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All Quiet on the Western Front: a look at the Five-Year Strategic Plan for U.S. International Broadcasting

By Alan L. Heil Jr.

This article originally appeared at American Diplomacy. It is republished here, slightly modified, with permission of the author and American Diplomacy.

As the Voice of America marks its 70th anniversary, what lies ahead for all of the world’s publicly-funded overseas networks in the year ahead? For Western broadcasters collectively, 2011 was the most potentially devastating year in more than eight decades on the air. Now, because of fiscal uncertainties in their host countries and rapidly evolving competition from both traditional and new media, they face huge cuts in airtime and operations. Can America step up to help fill the gap? A new strategic plan for U.S.-funded overseas broadcasting charts a possible path.

Over the years, the government networks in Europe and North America have offered a window on the world and a beacon of hope for hundreds of millions of information-denied or impoverished people on the planet. They have done so by offering accurate, in-depth, credible news, ideas, educational and cultural fare, consistent with Western journalistic norms and the free flow of information enshrined in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. The broadcasts have enhanced America’s security, and even saved lives. They helped foster a largely peaceful end to the Cold War.

Consider, then, the events of the year past:

—The BBC World Service, because of resource cuts, has lost five language services (Albanian, English to the Caribbean, Macedonian, Portuguese to Africa and Serbian). Seven more services, including Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Spanish to Cuba, have ended all radio programming, focusing instead, as appropriate, on mobile, television and on-line content and distribution. Over the next five years, World Service projections are a loss of 30 million of its 180 million radio listeners and a reduction of about a quarter of its professional staff. This is the result of a cut in grant-in-aid funding by the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

—Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) is also facing substantial reductions. DW discontinued shortwave radio broadcasts in German, Indonesian, Persian and Russian. Chinese will be halved from two hours to an hour daily. As 2012 dawned, Deutsche Welle scheduled reductions in its shortwave broadcasts from 260 to 55 hours each day. It remains on the air on shortwave in English only to Africa.

—Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) is an award-winning network distinguished for its documentary and in-depth cultural and public service broadcasting in English and other languages. But now, RNW funding is being cut 80 percent, effectively silencing one of the West’s most attractive voices of reason to audiences everywhere.

—France’s overseas services, Radio France Internationale (RFI), France 24, and TV5, also are in the throes of an existential crisis. RFI and France 24 merger action has resulted in protest demonstrations by staff members affected. Finance ministry auditors in Paris have recommended ending all shortwave and AM radio programming of RFI worldwide to save money. Beginning January 1, shortwave is due to be cut from 102 to 60 hours daily after talks between RFI and TDF, the agency that has managed transmissions for RFI.

—The Voice of America ended its broadcasts in Croatian last November 23. Earlier in the year, the Voice’s oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) had announced plans to abolish ten hours daily of VOA Chinese Mandarin shortwave broadcasts and an hour daily of TV as well as the Cantonese Service, while investing more in VOA new media services to the PRC. But that decision was wisely modified in the wake of the Arab awakening and expressions of Congressional concern. VOA Director David Ensor and BBG member Victor Ashe recently informed their Chinese Branch colleagues of a commitment to retain a multimedia VOA service to the PRC. Earlier reports were that they would retain some radio and double their TV programming to two hours a day to enter the growing satellite TV market in the PRC. New multimedia tools, such as a VOA Chinese language iPhone app, also are being developed.

Until a few months ago, the West’s publicly-funded international broadcasters — including those of the United States — together reached at least a third of a billion adults around the world each week. Now, they face the prospect of losing tens of millions in audience share, even with the explosion of social media. All this, as Radio China International (RCI), Radio Russia, Iran’s Press TV, and Qatar’s Al Jazeera, significantly expand their operations. China, for example, spends two billion dollars a year on external media, about triple the outlay for all five publicly-funded U.S. overseas networks. Ironically, Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Doha have all ramped up transmissions in English, just as the BBC and VOA have cut theirs back. In December, the five directors of the Western networks meeting in London noted increased jamming of international satellite TV programming in 2011, especially by Iran. They called on the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva to take up the issue at an upcoming meeting. The director generals also appealed to satellite operators and service providers “to recognize the importance of the role they play in ensuring the free flow of information.”

