The new BBG board holds its September meeting. New Chairman Walter Isaacson is at center. Photo courtesy Broadcasting Board of Governors
WASHINGTON — The story of U.S. international broadcasting is getting something of a fresh start, or at least opening a new chapter.
Eight new board members sit on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which sets funding and gives direction to those efforts. The board will face a diverse set of challenges, observers say, thanks to geopolitical upheaval as well as the fast-changing influence of social media.
The BBG is the federal entity with oversight responsibilities for broadcasting activities of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio/TV Martí and the Middle East Broadcast Networks, which includes Radio Sawa and Alhurrah TV (see sidebar).
Critics say the BBG wastes taxpayer money. For instance, they say, most Radio and TV Martí broadcasts to Cuba simply are jammed. Others say its programs are nothing more than a propaganda arm of the U.S. government.
Supporters believe U.S. international broadcasting is critical to maintaining independent reporting of worldwide events to foreign countries. And a primary reason for the existence of BBG is to put U.S. policies in front of people in countries that do not have independent media, according to the board.
“The BBG services provide fair and balanced news; effectively explain the United States, its policies and its culture; and provide a direct avenue for international audiences to communicate with America,” it states in its annual report.
Its funding has grown since 2001 from $425 million to nearly $750 million for fiscal 2010. The BBG asked for more than $760 million for FY2011. The president’s request for FY2012 will go to Congress in February.
(The 2011 budget had not yet been acted upon by Congress as of early October. After the mid-term elections in November, lawmakers were expected to return to Washington and pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running. The resolution would be effective Oct. 1 and restrict BBG’s funding to previous levels, according to a BBG spokeswoman.)
Some of the additional money in recent years has been focused on efforts to reach the Muslim world following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, observers said.
For this article Radio World talked to several insiders who have worked in U.S. international broadcasting. Observers agree that the new board was functioning well after its first two meetings.
Over the last half-dozen years, insiders say, tumult and partisan politics have snarled the work of the board, which consists of four Republicans and four Democrats plus a reserve seat for the sitting U.S. secretary of state.
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report in June summarized public diplomacy spending for fiscal 2008 using figures from the Government Accountability Office. Broadcasting in 2008 received 43% of the public diplomacy budget; by fiscal 2010 the figure had fallen to 40%, though funding for most individual ‘accounts’ had increased. ‘Public diplomacy’ refers to efforts to engage the population of a country directly, rather than through official interactions with a host government. Source: “U.S. International Broadcasting:—Is Anybody Listening?—Keeping The U.S. Connected,” a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June, 2010
Board seats often have been left unfilled, according to a June report on U.S. international broadcast stations by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Since 1995, the BBG has only been fully seated for six of 15 years. Chronic confirmation delays, according to the June report, have had a profound impact on the country’s broadcasting efforts.
The board is fully seated now following Senate confirmation this summer of new members nominated by President Barack Obama nearly a year ago. The board is expected to reflect the priorities of the administration, observers said. Walter Isaacson, the new chairman, is former CEO and chairman of CNN. Isaacson assumed his position this year along with Dana Perino, Michael Lynton, Victor Ashe, Susan McCue, Michael Meehan, Dennis Mulhaupt and S. Enders Wimbush.
Isaacson, who replaced James Glassman, is viewed in the world of international broadcasting as a “bold reformer” unafraid to make tough decisions as BBG prioritizes its services, according to several observers.
A new direction
In remarks at a late September reception marking the 60th anniversary of RFE’s first broadcast, Isaacson announced what he called a new direction for U.S. international broadcasting.
Since 2001 the BBG has been the beneficiary of increases in funding, with its annual budget rising from roughly $425 million to more than $750 million, according to a Senate committee summary. It notes that this has come in large part at the direction of Congress, the result of launching new channels. During this time, BBG believes global audiences have climbed approximately 70%, to around 170 million weekly. The recent exception to these increases is the Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s Radio/TV Martí, as congressional critics and the General Accountability Office have questioned its effectiveness. “We must seize the latest media tools and technology to stay one step ahead of those who seek to repress free information around the world. “Our traditional role of delivering the news from the top down needs to be complimented by a new approach that catalyzes social networks. By creating peer-to-peer global communities, we help guarantee the universal human right of access to a free flow of information.”
Isaacson said U.S. international broadcasters must respond to modern threats to freedom in new and inventive ways. He talked of “a great virtual global news service” that would provide reliable reporting for every medium, including social media.
Analysts said even more important was Isaacson telling those in attendance that America “will not be out-communicated by its enemies.” He noted increased investments by “autocratic leaders” in countries like China, Iran and Venezuela to expand their international media outreach.
Isaacson has talked about sharing resources among the U.S. services. Analysts have predicted he will consider consolidating several of BBG’s networks, as some critics have recommended, or even possibly bringing all operations under one combined news service.
The BBG has said it values the unique roles that each of its broadcast entities performs in support of the agency’s mission.
