WASHINGTON — The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ recent budget request for funding U.S. international media outreach, while smaller than last year’s outlay, nevertheless has renewed scrutiny of its operations by political leaders, some of whom find the patchwork of network services outdated and inflexible.
A new piece of legislation introduced in the House would reform U.S. international broadcasting efforts (see sidebar). In addition, recent activities by Russia in and around Ukraine have been cited by some critics as important proof that changes in U.S. international broadcasting in recent years have been premature or misguided.
Taxpayer dollars support the government’s broadcast and streaming efforts to back up democracy abroad. The BBG is the federal entity that sets funding and gives direction to its various broadcast organizations, which include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio/TV Martí), the Middle East Broadcast Networks and Radio Free Asia.
Observers say the U.S. international broadcasting networks, like many media organizations, face challenges from increased global competition. In addition, the adoption of evolving digital strategies, including social media, has left the networks scrambling for a firm footing in digital platforms.
The BBG continues to reorganize and restructure its broadcast networks although it has not yet hired a chief executive officer, as it had hoped. Its FY2015 budget request of $721.26 million — compared to a budget of $733 million in 2014 — includes money to “migrate to media that its listeners … are increasingly using,” according to a BBG announcement.
The full budget request, released in April, must be approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Obama. The federal budget year begins in October.
The agency proposes to expand its FM reach across parts of Africa and eliminate the use of legacy medium-wave radio transmissions in Vietnam, Belarus, Laos and elsewhere, according to the BBG. In recent years, the BBG has added FM transmitters in Mali, Chad, Mauritania, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
“This is an effort to rationalize distribution through reductions of some cross-border (shortwave and medium-wave) broadcasts where they have the least impact,” said a BBG spokeswoman, “either because audiences are small or because people prefer to access programs on other more popular media, including FM radio, television and the Internet.”
The 2015 budget proposal includes staffing reductions across all networks. BBG said the agency will focus on administrative and non-content producing staff to reduce employee numbers. To help minimize cuts, the BBG allowed eligible employees to apply for a buyout or early retirement. Employees had until May 30 to apply for the program.
Some language services will also be eliminated including VOA Albanian, Bosnian and Serbian, according to the budget request. Though some shortwave and medium-wave broadcasts are targeted for downsizing, shortwave will continue to play a role in certain countries such as Nigeria, Burma, Afghanistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and other markets in which research shows high shortwave usage rates, the organization said.
The BBG calls itself “platform-agnostic,” willing to use any media on which audiences prefer to receive information. The board recently established a special committee on the future of shortwave radio broadcasting, which has been conducting a review of the agency’s use of shortwave radio as a distribution platform, costs and the likely reliance on shortwave by next-generation audiences, according to BBG. The committee expects to release its findings and recommendations later this summer.
Gary Thomas, a former VOA senior correspondent and BBG critic, said the organization’s latest budget request “pays scant attention to journalism” and “for all intents and purposes is a death notice” for substantive news coverage at VOA. Thomas, writing on the website BBG Watch, also described the budget as “disastrous.” The website often is highly critical of BBG actions. Its organizers say it is edited and published by volunteers including current and former employees of U.S. international broadcasting.
A BBG spokeswoman responded that as the agency “wrestles with difficult budget trade-offs, excellence in journalism remains BBG’s most important objective.”
Despite naysayers and those critical of the BBG’s core mission, supporters say, listenership continues to swell. The five broadcast networks reached more than 206 million people per week in 2013, according to BBG estimates, up approximately 31 million from the previous year. The BBG’s largest audiences are in Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico and Iran.
For the first time, TV audiences surpassed radio in listenership, according to the organization. In addition, U.S. International Media reached 22 million online through a variety of streaming services.
However, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting disputes the BBG listener reports, contending that BBG has lost audiences in the Middle East and other critical regions, including Russia. CUSIB describes itself as a nonpartisan, non-governmental group working to strengthen the flow of uncensored news from the United States.
“We consider the [BBG] press release to be highly deceptive. Most of the reported gains appear to be in Latin America,” said Ann Noonan, co-founder and executive director of CUSIB.
The BBG spokeswoman disagreed: “We provide an excess of detail including documentation, an audience overview factsheet, research methodology and the entire performance and accountability report.”
The BBG is coming off a year in which its presiding governor, Michael Lynton, stepped down and the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, Dick Lobo, retired. In addition, the BBG received a failing grade from the Office of Inspector General for the United States Department of State in a report on U.S. international broadcasting and the Smith-Mundt Act. The act, which banned domestic dissemination of USIB material within the United States, was subsequently repealed last year.
In early 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, described the BBG as “practically defunct in terms of its capability to tell a message around the world.” (The secretary of state serves as an “ex officio” member of the board.) Others have described the BBG as “dysfunctional” and “plagued by infighting.”
