The BBG Must Be Where the Audience Is Listening

Matthew Armstrong
In October 2013, the Broadcasting Board of Governors began a comprehensive review of the efficacy of shortwave radio as a means of reaching and empowering our audiences.

Historically, shortwave has been a valuable tool to deliver unbiased news and information to those suffering under censorship, or who lack access to reliable news or are subjected to propaganda. Nevertheless, like any international media organization with limited resources, the BBG, the State Department and Congress must make strategic choices about which audiences to reach and how best to reach them.

As Radio World readers know better than most, the media environment has dramatically evolved during the past decade. Increased availability and affordability of television, mobile devices and Internet access have led to many audiences migrating from shortwave. As such, this review of the medium’s use is timely and part of responsible stewardship of the U.S. taxpayer funds.

AUDIENCE FIRST
As chair of the special committee charged with this review, I implemented an audience-first approach to this analysis.

We examined the listening experience of users in our target markets, including the BBG networks’ relative success in reaching their target audiences through this medium. Rather than looking at broad global use trends, we looked at how our target audiences use shortwave and any other media platforms.

This work leveraged input from the BBG’s five networks: the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network. These organizations know their audiences and ultimately make the choices on the media to use.

We asked communication experts for their opinions and to critique our research. Dozens of industry experts, scholars, shortwave listeners, former employees and other stakeholders responded to our request for public comments. The Department of State, via our embassies and posts around the world, provided substantial information on the importance and impact of shortwave from their frontline perspective.

The result of this inquiry, arguably the most in-depth and comprehensive to date, is a series of recommendations to “right-size” BBG shortwave broadcasting to be more focused and effective.

This effort demonstrated that there is still a critical need for shortwave in key markets where other options for unbiased news and information are out of reach, but in most countries, shortwave is increasingly a medium of minimal use, and thus has marginal impact. It is clear that once other platforms become available — whether television, FM, mobile technologies or the Internet — audiences quickly abandon shortwave and don’t look back.

 
Evidence suggests that availability of high-quality content on these preferred and increasingly convenient platforms, along with the ability to interact with the online community at large, bear heavy responsibility for the declining use of shortwave.

WHAT NEXT?
We also found no evidence that users return to shortwave during crises. Audiences continue to use their “new” platforms, seek out our firewall circumvention tools, many of which have self-erase options that wipe out every trace of their existence, and use offline media, including BBG content distributed by hand. As seen in Egypt, Syria and Libya, by virtue of economic pressure, most high-profile shutdowns of Internet and mobile access are quickly and quietly reversed.

The findings, which were published Aug. 1, state that shortwave continues to be an important medium in key markets such as Nigeria, Burma, North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and other places where we believe it continues to empower strategic audiences. At the same time, we must reduce or eliminate shortwave broadcasts where there is either minimal audience or that audience is not a U.S. foreign policy priority.

We will continue shortwave broadcasts in 35 of our 61 broadcast languages.

In Nigeria, which is plagued by the violent extremism of Boko Haram, and where one-third of Hausa speakers state they have listened to shortwave in the last week, our broadcasts will continue on multiple frequencies.

In Vietnam, where less than 1 percent of adults use the waveband but three in four own a mobile phone, 26 percent use the Internet weekly and our anti-censorship tools generate almost 600 million hits per day, we trimmed two hours of transmissions while not reducing our content production.

The BBG is committed to maintaining its shortwave broadcasting to regions where a critical need for the medium continues.

As stalwart defenders of the our broadcasters’ mission to provide accurate, balanced and reliable news and information — as well as responsible stewards of public funds — we will carefully track trends in media consumption and optimize our distribution mix to ensure we reach our target audiences in their preferred platforms.

Read the report at www.bbg.gov/about-the-agency/research-reports/board/.

Matthew Armstrong was confirmed to the Broadcasting Board of Governors in August 2013. He is former executive director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, former adjunct professor of public diplomacy at the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Southern California and founder of the MountainRunner Institute.

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