“However, the BBG also has a legislated mandate to seek efficiencies where possible, and so as part of its year-long comprehensive strategic review will be looking at ways in which this might be done without diminishing or diluting those roles,” according to the BBG spokeswoman.
Set in motion by the board at its first meeting in July is a review process that will include separate evaluations of the BBG’s Cuban broadcast policies and how the various news organizations use social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
“Idea labs” will explore new media. Isaacson told the RFE audience he’d invited Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, to participate in an idea lab that would ask, “If you were Facebook and you were trying to create a media the way the people 60 years ago created Radio Free Europe, what would it look like?”
The board’s strategic review will include an updated market-by-market analysis on how audiences prefer to get news and information.
Various experts on international broadcasting expect the new board will be active in coming months charting a new direction.
Martí: ‘Miniscule’ audience
Analysts said U.S. government broadcasts to Cuba are facing opposition in Congress right now.
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report issued in April on Radio and TV Marti by Democratic staffers at the request of Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts was critical of the service, saying it has gained only a tiny audience in Cuba and is considered by many as less than objective.
In fact, less than 2 percent of Cubans listen to Radio Martí, the April report concluded, in part due to Cuba’s government jamming of the broadcasts.
BBG History The Broadcasting Board of Governors sets the policies and provides oversight of U.S. broadcasting operations, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, consisting of Arabic Radio Sawa and Radio Farda, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, home to Radio and TV Martí.
The BBG, established in 1994, says its networks broadcast in 59 languages and reach a total estimated audience of 171 million people in 100 countries. The agency had nearly 3,800 employees in 2009.
U.S. international broadcasting had its beginnings during World War II, when VOA broadcast around the globe using shortwave radio. Its services have evolved to include FM radio, TV and social media on the Internet.
Funding for BBG’s broadcast services in 2010 was $745.5 million. The BBG has requested a budget of $768.8 million for FY2011.
The BBG has faced criticism over the years for lacking leadership and being slow to react to changes in worldwide politics. The agency has redirected monies to the Middle East and steadily cut back on services to “Cold War” countries since the end of that era. For example, it cut VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts in 2008.
BBG has the distinction of being selected as one of the worst-managed U.S. federal agencies, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. OPM’s 2008 employee survey resulted in BBG receiving the lowest rating ever for good management from its employees.
The director of the VOA at the time, Dan Austin, told the Washington Post that VOA employees were projecting anxiety about the agency’s operations changing to new media platforms. The VOA, Austin was quoted as saying, has been transformed “from what had been a shortwave radio broadcaster to a true international, multimedia organization. We’re out there on Facebook, YouTube, text messaging, certainly radio, but also on television. Half of our audience see us on television. This is a huge change, a seismic shift, if you will, and when you get that kind of change it creates a lot of issues for many people. I think the survey reflected some of that.”
The BBG also oversees the International Broadcasting Bureau, which provides program transmission services and engineering support for all BBG broadcast organizations. The U.S. Senate confirmed Dick Lobo as director of IBB in September, replacing Austin, who had been acting director.
— Randy J. Stine Several high-powered senators have been especially critical of Cuban efforts. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the committee, went so far as to ask the White House to eliminate funding for Radio and TV Martí broadcasts to Cuba. Sen. Kerry said the Office of Cuba Broadcasting should be incorporated into VOA.
“Trouble with adherence to traditional journalistic standards, miniscule audience size, Cuban government jamming and allegations of cronyism have dogged the program since its creation (in 1983),” Kerry wrote.
Funding for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting was cut from approximately $34.6 million in 2009 to around $30 million in 2010, according to OCB’s summary of funds.
The BBG earlier this year appointed Carlos Garcia-Perez as the new director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and Television Martí.
The new board, as part of efforts to prioritize research and strategic planning, also will review funding for VOA’s Persian News Network, according to the spokeswoman.
The VOA-PNN has been under attack by critics including Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who sent a letter to President Obama signed by 69 members of Congress requesting that the White House investigate reported mismanagement and bias at VOA-PNN. The lawmakers expressed concern over the apparent lack of oversight regarding the management, staffing, mission and content of VOA-PNN broadcasting.
Funding priorities of previous board governors have come under fire from others on Capitol Hill. In an interview with The Cable, an online column by Josh Rogin for ForeignPolicy.com, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn was quoted saying, “The BBG is the most worthless organization in the federal government. It’s full of people who know nothing about media or foreign policy. All they are doing is spending money.”
In a letter from Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that accompanied the June committee report about BBG-led stations, the Indiana Republican asked for a critical look at Middle East broadcasting “that is struggling for market share in a media market that only grows more crowded each day.”
Much of Congress’ dissatisfaction has been aimed at Alhurrah Television. Poor ratings have dogged the satellite news channel since it was launched in 2004. Meanwhile, viewers have become more skeptical of its content and coverage of the region, according to the June report.
Also gaining the attention of congressional critics was confirmation that the former executive director of the BBG, Jeffrey Trimble, had collaborated with the National Security Council over a statement released by VOA that was critical of Iran’s jamming of international satellites.
