Senate Report on the Broadcasting Board of Governors

The most extensive report on the issues facing the Broadcasting Board of Governors and US international broadcasting was released this week. “US International Broadcasting – Is Anybody Listening? – Keeping the US Connected” (1mb PDF) was prepared by the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the leadership of senior professional staff member Paul Foldi, and is the best, if not the only, substantial review of its kind.
The report describes the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as transforming from its intent of a political “firewall” to a modern political “football” that has resulted in an average vacancy on the board of over 470 days. Even now, the new slate of members of the BBG has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Beyond staffing difficulties and the resulting repercussions, the report describes the fierce competition and imbalance, particularly with China and Russia, to engage listeners, viewers, and readers around the world. The report also recommends changes to the Smith-Mundt Act, describing the firewall as “anachronistic and potentially harmful.”

Some highlights from the report:

  • The current Board members have been emplaced since 2002. The Board has been without a Chairman since June 2008. The current Board members were emplaced in 2002. There have been between one and four vacancies on the Board since 2004. Candidates for a Board were submitted in November 2009, but action on them is still pending. Changes in the technical and geopolitical environment requires immediate attention, but the current Board is reluctant to address given the nominations waiting in the wings.
  • Chinese has substantially increased its activities toward and from within the US while continuing to block US activities in China. VOA has two full-time reporters in China, while Chinese state media Xinghua has more than 70 in the US; Xinhua has 3 bureaus in the US, while China has blocked VOA’s attempt to open a second bureau in China. China recently began broadcasting English-language radio programming from within the United States, while the US has been denied any reciprocal arrangements and must rely on Short-wave, AM, and internet – all of which are routinely blocked by China. In spite of this, the US has issued over 2,900 media visas to Chinese journalists since 2007.
  • Russia has eliminated US broadcasting in Russia as it has cracked down on overall press freedom, falling to 174 out of 195 in Freedom House’s 2009 Freedom of the Press Index. The result has been a reliance on the Internet.
  • America’s US Arabic-language television station Alhurra’s $90 million budget is greater than the combined costs of Radio Free Asia, Radio/TV Marti and VOA’s Persian News Network. While Alhurra’s viewership numbers, with the exception of in Iraq, are marginal, US Arabic language Radio Sawa’s mix of news and local and Western pop music has attracted a large following, though its listenership numbers are declining as its format is mimicked by others.
  • VOA’s Persian News Network and RFE’s Radio Farda provided much needed news and information to Iranians yearning for information both about the rest of the world and their own nation. The report recognizes that in order for the BBG to be credible to its audience and draw in not just those who already agree with US policy, its networks must be permitted to present both sides of an argument. The report also notes the diametrically opposing arguments surrounding the BBG’s Persian News Network.
  • Marketing budgets for BBG entities either fluctuate wildly- as in the case of Alhurra which has spiked 2007-9 from $100,000 to $5,000 to $1,000,000, to Radio Free Asia, which received a mere $2,000 in 2009 despite being tasked with reaching over a billion people.
  • Radio Free Asia, authorized on a temporary basis in 1994, serves six countries experiencing steadily dwindling levels of press freedom, none of which are ranked higher than 132 out of 195 countries by Freedom House.
  • Smith-Mundt’s firewall is anachronistic, potential harmful and ignores the reality of global diasporas, the Internet, and hamstrings our own government while foreign governments and broadcasters have no similar impediments. The report cites Russian and Chinese governments actively broadcast in the US,

This report is required reading to understand the current environment. There is simply no other similar survey available. It is objective and non-partisan (sure a Democrat may not have highlighted one or two items but any other Republican would likely have emphasized the same items for political rather than discursive effect).

This is, according to Senator Lugar, the “first of several reports I have asked Mr. Foldi to initiate this year addressing major Public Diplomacy issues.” We are fortunate Senator Lugar and his staff care so deeply about America’s public diplomacy that they are willing to spend the time and energy to explore and understand the nuts and bolts of America’s communication and engagement for no one else inside Government has stepped up, not even the sixty-plus year old presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed body called the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

Read the whole report here.

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2 thoughts on “Senate Report on the Broadcasting Board of Governors

  1. We appreciate Senator Lugar’s report pointing out the success of Alhurra in Iraq where research shows it has a weekly reach of 64 percent and is the third most trusted TV news station in the country. However, it is equally important to highlight the success Alhurra has had throughout the Middle East. As the chart on page 31 of Sen. Lugar’s report shows, Alhurra’s audience has consistently averaged more than 25 million weekly viewers for the last three years – a significant audience by any standard – and an unprecedented audience by international broadcasting standards. The network is the leading international non-indigenous news television channel broadcasting to the Middle East.Television is an expensive medium, but America needs a voice in the region and television is the way people consume news in the Middle East. In a region filled with anti-American sentiment and with the local media regularly distorting U.S. policy; Alhurra’s steady inroads into the competitive Middle East marketplace are noteworthy.
    Deirdre Kline
    Communications Director
    Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc.

  2. Smith Mundt is only a part of the problem. The bloating of U.S. International Broadcasting over the last two decades, despite reports by GAO calling for elimination of duplication, Congress making permanent parts of this duplicative structure (such as RFA), a board that under Democratic and Republican administrations remained for the most part aloof from a work force, at least the one located in its own building in the case of VOA, and a Congress that over the same period of time, particularly after September 11, 2001, has for the most part been unwilling to see U.S. international broadcasting as anything more than a foreign policy tool, or something that serves narrow interests of individual members (Cuban broadcasting to cite one example, but one could also point to others) — all of this and other aspects explain the sorry state of U.S. international broadcasting.Successive boards over the past decade have been quite satisfied with themselves as they set about attempting to dismantle English broadcasting just as fast as it could be arranged.
    And though there is an effort now underway that some officials under the BBG say is aimed in part at reversing the damage BBG did to English broadcasting, board members in their ivory towers never sufficiently stuck their heads out of the ivory tower BBG offices at the top of 330 Independence Ave to pay enough attention to the rot in the floors beneath them, when it came to morale, resources, and poor management.
    The outcome, of course, could be seen in the Federal Human Capital Survey (FHCS) finding that BBG members and officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) scored the worst ever rating for good management, with the BBG at the very bottom of Federal agencies.
    Welcome to the big show Dana Perino and other incoming members of the board. Perhaps, at the first Town Hall Meeting of the new BBG, someone will have the courage to address some of these issues.

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