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BBG: “More Focused” on Key Foreign Policy Goals

Organization issues its 2016 recap

Saying it is more focused on key U.S. foreign policy goals, the Broadcasting Board of Governors this week released its 2016 annual report.

The organization continues to emphasize several recent themes including a mindset of reforms, growth in digital platforms and finding new efficiencies.

The BBG networks include the Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio Free Asia.

Its critics have questioned the success of its mission to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2013, famously said, “The BBG is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”

CEO and Director John Lansing noted the need for change in the report’s introduction, and described progress: “We have modernized the way we operate in one of the most significant strategic shifts in our agency’s history, with an emphasis on rapidly transitioning to digital and social platforms around the world. We are already seeing measurable results with record weekly audience growth of 52 million in the past year for a total weekly audience of 278 million people.”

The report calls last year one of “impact and transformation,” and cited audience gains across all platforms, with digital seeing the largest percentage of growth, followed by radio and TV. Digital audiences grew 40%, while radio, despite a cut in the number of shortwave broadcasts, grew by 28 million listeners or about 27% thanks in part to a renewed emphasis on FM broadcasts, it said. BBG measures audience by individual media as well as total unduplicated audience.

“We are more focused on key U.S. foreign policy goals and took the important steps to align our infrastructure and operations with our agency priorities,” Lansing wrote. “The result is a strong and nimble global media agency driven by maximizing impact, which in turn advances U.S. foreign policy priorities and national security interests.”

The report, sent to President Trump and Congress, set out five strategic priorities:

Improve accountability and impact measurement: In 2016, BBG said, it enhanced its “impact model” to assess and evaluate the impact of its programming on its audiences and their communities.

Implement a market-driven shift to digital distribution: Though TV and radio continue to dominate in many parts of the world, BBG said it is responding to audiences’ media preferences and increasing production via digital platforms, especially video, mobile and social.

Enhance strategic cooperation between networks: BBG says its entities are putting “unprecedented” emphasis on coordination and content sharing. The U.S. International Media Coordinating Committee, made up of leaders of the five networks, meets biweekly.

Increase curation of content: The report says BBG is partnering with storytellers, documentarians and journalists.

Target efforts organized by foreign policy priorities: While it continues to have a global footprint, BBG said it is prioritizing resources to ensure that its work advances U.S. foreign policy priorities and national security interests “through independent journalism.” It said it is targeting resources to address audiences in Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba, as well areas affected by violent extremism.

Some data in the report suggest why U.S. international media targets social media and website platforms. For instance, Voice of America reported that total website visits grew 41% over three years while article views exceeded 301 million in 2016. Social media engagements using Facebook and YouTube jumped dramatically at the networks, according to BBG, led by Middle East Broadcasting Networks’ four main Facebook accounts (Alhurra, Alhurra-Iraq, Radio Sawa and Raise Your Voice), which saw engagement jump by 276% to about 51 million.

The international media organization spent $746 million on operations in 2016, with the biggest portion going to VOA ($218 million), according to BBG data. The Trump administration in May requested a FY2018 budget for BBG of $685.1 million, a 12.9% reduction from the FY2017 enacted budget.

At the end of 2016, BBG employed 2,940 people.