By Alex Belida
Having drafted a new mission statement for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) stressing the primacy of journalistic values and having proposed that a new non-partisan Board be composed mainly of media veterans, let us now focus on a more efficient structure for U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB) that will attract greater audiences.
Instead of the current multi-entity structure, I would integrate VOA, RFE-RL, RFA, MBN and Radio/TV Marti into a single organization, eliminating all language duplication. This new operation would be headquartered in Washington D.C. at the existing VOA center with satellite production bureaus as needed in strategic locations in addition to smaller news bureaus.
Because VOA is the oldest (70 years) and best known brand, the new consolidated entity would be known as the Voice of America. If there was compelling reason to preserve any of the other entity names, I would merely re-label existing VOA divisions. For example, Radio/TV Marti could be part of VOA’s Latin America Division and any shows directed at Cuba could be called “Marti on VOA.” Similarly, like VOA’s current Persian News Network, we could have “The Middle East Broadcasting Network on VOA.”
In the case of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, I would recommend eliminating those names (and any of their subdomains like Radio Mashaal on RFE), though I would consider preserving them in cases where they currently broadcast to countries not targeted by VOA and research showed a name change would cause audience losses.
(An alternative strategy would be to rename the entire organization “Radio-TV America” or “RTV America” or another suitable name and drop all past identifications. But I see no value in this.)
The integration of the entities and the closure of selected facilities (the RFE-RL and RFA offices in Washington, for example, as well as RFE-RL HQ in Prague) would yield substantial cost savings as would personnel reductions stemming from the consolidation of language services and support staff. It would be absolutely essential to trim substantially the bloated executive ranks, as there would no longer be need for separate entity directors, legal counsels, personnel directors, budget chiefs and the various technical and engineering directors. This would be essential to keeping peace with the rank-and-file who see in the current environment that working journalists and studio technicians usually carry the heaviest burden when staffs are cut while the managerial ranks inevitably seem to grow.
Crucial to maintaining a credible global image for a reorganized U.S. International Broadcasting system would be the re-establishment of VOA English as a flagship, full-service, 24/7 multi-media operation. Severe cutbacks over the past decade to VOA English have totally undermined its reach and popularity, suggesting Boards past and present have been and remain determined to eliminate it altogether. This is a mistake of historic significance for a country whose principal language in English and in an era in which English has emerged as a truly global tongue.
I would also recommend a few additional basic steps.
First, we must have a mandatory training program for all new employees that would help create a culture of accurate, objective and comprehensive journalism in all program contents as well as imbue new hires with the history and traditions of the organization. I would use senior journalists on the staff to run this course. I would also make sure members of a new BBG as well as the future Director of a new consolidated entity met with each new class. (Why this is not already being done at VOA, for example, continues to mystify me. It was tried once, for one two-week session, then dropped. New hires continue to be simply gobbled up by their services or branches, where their training is uncoordinated and uncertain.)
Secondly, if any new entity is to have true audience appeal, it must be generating compelling content of journalistic value. To incentivize excellence in reporting, interviewing and videography, I recommend a monthly “Director’s Award for Journalistic Achievement,” with substantial cash prizes. (For the sake of full disclosure, I made such a recommendation when I was still at VOA serving as a Senior Advisor to the Director. It was never acted on and I never received an explanation why. VOA did away with its quarterly and annual “Excellence in Programming” awards several years ago, replacing it with an annual “Gold Medal” award system that enabled support staff to win recognition but did nothing to enhance good journalism on a regular basis.)
Finally, I would create a workers’ council comprised of elected representatives from the unions, non-union employees and contractors to meet regularly with the BBG and a new Director for USIB. If the management of USIB ever hopes to restore credibility with the men and women who put programs on the air and the web, then it must listen to them and consider their views in decision-making.
Alex Belida is a former correspondent and news executive who worked in U.S. International Broadcasting for 40 years.
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