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BBG Seeks to Realign Its Structures & Finances

U.S. international broadcasting considers how to ‘innovate and integrate’

Caption for the second graphic has been corrected to clarify that proposed changes are not reflected in the image.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. international broadcasting landscape will look different following the resignation of a key leader, budget cuts and recommendations by its main governing board to consolidate administrative services and reduce language services.

The streamlining comes at a time when some observers worry that U.S. global media must meet increased competition from expanded operations of Radio China International, Voice of Russia and Iran’s Press TV, to mention a few.

Advocates seek a slow but steady overhaul of administrative operations to reduce the impact of cuts to the five U.S. government-funded civilian networks, which claim to reach 187 million people each week.

The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which sets policies and provides oversight of government funded operations that broadcast overseas, released a five-year plan in November to restructure its administrative operations. Those recommendations were the result of a year-long strategic review process.

“The board is ready to strengthen U.S. international broadcasting by freeing up resources locked up in inefficient and duplicative administrative structures,” the board said in a January press release.

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The BBG aims to “consolidate, integrate and streamline” three privately incorporated but taxpayer-funded “grantee” networks it oversees: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN). Two other networks, the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio TV Martí to Cuba, are federal agencies. VOA is the largest BBG network and the only one with a global rather than regional target audience

There’s also been discussion by BBG to de-federalize VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting/Radio TV Martí. However, International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo recently said this possibility “is no longer on the table.”

The BBG also oversees the International Broadcasting Bureau, which provides program transmission services and engineering support for all BBG broadcast organizations.

Spending cuts

The three private entities — RFE/RL, RFA and MBN — have combined budgets of $240 million and approximately 2,000 full-time employees and contractors. The proposed consolidation calls for them to share a unified administrative and legal framework that could yield estimated savings of $30 million to $40 million over five years, according to Deloitte. The consultant examined the plausibility of the plan on behalf of BBG. Deloitte recommended the board approve the merger of the grantees.

In its proposed FY2013 budget sent to Capitol Hill in March, BBG asked for $720 million, a 4.2 percent decrease in current spending levels. The request includes program, transmission and staffing reductions at the VOA, Radio TV Martí, RFE/RL, RFA and MBN.

A total of three broadcast language services are proposed for elimination at RFE/RL, including Circassian, Avar and Chechen. The VOA would discontinue broadcasting in Greek and will service Cantonese speakers with online content. The request calls for another $21 million in cuts in administrative and technical support costs across the agency and grantee organizations.

The BBG proposes eliminating 244 positions. Some already are vacant and will not be filled in the interim, according to a BBG spokesperson, and buy-outs, early outs and other means could reduce impact on employees, it feels (see sidebar).

The budget request also contains $9 million in increases for “elevated” social media and building out the agency’s digital infrastructure, according to the BBG. It also asks for $11.6 million in Internet anti-censorship funding.

Meanwhile, the BBG lost its board chairman in January when Walter Isaacson resigned. Board member Michael Lynton was named interim presiding governor. Brian Coniff, president of MBN, had been named earlier to lead the consolidation efforts of the three non-federal networks.

The BBG also recently proposed naming a chief executive officer, who would report to the board and oversee the day-to-day operations of the five networks.

The board already merged the administrative staffs of IBB and BBG last year. Senior administrative and management functions — including strategy, development, distribution, marketing, legal, communications, social media innovation, financial management, and research and evaluation — were consolidated into a network management operation, according to a BBG announcement.

‘It is not easy’

Some see the BBG’s consolidation plan as a starting point to eliminate overlap in the administrative and management cones of the three grantee networks. “Active measures are underway to achieve operational efficiencies, increase impact and enhance cooperation and integration across the U.S. international broadcasting networks,” a BBG spokesman said.

“The feeling is that they can do the same work with fewer people,” said one analyst. “However, marketing and research within each of those groups varies a great deal and face different geographic challenges. Whether the new streamlined administration can work as effectively is not clear.”

This chart illustrates the current structure, including the recent merger of BBG and IBB staff. Further organizational changes are being considered, such as consolidating the three grantees under one grant; but they have not yet been implemented.

The streamlining of executive management and administrative infrastructure, which Deloitte says could begin this year, will require congressional and presidential action. The BBG is working on legislative material to formalize the strategic changes. Deloitte suggests in its report it was unclear how Congress would react to the changes.

“We are in the midst of consultation with members of Congress on the changes,” the BBG spokesperson said.

One analyst predicted support from the White House on the reconfiguration plans. Vice President Joe Biden is viewed as a longtime supporter of U.S. international broadcasting efforts.

