA and RFE/RL, have now grown to six (adding the International
Broadcasting Bureau, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Martí
and the Middle East Broadcasting Network), with overlapping language services,
duplicative management and support structures, and largely un-coordinated
missions and operations.
This hodgepodge of U.S.
broadcast organizations, often competing among themselves, can no longer be
defended on either mission-related or budgetary grounds, and hampers a rational
allocation of resources in line with American strategic priorities.
New technologies have also dramatically
altered media consumption patterns worldwide.
is now more important than radio in most areas, especially in the high-priority
target area of the Middle East. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are
taking on increasing importance for international broadcasters as was seen in
the Arab uprisings of 2011–2012.
Communications are no longer
one-way but an interactive dialogue between sender and receiver and among
receivers on various platforms.While
the role social media played in fostering political change in the Arab
uprisings may have been exaggerated, as with all technologies, they can be used
for good or ill.
Just as political activists
seeking democratic change can use these new technologies to their advantage,
they can also be employed effectively by repressive regimes for their own less
Congress and the OMB
are showing less tolerance for multiple legacy broadcast organizations with
overlapping activities and management structures.
The Government Accounting Office issued a report in January that focused on overlap.Unlike the
Cold War era, where a strong case could be made that VOA and RFE/RL were
largely complementary, they and their more recent siblings Radio Free Asia, the
Middle East Broadcasting Network (comprisingAlhurra TV and Radio Sawa) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting
(Radio and TV Martí) are now often
viewed with considerable justification as duplicative.
USIB broadcasters produce
programs in 59 languages, targeted on countries, which, with three exceptions,
lack fully free media. Roughly a third of these languages (20) are carried by
two of the broadcasters (VOA and RFE/RL or RFA).
The different and often competing elements of
USIB have strong patrons among America’s politicians and pundits, who have
little appetite for seeing favored broadcasters reduced, consolidated with the
same language service of another USIB broadcaster, or eliminated.
structure impedes allocation of resources according to strategic priorities.
Funding for broadcasts to Cuba, for example, nearly match funding for
broadcasts to China, which is of major strategic importance, and that funding
is divided between VOA and RFA.
A changed global,
political and media environment, new technologies, heightened friendly and
adversarial competition, budgetary pressuresand
outmoded legacy structures and their political patrons have coalesced to place
USIB at a critical juncture. Major institutional reform is essential to meet
the challenges of the 21st century.
All USIB — if it is to serve American strategicinterests and compete successfully in the
fragmented and rapidly diversifying global information market place — must
focus on intended audiences and be attuned to their culture, perceptionsand information deficits.
It must be more than
audience-focused; it must be audience-centric.
And that “audience”
should be plural: audiences. Within a given society, key elites and other
social groups have different information needs from those of the general
population, and reliable market intelligence is crucial in determining changing
target audiences and communications strategies to reach them with credible,
objective news and analysis.
The challenge today is to
recast USIB as a single organization, funded by Congress but not part of executive
branch, that will produce and distribute audience-centric programming efficiently
on multiple platforms.
This organizational structure
would be similar to the BBC World Service (in its former, more independent
state), the National Endowment for Democracy, and the United States Institute
of Peace, all of which are funded by government grants but are guaranteed
Distance from government — a firewall — is essential to ensure the
journalistic professionalism, free from bureaucratic interference, that is
crucial to the credibility of the operation. Governance should be provided not
by a federal agency (such as the Board for International Broadcasting, which
oversaw RFE/RL prior to 1995, or the Broadcasting Board Governors today), but
by a non-partisan board of directors including individuals with journalism and
foreign affairs experience who exercise oversight but delegate management
functions to the executives it appoints.
A single new organization, congressionally funded but non-federal, would avoid
duplication of resources and permit maximizing capabilities devoted to
individual countries on a rational basis. As a non-profit entity, it would
avoid the stigma of “official radio or TV,” which other
international broadcasters (apart from China and Russia) have avoided or are now
The proposed new
organization would not abolish language services of the current broadcasters
but would incorporate them as building blocks supported by a central news
operation, with the eventual goal of one language service to a given country
using a given technology.
The new organization
would preserve, not abandon, respected brands that have acquired equity over
time in their respective broadcast regions — the VOA brand in Asia, Africa and
Latin America, RFE/RL brands in Eurasia, RFA brands in East Asia and,
increasingly, MBN brands in the Middle East.
U.S. international broadcasting
has a proud and successful history and even in its current unwieldy state does
many things right. But bold restructuring is required to respond vigorously and
credibly to 21st century challenges.
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A. Ross Johnson is
a Wilson Center Senior Scholar and Hoover Institution Research Fellow. He has
held senior management positions at RFE/RL including director of Radio Free
Eugene Parta is a consultant on international broadcasting
issues. He is retired director of audience research and program evaluation at
RRE/RL and was chairman of the Conference on International Broadcasting
Audience Research. They are co-editors of “Cold War Broadcasting: Impact on the
Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” Central European University Press, 2010.