MEETING THE CHALLENGES

Given this background, does the United States have a more pressing national and global security responsibility to enhance its overseas media services and the content of those services, given the decline of its Western partners on the world’s airwaves? Most assuredly, yes. Can U.S. international broadcasting, using the framework of its newly-announced five year strategic plan, successfully meet and master the challenges? Hopefully, yes. The challenges are:

1) Saving money in times of fiscal austerity affecting all the Western government networks

2) Modernizing and coordinating delivery systems amid the rapid changes each year in the way people receive and share information in a digital age

3) Creating compelling, competitive program content and robust dialogues with influential civil society actors in the increasingly crowded electronic marketplace of traditional and new media

4) Retaining a multi-regional presence in VOA English, our own mother tongue and indisputably, the primary world language of commerce, diplomacy, and the Internet.

The relatively new U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors unveiled a landmark strategic plan last November 1. BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson recently told the Congressional Quarterly Weekly that the plan aims “to consolidate, integrate and streamline” the complex U.S. overseas broadcasting establishment. In addition to VOA, the only full service global network offering a mix of world, U.S. and regional news, there are four other smaller, distinctly separate regionally-targeted networks: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcasting Network (Alhurra and Radio Sawa) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio-TV Marti in Spanish).

Kim Andrew Elliott, a pre-eminent Arlington, Virginia, observer and international broadcast research analyst, posed the question as early as 1989: “Too many Voices of America?” A nine-member part-time bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was created in 1994 to oversee this conglomerate. It consists of four Democrats and four Republicans, and the Secretary of State as an ex-officio member, usually represented at monthly Board meetings by an Undersecretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy.

On July 29, 2010, an entirely new BBG convened behind closed doors the day after being formally installed at a public session. It was a defining moment. One of the nine governors recalls: “We looked at each other, and everyone agreed: ‘This isn’t going to work’.” They had done their homework and concluded that the five separate networks, each with a distinct “tribal culture,” had no day-to-day coordinated central management. Moreover, they operated in different institutional frameworks:

—two of them are federal agencies, operating under U.S. government civil service or foreign service rules: VOA, the Martis, and the support agency for both, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). VOA’s Charter (PLs 94-350 and 103-415) requires it to be an accurate and objective source of news about America and the world as well as a conveyor of major U.S. thought, institutions and policies and discussion of these.

—three of the networks are privately-incorporated but fully U.S. government-funded grantees, chartered to be alternative free surrogate media in regions they reach: RFE/RL, RFA, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network Inc. (MBN, like VOA, does provide a mix of area, world, and U.S. news and content to its viewers and listeners). The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is co-located with VOA and the Board offices in southwest Washington, DC. It provides technical distribution, marketing, and program placement services for all the networks. IBB also operates other vital services (human resources, program evaluation, security, contracting, IT) for the federal entities. That makes managing VOA and OCB much more difficult than it was 20 years ago under the now-abolished United States Information Agency. Then the VOA director had under his or her aegis all functions, including that of budgetary and human resources control (now part of the BBG or IBB superstructures).

A MANSION OF MANY MISSIONS?

How did this cumbersome 21st century broadcasting bureaucracy come about? The late Mark Hopkins, a VOA correspondent in Moscow, Belgrade, Munich and Beijing in the 1970s and 1980s, said that over the years, various parties and constituencies felt compelled to add “a cupola here, a porch there” to meet what they saw as national strategic needs of the moment. It was helter skelter. Some steps were taken in the Executive Branch, others by individual members of Congress, and some even by individual networks determined to extend their mandate.