But U.S. international broadcast experts say the new board appears to be off to an upbeat and cohesive beginning, though its ultimate direction is unclear.
“I think it’s very hard to determine the priorities of the new board just yet,” said Alan Heil Jr., who was a deputy director of Voice of America in the late 1990s.
“They are looking at the recommendations of the old board in terms of budget. There could be shifts in funding. Very hard to get a handle yet on where the board might be going. They have not tipped their hand.”
Heil, who had a 36-year career at VOA, is encouraged that the board is opening its meetings to the media and public.
“This board seems intent with improving communication with staff and with key members of Congress. Willing to accept feedback, too.”
The BBG has said it will look for opportunities to hold open meetings to the extent it can responsibly do so without threatening the integrity of the board’s processes. Previously, board meetings had been closed to the media and public. A meeting scheduled for Oct. 13 in Prague was to be available via live and on-demand streaming at www.bbg.gov.
Shortwave In the last 25 years, according to the June Senate committee report, the U.S. has closed domestic shortwave stations in Dixon, Calif. (1988), Bethany, Ohio (1994) and Delano, Calif. (2007). The closure of the last U.S.-based government shortwave facility, in Greenville, N.C., is proposed.
BBG shortwave transmission stations currently operate in Tinang, Philippines; Saipan, Northern Marianas; Udorn, Thailand; Biblis, Germany; Iranawila, Sri Lanka; Lampertheim, Germany; Kuwait; Tinian, Northern Marianas; Sao Tome; and Botswana.
The BBG also leases shortwave transmission services from Germany, the United Kingdom, Palau, Tajikistan, Madagascar, Russia, Lithuania, Ascension Island, Mongolia, United Arab Emirates, the Vatican, Bonaire and South Africa.
The committee report noted that advances in video technologies and other factors have moved audiences from radio and particularly shortwave; but it said the BBG remains “heavily reliant” on shortwave in some regions.
It said Radio Free Asia is almost completely dependent on shortwave; further, this year RFE/RL launched Radio Mashaal (“Torch”), which uses AM and shortwave to reach Pashto-speaking tribes along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.
Further, “Africa is still a major region for shortwave due to vast distances and high cost of repeater towers. In 2009, the BBG estimated that, in fact, Africa is its largest single audience by region, based on the percentage of total unduplicated weekly audience among adults,” the committee wrote. “These numbers are particularly staggering given that Africa has no U.S. surrogate dedicated to it, and has virtually no BBG TV programming, along with very low Internet penetration. The power of VOA radio in Africa is therefore enormous.” Increased competition
Meanwhile, the BBG is battling increased competition in nearly every category in which it is active, according to the June Senate committee report.
Because of that, some observers feel more money should be spent on marketing and promotion of programming in a media-saturated world. However, according to BBG’s budget request for 2011, it actually will cut its advertising and program placement spending by more than $300,000. It will still spend over $5 million on marketing next year.
Heil believes VOA maintains a critical role as a full-service broadcaster that provides accurate, objective and comprehensive news about the United States and other regions of the world.
“That role remains critically important. It has its greatest impact in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa, Iran and Indonesia.”
Radio remains an important component of the network’s service, said Heil, who believes the new board will move deeper into new media while maintaining a radio presence.
“Shortwave remains very important still. VOA at least is holding their own when it comes to the number of radio listeners. I’m sure they are very eager to branch out and expand new media offerings.”
However, the scaling back of U.S. shortwave capabilities has been a contentious topic. As part of it 2011 budget submission, the BBG proposed closing the last U.S.-based shortwave broadcasting center in Greenville, N.C., at an estimated cost savings of $3 million per year (see second sidebar).
While the U.S. has been jettisoning its shortwave frequencies, with VOA cutting some 60 frequencies in the last 10 years, China has been doing the exact opposite, almost doubling its stations in the same period. Supporters of U.S. shortwave programming contend that the country is ceding valuable assets to China; others contend the frequencies are redundant due to the nature of shortwave broadcasting methods, the June Foreign Relations Committee report said.
Gary Reid, distinguished senior specialist in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University, said the BBG has to be careful not to build its strategies based on the nature of media at home.
“(BBG) is facing the issue of a technological gap across the world. While here in the United States we have a vast range of media, we assume the rest of the world does, too. Radio and television are often viewed as old media here, with more attention paid to the Internet and social media. However, for the developing world, radio and television is still often the best and most effective method of reaching a mass population.”
However, Reid acknowledges that repurposing media across multiple distribution platforms is mandatory to ensure a consistent message.
Despite some political skeptics who still view U.S. international broadcasting simply as propaganda of the U.S. government, VOA, RFE/RL and the other services continue to fill a critical need in developing countries, Reid said.
“These services to oppressed populations in developing countries are indispensable. A free and open media is often a casualty in those countries. The board should continue to ensure that these services are available,” Reid said. “The programming offered throughout the world serves more to hold the United States up as a model of what can be.”
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