“My assumption is that [the vice president] handles questions of broadcasting, with input from others of course, including Secretary of State Clinton,” the analyst said. “Biden’s had his hands in the broadcasting bureaucracy for a long time, understands its utility and how it works to a much greater level than most; so I am guessing he takes leadership on these questions at the White House.”

James K. Glassman, former chairman of the BBG and founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, said the BBG will likely not get too many chances to attempt a restructuring.

“No matter the timing, it is important to build support on the Hill and in the executive branch before embarking on a major consolidation.The BBG has, for many years, been considering a way to rationalize its structure. It is not easy. I absolutely believe that reorganization is in order, but it needs to address some thorny issues, such as the possibility of de-federalization of VOA,” Glassman said.

Several observers suggested the “snail-like pace” of an election year could slow progress and therefore delay any substantial changes this year.

“The challenge for the BBG,” according to former VOA Deputy Director Alan Heil, “will be to get attention focused on the vital role ofU.S. international broadcasting in enhancing national security by conveying accurate, credible cutting edge news and by engaging a universe of audiences via new media.

“Time is of the essence,” he added, “considering the huge growth of other international services in China, Russia, Iran and Al Jazeera in Qatar.”

Efforts to reach several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

‘Programming is crucial’

The move to integrate administrative duties into a single organization for the privately incorporated grantee networks, while maintaining the familiar brands during times of budget restraints, is hailed by some observers as positive news.

Daya Thussa, a professor of International Communication at the University of Westminster in London, said the idea of streamlining the privately incorporated networks would make them more efficient and therefore perhaps more effective.

BBG Workforce Unhappy With Cuts

The BBG has acknowledged workforce issues at all five news organizations it oversees. Proposed cuts for FY2013 that could eliminate 244 positions will likely not ease the discord, said some observers. They fear tensions and divisiveness between employees, contractors and management will be heightened as a result.

The American Federation of Governmental Employees Local 1812, which represents rank-and-file BBG employees, is concerned the agency is trying to privatize operations for those who perform the broadcast duties.

“When a federal employee leaves [BBG] has more often than not replaced them with a so-called contractor. We believe that the agency has acted illegally in bringing in these contractors,” said Tim Shamble, president of AFGE Local 1812.

The cuts would affect approximately 200 BBG employees represented by AFGE Local 1812, Shamble said.

“We are appalled. The OMB budget reduction was reportedly only 4.2 percent of the BBG’s total budget but it appears that the BBG targeted primarily the VOA and the OCB for reductions. The federal broadcasters, those that produce the product of the agency, are the ones targeted to lose their jobs,” said Shamble.

In response, BBG Spokeswoman Letitia King said, “We regularly review our use of contractors and employees, and we are confident that in this area the BBG is acting squarely within federal laws and regulations.For many years, contractors have played a vital role in enabling us to carry out our mission. Just like other government agencies, the BBG has broad authority to engage contractors to perform a variety of services as long as the assignments performed are not inherently governmental functions.”

A look over the last five years shows that the number of BBG employees has been relatively stable; where VOA has increased by about 50 staff, IBB has declined by more than 200 staff, reflecting closures of overseas facilities and administrative reductions, according to King. She added: “We respect the contributions of full-time employees and contractors alike in helping the BBG achieve its mission to provide reliable news and information to audiences oversees. We work in partnership with union and non-union members on issues of mutual concern.”

Approximately 35 to 40 percent of the federal workforce at BBG are independent contractors, said Richard Lobo, director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which is a division of the BBG.

—Randy J. Stine

“However, it is important to emphasize that the impact and popularity of the three networks varies considerably, with Radio Free Asia, in my view, the least effective of the three,” Thussa said. “Programming is crucial for the success of any broadcaster if its potential audience is in foreign lands, where questions of cultural and political sensitivity can be very important.”

The changes are not limited only to administration, according to the BBG. VOA Director David Ensor has spoken of developing a new global news network out of its 55 remaining language services that would incorporate the newsgathering capabilities and produced content of all five services — and even cross-promote programming — further blurring the lines between them, observers said.

In fact, RFE/RL and VOA set up a “news share site” last August, enabling enhanced cooperation on news stories in real time, according to a BBG spokesman.

However, according to the Deloitte analysis, “An unequivocal requirement for a merged organization is that the brands, mission and language services remain the same. Language services would continue to set their own editorial agendas based on their market requirements.”

“In a streamlined organization, each BBG-funded broadcast network will fully leverage shared Washington-based and overseas resources. The FY2013 budget eliminates many redundancies in BBG broadcasts. BBG’s new strategic vision consolidates broadcasts in areas where multiple networks serve the same market, so that limited resources can achieve maximum impact,” according to the BBG budget request.