The result: 22 of VOA’s language services have been duplicated in other networks since 1950 (although most of the grantees and VOA also broadcast in unique languages of their own). Perhaps the single most devastating loss for VOA, critics say, was the loss of its half century old Arabic Service in 2002. An earlier BBG removed it from the Voice and privatized it two years later under the latest cupola added in 2004, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks Inc. The Board, on the other hand, points to research indicating substantial viewership of MBN’s Alhurra. Lately, there has been something of a convergence in the increasingly sophisticated content mix of VOA and the grantees, crucial to their credibility. By and large, however, distinct content continues to reflect distinct missions.

THE ROAD AHEAD

This was the situation inherited by the new oversight Broadcasting Board at its inaugural gathering in the summer of 2010. At that session, the seeds were sown for its new strategic plan, “Impact through Innovation and Integration.” The six and a half page document incorporated the views of more than 70 outside specialists. It is based, as well, on a more comprehensive annual BBG language service review. The 2012-2016 strategic forecast calls for:

—Appointment of a day-to-day chief executive officer for all five networks. This role is now filled on an interim basis by the director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, Dick Lobo. He is a federal officer, and the grantees are private corporations, limiting his mandate. But he has improved coordination among the networks and is overseeing a merger of their overseas news bureaus. There have been more joint programming ventures among the five in the past year since Lobo assumed office than in the 70 previous years of U.S. overseas broadcasting — particularly in coverage of the Arab awakening.

—Combining the BBG and IBB bureaucracies, which had operated somewhat independently since the Board was established in 1994. The cost of the two organizations in the Administration’s current annual budget proposal is more than a third of the $767,030,000 requested for all of U.S. international broadcasting. Appropriators in both the House and Senate prescribed substantial cuts in the IBB in separate reports approved last summer. One way to achieve this would be by consolidating the BBG and IBB support staffs. The merger became official on January 15, 2012 and consolidated various BBG/IBB operations to create units for Communications and External Relations, Strategy and Development, and Digital and Design Innovation.

—Consolidating administrative support for the privately-incorporated grantees (RFE/RL, RFA, and MBN). Deloitte, a consulting agency hired to examine the feasibility of the strategic plan, says that combining the financial management, technical staffs, and purchasing power pools for equipment and services of the three entities might yield annual savings of between $9,000,000 and $14,000,000. These savings, the consultant adds, “could be redeployed toward journalistic initiatives that advance the Board’s strategic vision.” Deloitte quoted grantee executives as conceding that the present structure was haphazardly built over time, and “would not be the logical approach if one were starting fresh.” Deloitte agreed. It endorsed the concept of grantee administrative consolidation.

—De-federalizing the government agencies: VOA, IBB, and the Martis. The advantage of privatizing the three departments is that they would be on the same basis, administratively, as the three grantees. This could pave the way for streamlined, common, presumably cost saving procedures across all of U. S. international broadcasting. A single consolidated, publicly-funded, private corporation likely would be easier to manage. Its output might be perceived by users as less subject to U.S. government interference, although journalistic content “firewall” procedures have been pretty effectively enforced by successive Boards since 1995.

Deloitte, while endorsing the Board’s proposal to merge the grantees, is still looking at de-federalization of VOA and Martis. The consultant suggests that a feasibility study include: 1) Partial integration in 2012 of a few VOA and Marti administrative operations with those of the grantees, short of full-scale privatization that would require new legislation, and 2) A longer term look into the feasibility of full-scale de-federalization of those two networks and IBB, including benefits, risks, and financial impact. De-federalization, however, faces opposition by those in Congress who view the flagship VOA and its support organization as vital to the nation’s security.

—Repealing the clause of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act that prohibits the dissemination of BBG materials within the United States. Congress is actively considering repeal, led by Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Adam Smith (D-Washington). For the first time, both the State Department and the BBG have actively supported a change in the old law and proposed language to abolish the prohibition. (The original legislation was passed shortly after World War II to prevent any sitting administration from using U.S. government media to influence the American public. But in the 21st century, all five overseas networks have websites and content easily accessible to millions of Americans, making the original legislation outdated).

