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CUSIB Slams BBG Shortwave Chair

Armstrong defends recommendation process

This text has been updated to clarify that Noonan’s criticism of Armstrong’s use of the term “learning experience” did not make specific reference to the Internet censorship discussion but to what she termed his “disastrous and devastating mistakes.” See the link to her statement in the story for the full text.

“Matt Armstrong must step aside.” So say Ann Noonan and Ted Lipien, two critics of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. They head the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting, which has pushed for BBG management reform.

They want Armstrong, right, a member of the board, to resign as its chair of a Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting, even as that group finalizes a series of recommendations about U.S. international broadcasting’s use of shortwave.

Armstrong indicated to Radio World he does not intend to resign that role, and said the committee’s work is largely done. In coming weeks it will publish its recommendations, to be presented at the next BBG board meeting in August. He expressed surprise at the CUSIB statement, saying he is open and eager for conversation with Noonan, Lipien and other interested parties.

CUSIB describes itself as a nonpartisan group that supports free flow of uncensored news from the United States to countries without free media, through Voice of America and other BBG programs. It says Armstrong has “proven to be inexperienced and dangerously reckless” in matters dealing with changes to broadcasts by VOA, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It also criticized him after he was quoted saying “you can’t censor the Internet.” Noonan said he had “admitted recent errors,” writing them off as “learning experience.” She also criticized Armstrong for being dismissive of a request for a public discussion.

Lipien took issue with cutbacks in shortwave transmissions and for the manner in which they were announced, including planned cessation of broadcasting of Belarusian language programs of RFE/RL on medium-wave (AM) frequency 612 kHz as of Aug. 17. If anything, Lipien said, BBG should be launching new AM broadcasts in Russian to European Russia, eastern Ukraine and Crimea. And he criticized BBG for making such changes even as its International Broadcasting Bureau issued a solicitation to hire on-site fitness trainers.

Read the text of Noonan and Lipien’s statements.

Armstrong, who joined BBG last August, defended the work of the committee in a phone call with Radio World. He said the group sought a “fresh approach” to the question of shortwave as a means of distribution, and brought “rigorous analysis” to the job. He said the committee sought public comment, talked to representatives of the broadcast services and surveyed colleagues in the State Department, actively seeking productive criticism of BBG’s own stance on shortwave.

At a time when BBG is going through a “major revamp,” he said the committee wanted to know how the organization can engage targeted audiences most cost-effectively. “We now need to be prioritizing audiences; we can no longer afford to simply blanket a country,” he said. In some markets, he said, shortwave is a “valuable medium,” but in others it is not relied upon by the target audiences, nor is it used as a fallback in times of crisis in some nations, as some BBG critics believe.

He said neither he nor the committee is free to shut down broadcast services on their own, though he defended the idea of closures where appropriate. “This is a committee to look at the value and use of shortwave as a medium. Twitter is a medium; terrestrial TV is a medium. It’s just another platform. We have to be where the audiences are; and in an increasing number of cases the audiences aren’t on shortwave — or the audiences we need to reach aren’t reliant on SW.”

Regarding the way in which shutdowns were announced, Armstrong said he “vehemently” disagreed that he was “glib and smug,” saying the organization did make mistakes and assumptions but defending a comment that this process be used as a learning experience. Armstrong said he used the word “absurd” only in response to Noonan’s idea of a public panel involving all board governors past and present, and that he had been speaking only for himself. “I try to be open and transparent about failures and challenges.”

He said the intention of his Internet remark at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum was that “You can’t completely censor the Internet.”

“How Effective Is the BBG in 2014?” (June 2014)