New media in this age of social networking will remain an area of growth for the BBG, observers said, despite concerns from some about global connectivity rates.

“The Obama administration has been more successful in investing in social media, though how effective these are in parts of the globe where broadband connectivity is low remains to be seen,” Thussa said.

Shortwave drawdown

Still, radio has the largest reach among media used by the BBG. U.S. government-funded radio signals (shortwave, FM and AM) reach an estimated 106 million people per week, according to estimates from BBG, while its television services reach an estimated 97 million viewers. (Users who listen to radio and view TV to the same or more than one U.S.-funded network count only once.)

Despite those statistics, radio has had a number of cuts to shortwave operations in recent years while seeing growth in medium-wave and FM signals in foreign countries. That trend continues in the FY2013 budget request as transmission reallocations include shortwave and medium-wave reductions for VOA English.

Taking all transmission and language service reductions into account, the budget request proposes to discontinue the use of shortwave and medium-wave except for those targeting Cuba, China, North Korea, Burma, Iran, Tibet, Uyghur, FATA (Afghan-Pakistan border region), Pakistan, Afghanistan, Belarusian, Russian to the Caucasus, Russian, Turkmen, Khmer, and Africa, according to the BBG budget request.

Shortwave and medium wave radio broadcast reductions are proposed for 18 countries, 10 of which are places where BBG has more than one broadcaster reaching the marketplace and have other delivery avenues available. Those include FM affiliates, satellite radio, TV, mobile and online channels in place or planned, according to a BBG spokesman.

“While Facebook, Twitter, texting and smartphone delivery have gathered headlines,” one observer said, “I expect there to be some growth in local FM service broadcasting downlinked material from Washington, D.C. I think the further drawdown of shortwave was inevitable.”

Shawn Powers, associate director of the Center for International Media Education at Georgia State University, believes the consolidation will allow the innovation and success of any one of the networks to more easily drive success or innovation in the others, through “modeling” or enhanced competition for resources within the new structure. Part of the BBG’s overall consolidation plan is to establish a global news network at its headquarters in Washington that will combine the best, in-depth reporting of all five networks under the BBG’s aegis.

“Murdoch’s News Corp perfected the strategy of consolidation over the past 20 years and has shown how, from a business and operational perspective, it makes sense,” Powers said. “Execution of this plan will require good, transparent leadership.”

Domestic concerns

Meanwhile, BBG also is proposing and Congress is considering a change in a decades-old law prohibiting domestic dissemination of VOA and Radio TV Martí broadcasts. A clause in the Smith-Mundt Act prohibits that now. Heil believes the legislation is outdated.

“It is long overdue. If a Somalian community in Minneapolis wants to have access to the VOA Somali service it should be able to use it,” Heil said.

Most VOA material is already available online, Heil said.

Smith-Mundt was passed in 1948 shortly after World War II as a means to prevent any sitting administration from using U.S. government media to influence the American public and promote a specific political agenda, Heil added.

Powers said the fact that domestic dissemination is likely coming soon is an indication of how quickly the institutional culture of American overseas broadcasting is shifting.

“The organization seems to be moving forward with the assumption that restrictions on domestic dissemination will be removed in the near term, perhaps within the next 24 months if not sooner. Historically, this issue has been tremendously sensitive, and so the gusto with which this is moving forward, assuming that tapping into American audiences, as well as foreign audiences, is okay, is surprising,” Powers said.

Observers say leadership for the five broadcast entities during the BBG’s restructuring will be critical; losing a key leader like Isaacson in a time of transition is not ideal. But some speculated that the change will have limited impact and not slow implementation of the new strategic plan.

Isaacson, former CEO and chairman of CNN, said he was taking on another big writing project and was unable to give the BBG the time it needs and deserves.

“The board presumably will move ahead on implementing the parts of the strategic plan that the administration and Congress finally approve,” Heil said, “regardless of how quickly a new chairperson is designated.”

However, Alex Belida, a former correspondent and news executive who worked in U.S. international broadcasting for 40 years, wrote recently on the blog “The departure of Walter Isaacson represents a serious journalistic loss at a time when the [BBG] is considering a reorganization. To the best of my memory, he was the only board member who spoke consistently about the importance of good journalism.”

The new chairman of the BBG “must be committed to true consolidation,” writes Kim Andrew Elliott, a long time U.S. international broadcasting analyst, blogger and employee of the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, a subsidiary of the BBG. “Only when [U.S. international broadcasting] ceases to be a dysfunctional confederacy of feudal entities can it begin to rise to its goal of becoming the world’s leading international news agency.”