—Abolishing duplicated language services in the five networks. Advocates of ending overlap among VOA on one hand and RFE/RL, RFA, MBN and the Martis on the other, say it is high time to trim the many “voices of America.” Yet a spot check of their respective websites shows surprisingly little content duplication on any given day. VOA and MBN cover world, regional and U.S. news. RFE/RL, RFA and the Martis focus largely on events in regions they reach. Influential users of all ages likely channel surf a combination of the U.S media over time, finding them for most part complementary in the news, information and ideas they seek and share.

Rationalizing which languages to cut in U.S. international broadcasting at which networks likely will be the most contentious issue confronting the Board in 2012 and 2013. Many services have champions on Capitol Hill. Services broadcasting the U.N. official languages and several key strategic ones such as Persian and the Afghan languages should have both full service content and full service distribution in today’s highly competitive 21st century communications environment. Sufficient staffs are required to build new and social media platforms in these languages for the burgeoning younger generation around the globe inspired by the Arab pro-democracy uprisings. Better to cut bulging support bureaucracies than frontline journalists, editors, video producers, and webmasters. As one knowledgeable professional international broadcaster put it: “Heavens, yes.”

In key languages particularly, cross-streaming of content is essential across platforms (radio, television, and a variety of social media channels). BBC Director General Mark Thompson told a London conference shortly after the massive BBC World Service cuts were announced: “The future of news and information is intrinsically multi-platform, multi-device and multi-media. No one medium, neither TV, nor radio, nor print, nor even the web are sufficient in themselves.” Those players with multiple platforms, he added, “are capturing the highest amount of news consumption.”

—Creation of a Global News Network (GNN) pooling the best journalism and on-scene reporting of all five U.S-funded overseas networks. This may be essential to meet the most ambitious goal of the BBG’s strategic plan: expansion of the networks’ combined reach from 165 million in 2010 to 216 million in 2016. The GNN, expected to take shape soon, will draw on the reportorial resources of VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN and the Martis. Collectively, they have hundreds of correspondents and contract reporters filing in 58 languages around the world.

Pilot prototypes of the GNN have already been produced, and skeletal approximation of a future combined news roundup appears daily on the main page at the BBG website, www.bbg.gov. A logical site for assembling a more robust GNN is the VOA newsroom in southwest Washington, where space is adequate, English scripts are produced and where the Board’s and IBB headquarters are located. A logical state of the art distribution system is used by RFE/RL in Prague. It is now being installed at the other networks to ease transfer among them of audio, video and website content. GNN, the BBG strategic plan has said, will retain the well-established brand names by the originating networks, as warranted — an indispensable asset.

As the Board moves ahead on implementing the strategic plan it will, with the administration’s approval, be proposing language for a new International Broadcasting Innovation Act for Congress to consider.

THE WEST REACHING THE REST?

Just a few days after the BBG’s strategic plan was released, a fresh tally of the current audience for U.S. government funded international broadcasting was firmed up and made public in mid-November. The claimed global reach on all global media this past year surged from 165,000,000 to 187,000,000 adults weekly. Significant increases were registered in Indonesian (VOA), Pashto and Dari to Afghanistan (RFE/RL and VOA), Arabic in Egypt (MBN), and Hausa to Nigeria and Niger (VOA). Radio Free Asia audiences to several southeast Asian countries (11,900,000) were counted for the first time. There were declines in VOA Persian News Network viewing in Iran despite the popularity of its satire program Parazit, and in VOA’s reach in Pakistan, the Board said, due to a growth in competition by new local outlets.