The BBG’s impact on worldwide audiences has been limited by “managerial dysfunction,” said Andrew Clark, an associate professor in the department of communication at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“International broadcasting is not defunct. It has a crucial role to play around the world. I believe the BBG needs some restructuring,” Clark said. “Right now it is a convoluted setup.”
Also, the board, which in addition to the secretary of state is supposed to have eight presidentially appointed members, has been undercut for some time by vacancies. Five of the eight seats are occupied, following the resignation of member Susan McCue in May. McCue, appointed in 2010, left to join Millennium Challenge Corp.
However, four new governors, including a new chair, joined the agency in 2013. “The new board quickly focused on organizational issues as a primary matter of strategic importance and adopted a more streamlined structure to handle board business,” said the BBG spokeswoman.
As of late May, BBG was awaiting Senate approval of two presidential board nominees: public relations executive Michael Kempner and Karen Kornbluh, executive vice president of Nielsen Holdings N.V.
The board in January released details of a realignment within the International Broadcasting Bureau structure. The IBB, responsible for the agency’s strategic planning and oversight, now has three senior executives managing day-to-day operations, which “paves the way for a future CEO,” according to the BBG.
“We are extremely committed to bringing on board a CEO, and this interim management structure will prepare the organization for that reform,” said Jeff Shell, who was confirmed as BBG chair last August.
The establishment of a chief executive officer is a “key objective of the BBG to improve the management and efficiency of BBG operations and mitigate the challenges of a part-time board,” according to the panel.
Reformers believe a “single executive” in charge of the five media properties is a must if any strategic plans are to ever be realized. BBG made the request for the CEO position under a plan in its FY2014 request and has hired a search firm to begin the hiring process. It asked for congressional approval to proceed, which it has yet to receive.
SOCIAL AND BEYOND
The BBG Strategic Plan 2012–2016 drafted the board’s view of innovation and integration. This blueprint, updated in 2013 in a revision called the 2014–2018 draft, sought to expand social media innovation and employ leading-edge communication techniques and technologies.
The plan stresses finding ways for expanding social media while coexisting with traditional media like shortwave and FM broadcasts, according to those familiar with its strategic intention.
The plan calls for BBG to integrate its operations in order to have the resources and management structures to innovate. Proposed shifts included scaling back some language services, streamlining news operations and reducing overlap.
Most international media observers contacted by RW think the government agency has made strides in those areas.
Robert McMahon is editor of CFR.org, an online publication published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank. He calls the BBG and its broadcasters “early adapters” of digital platforms.
The BBG “has extensive Web operations in scores of languages and channels that span far wider than conventional radio waves, to include texting, social media posting and micro-blogging,” McMahon said. “Its challenge will be enforcing editorial quality control across all of these digital platforms. Social media, in particular, poses challenges in exercising prudent news judgment in the heat of breaking developments.”
Meanwhile, employee morale remains an issue at the agency, but things appear to be improving, according to international broadcast experts. A BBG closed door, employee-only meeting last November reportedly addressed employee concerns. The BBG “All Hands Meeting,” as it was dubbed, was designed to answer employee questions and engage in dialogue with the entire staff, said an observer.
According to the BBG’s 2013 annual report to President Obama and Congress released earlier this year, the entity employs 2,748 employees across the five networks.
The American Federation of Governmental Employees Local 1812 represents approximately 850 bargaining unit members within BBG, including broadcasters and journalists at VOA, Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the VOA transmitting station in Greenville, N.C. AFGE has been critical of management within the International Broadcasting Bureau.
“I would expect a slight uptick in employee morale once the data from the latest” survey is in from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, said Tim Shamble, president of AFGE Local 1812.
OPM conducts the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Recent surveys revealed low morale and criticisms of BBG management, according to the reports.
The union believes the broadcast services are severely understaffed. “The problem employees have is not really with the BBG members. Those people only meet about once a month and although they are responsible for running the operation, they can’t do it on their part-time schedule,” Shamble said. “The ones really running the show are the upper managers of the BBG and the IBB staff. Those are the ones employees have problems with.”
Shamble was complimentary of the three-person interim management team appointed by BBG in January to oversee the International Broadcasting Bureau. André Mendes, Robert Bole and Suzie Carroll are “accessible and willing to listen to employee concerns,” he said.
The agency has acknowledged work force issues and blamed that partly on tension between employees and contractors.
According to one BBG management insider, “The BBG’s governing board is committed to improving working conditions on behalf of all the staff at BBG.” The board points to the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey as one barometer of better employee morale and said the BBG has made improvements with increased employee engagement scores.
The BBG spokeswoman said since the appointment of the interim team “through all-hands meetings, smaller information sessions, language service visits, department-wide meetings and meetings with union representatives, a much higher level of transparency has been achieved on critical aspects such as FY14 and FY15 budget details, reorganization plans and new initiatives.”
