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U.S. International Broadcasting Aims for Sweeping Changes

BBG sets out goals of audience growth and structural reorganization

U.S. international broadcasting may soon look very different, at least to anyone familiar with its structure and distribution methods.

Either planned, requested or being considered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors are some big changes indeed that are spelled out in a new report from BBG.

Those changes include a further “sharp drawdown” of U.S. shortwave capacity outside of a half-dozen key target countries; proposed repeal of the 1948 ban on “domestic dissemination” of content to listeners and viewers in the United States; a merger of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting Networks into one corporate structure; de-federalizing some of the agency’s work; ending language services in countries that have more developed, independent media; and moving substantial news and production assets from Washington, nearer target nations. Smaller changes include steps like putting up FM antennas at U.S. embassies to further BBG’s reach.

A merger of the staff of the BBG and the International Broadcasting Bureau is already in progress.

The BBG says it “will not accept that our audiences and our impact will shrink.” It stated new goals: to become “the world’s leading international news agency by 2016, focused on the agency’s mission and impact,” and to grow weekly audience by 50 million people, to 216 million.

To accomplish that, BBG laid out the plan to restructure itself and U.S. international broadcasting. It released a “framework” of a strategy to enhance the impact of its services (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, Radio Free Asia, and Radio and TV Martí). Chairman Walter Isaacson said this report “frames the future direction of U.S. international broadcasting.” It outlines steps to overcome its structural limitations, ongoing censorship and the “profound, ongoing changes in audience media consumption habits.”

The board wants to integrate elements of U.S. international broadcasting into a single organization while preserving those familiar brands. The BBG, it said, is a “complex amalgam of broadcast entities created by Congress at different points in time over the last 70 years in response to specific foreign policy challenges,” with a structure that is inefficient and complicates the job of managing resources and involving users. “We must break down a stove-piped bureaucracy of separate, semi-autonomous entities, and shape a robust, integrated, international media network with multiple brands targeted to markets where they still strongly resonate.”

On the topic of how content is distributed, BBG promises “wholesale changes.”

“We are currently configured largely as we were in the 1980s, with substantial resources devoted to shortwave broadcasting. Global media use now strongly favors TV, the Internet and FM radio as well as social media. Shortwave is vital in a half-dozen countries. But elsewhere we will sharply draw down our shortwave capacity to reallocate the resources to the new platforms our audiences are using.” The role of shortwave has been a contentious one, with some politicians and veterans of the organization arguing that shortwave should not be scaled back further than it has been.

The board also will seek to repeal the ban on domestic dissemination in the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act. “Adopted in the age of cross-border communication via radio, this act did not envision either the Internet or satellite broadcasting, which do not honor national boundaries,” the report states. “With all of the BBG’s 59 languages available via the Web, the agency cannot comply with this outdated statute.” Also, the law obstructs BBG from reaching significant expatriate communities in the United States. The Obama administration supports legislation to repeal the Smith-Mundt ban as it applies to the BBG.

Also among its plans: to create a global news network out of its 59 different language services; develop automated translation to help users; expand delivery technologies such as satellite video for China, Central Asia and Southeast Asia; explore new ways to counter Internet blocking and other forms of censorship; launch a prototype TV channel in Latin America that features “crowd-sourced” content for young people; and place FM antennas at U.S. embassies in Africa as a low-cost additional radio outlet.

Some changes will require congressional approval; a BBG spokeswoman said the organization would be working with Congress and the administration to implement the plan. Some steps are underway including integrating the IBB and BBG staffs and building a shared website content management system.

And the name Broadcasting Board of Governors itself will be eliminated. “The new identity will be corporate in nature. Our current brands will remain the public faces for our audiences, who have come to know and trust them.” However, it emphasized, none of the proposed restructuring or new identity changes its mission, which is now stated as “To inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

Read the BBG Plan (PDF)