Three elements stood out in this latest research overview:

1) The astonishing growth of the VOA Indonesian audience, largely on television, from 25 to 38 million

2) The predominance of the Voice in the final cumulative total: 141 million out of the 187 million listeners/viewers/Internet/short messaging users (about 75 per cent)

3) the way people still get information worldwide, 103 million on radio, 97 million on TV, and 10 million via the new media[FN1]

All silent on the Western front, informationally? Hardly. The United States does have an opportunity to fill in gaps, if it does so wisely within fiscal constraints. Despite massive cuts in shortwave transmission facilities by the U.S. over the past nine years and plans to do so by all of the so-called Big Five governmental international broadcasters of the West between now and 2016, caution is advised. Despite cuts in relay facilities, radio audiences are more than holding their own, in U.S. international broadcasting, an 8.7 per cent increase (9.5 million) between 2010 and 2011. (TV viewing did even better: a 22 per cent increase (17.5 million viewers), compared with one million more for the Internet this past year (11 per cent).

As Secretary of State Clinton, an ex-officio member of the BBG, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February: “Even though we’re pushing on-line, we can’t forget TV and radio because most people still get their news from TV and radio.”

Radio World editor Paul McLane recently wrote: “These totals and percentages suggest to me that radio’s role as part of Uncle Sam’s face to the international community is understated and underappreciated.” In the U.S. commercial radio industry, McLane adds, it is much the same and “radio continues to post total listening statistics (241 million weekly listeners) that other media envy. Radio is the media’s best kept secret!” Only a year ago, BBC research and transmission specialists had estimated the World Service’s shortwave radio audience at 85 million. Silencing shortwave or radio relays via FM stations too early, before new social media are better established, would carry real risks (see No. 3 above).

Building and deploying new media, to be sure, are essential in making hard choices because the way people consume and share information is changing with lightning speed. The BBG, VOA and the social media platform Citizen Global this year began collaborating on providing multiple channels (TV, Internet, and audio streams) to enable women in central Africa’s conflict zones to share their stories with others. Some interact on line with those who hear their grim accounts of rape and pillaging, a sort of “iMovie in the cloud.” Recently, VOA’s Afghan Service program, Radio Ashna reported a deadly Taliban suicide bombing in Kandahar and an appeal for blood donations to help the victims. A number of donors responded. A VOA English website (http://middleeastvoices.com) focuses on Arab world events and combines radio, TV and text in a daily Syria Report that recently interviewed the commander of the Syrian Free Army. A new VOA daily shortwave radio program on refugee relief in Somali and Amharic to famine-stricken Horn of Africa has helped thousands gain access to lifesaving food and water and even stay in touch with lost family members. And VOA Development Office trainers in Hong Kong met a number of journalists from mainland China this past year to share ideas with each other about how accurate, reliable, information can empower readers, listeners, viewers and bloggers alike.

Content is king, and credibility will continue to be the North Star of U.S. international broadcasting program producers and reporters in every region of the world and in the United States. As the strategic plan shows, the Board can supply an overarching policy framework. But accurate, objective journalism produced at the broadcaster level is what matters most and empowers listeners in a wide range of settings, from refugee camps in Africa, Tibetan monasteries in India, to large communities of social media consumers in the cities of China, Russia, the Arab world, Iran, North Korea, and in an awakening Burma. Although choices will be painful for all the broadcasters of the West in the years ahead, progress in 2011 toward synergies in America’s world services augur well. Congress, after all, has termed U.S. international broadcasting a national security function. It, along with the administration, the BBG, and the networks themselves, can and must master the challenges. As Edward R. Murrow once said: “Our task is formidable and difficult. But difficulty is one excuse history has never accepted.”

FN1 The totals add up to more than the worldwide cumulative of 187 million because a listener/viewer/netizen who uses more than one U.S. government medium or delivery system, counts only once.

***

Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former deputy director of VOA, author of Voice of America: A History and editor of Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media.

This article originally appeared at American Diplomacy. It is republished here with permission of the author and American Diplomacy. Be sure to visit American Diplomacy’s revamped website.

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