Even among many of its critics, there is a belief that U.S. international media outreach needs a strong clear voice, that it remains vital to the interests of the United States, and that its work is a catalyst for democracy and an integral part of national security, reaching millions of people who are deprived of free media. Victor Ashe, a board member until last year, has called for urgent reforms of U.S. international broadcasting media. That includes abolishing the “part-time” board and replacing it with a single agency head, confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“The current board is too big to serve as a general overseer and is distracted by their day jobs. By creating one position accountable to the administration and Congress, the success or failure of America’s international broadcasting would become a government priority instead of a mere afterthought,” Ashe, a Republican appointee to the BBG, wrote in a piece for Ambassadors Perspective, an online forum for commentary by former U.S. ambassadors. Ashe served as U.S. ambassador to Poland from 2004 through 2009.
Former BBG Chairman James Glassman, a Republican appointee, also believes the board needs to rethink its function.
“The BBG is not dysfunctional, but it could be a lot more effective. The BBG has a confused and sometime contradictory mission and must gain clarity,” Glassman said, adding the BBG “must have the same policy objectives as the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense.”
The United States is not keeping up with China, Russia and Iran, in terms of its overseas broadcasting, Glassman said.
Several observers said U.S. international broadcast operations have been fading since the end of the Cold War. Yet recent broadcast expansion by China and Russia add a sense of urgency to any reorganization of the U.S. broadcasting services.
David Hyatt, a former VOA deputy bureau chief and author of the American Diplomacy blog, claimed China is reportedly spending $8 billion to upgrade its international broadcasting reach. In 2013, China opened what the country claims is a state-of-the-art broadcasting bureau in Washington just miles from the White House.
International broadcast expert Gregory Newton, associate professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University, said moving the broadcast services under the direction of the U.S. State Department would perhaps give the broadcasters a “clearer voice” but could give audiences abroad an even lower assumption of the truthfulness and journalistic standards of the many services.
Meanwhile, the transition to digital and social media, Newtown said, should continue but not necessarily at the expense of traditional services like shortwave. “There are still regions where traditional media like radio plays a significant cultural role, in particular Afghanistan and several African countries. In other places technology has leapfrogged traditional platforms,” Newton said.
The Voice of America — long considered the flagship of U.S. international broadcasting — and the BBG’s other media properties face challenges, said Susan Haas, lecturer with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The challenges the VOA faces now do not stem from its structure at the levels of governance and oversight; they are a function of a rapidly evolving global media environment. The VOA needs more freedom, more flexibility, not more political oversight,” Haas said.
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Overhaul of U.S. International Broadcasting Proposed
WASHINGTON — A newly drafted bill, introduced and passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee by unanimous bipartisan vote in late April, would dramatically reform U.S. international media outreach.
The move comes at a time of significant criticism of the management and structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees civilian international news and information programs for people in more than 100 countries and broadcasts in 61 languages. The BBG says it will become more nimble and streamlined under its FY2015 request, but its critics say the agency isn’t moving quickly enough.
Despite the BBG’s pledge to adapt, Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., introduced the bill proposing to reform the board. The objective of H.R. 4490, the “United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014,” is to improve efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility of U.S. international broadcasting. It calls for creating a United States International Communications Agency.
The next step is consideration of the measure by the House of Representatives, according to a committee spokeswoman. It’s not clear when the bill might be brought up for debate and a vote, she said.
Observers said Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee collaborated on the bill with colleagues in the Senate and that a version of the authorization bill could be introduced in the upper chamber later this year.
The House legislation, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, would also create the so-called Freedom News Network, which would consolidate RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks into a single organization. The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which manages Radio Martí and Television Martí, would continue to exist within the Voice of America.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee bill describes the BBG as having “limited success” while employing an overabundance of senior civil service positions. It recommends restructuring BBG to ensure that more taxpayer dollars are dedicated to broadcasting and information related elements of the agency’s mission.
Current board members of the BBG would automatically hold a seat on the new board of the U.S. International Communications Agency. New members would be appointed by the president.
The legislation also would clarify the mission of VOA to “provide clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States and support this country’s public diplomacy efforts,” making VOA an explicit arm of U.S. diplomacy, several experts said.
Some international broadcasting experts said they worry that any changes to VOA’s mission would undermine the broadcaster’s journalistic standards of accurate and objective news.
Susan Haas, lecturer with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said there will always be “tension” between the missions of international broadcasters and the structural distance from government necessary for doing journalism ethically and responsibly in a democracy.
“Journalism itself, done well, models, promotes and supports the idea of democratic life,” she said.
The BBG said it does not comment on pending legislation.
— By Randy J. Stine