The Obama administration is sharply restructuring the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency in charge of all U.S. government broadcasting, while being urged to increase the spread of unfettered news and information around the world.
Cuts in official U.S. radio broadcasting to Russia and the Middle East since 2001 and plans to end Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to China in October have sown “chaos and confusion” in the agency, one senior agency official said.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is shifting broadcasts from radio to the Internet and social media.
Critics say the move will make programs more vulnerable to disruption by governments that oppose U.S. efforts to promote democracy and freedom.
The cuts are being made after a popular democratic uprising in Iran, the “Arab Spring” anti-government movement in the Middle East and mounting pressure inside China for democratic change.
“I have serious reservations about the direction of U.S. international broadcasting,” said Blanquita Cullum, a former board governor.
“I believe the intended outcome of the BBG’s strategic plan will leave many people in nondemocratic countries without access to critical news and information from our direct radio broadcasts.”
Current and former officials involved in U.S. government broadcasting for several networks, including the flagship VOA, said in interviews and emails that cutting costs and the shift to online broadcasting are devastating the organization at a time when promotion of key U.S. values is urgently needed in places such as China and the Middle East.
The nine-member BBG, an independent federal agency that includes Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a board member, directs five major networks: VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Marti, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) called Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television.
Its stated mission is to “promote freedom and democracy” through multimedia communication using “accurate, objective and balanced news, information, and other programming” about the United States around the world.
The agency has about 760 employees, and its budget request for fiscal 2012 is $767 million.
The changes began in April when Richard M. Lobo - head of the support staff working under the BBG, called the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) - was appointed BBG executive director.
An internal BBG document from June stated that the board had delegated broad power to Mr. Lobo, including day-to-day management of all agencies and authority to make decisions about “trade-offs and conflicts” for the broadcasters.
Mr. Lobo, a former public broadcasting station president in southwestern Florida, stated in a July 22 email to employees that “given today’s budgetary climate, we are focused on ways to centralize leadership direction, streamline management and support functions, and eliminate duplication.”
Mr. Lobo has what he calls a “strategic vision” that is leading to major consolidations, officials said. The vision is expected to produce sharp cuts in funding and staff at the networks. Mr. Lobo also is bringing in outside consultants to join what called a “daunting effort” to draw up and implement the strategy over the coming months.
“We firmly believe that a new strategic road map and the organizational changes we are discussing will help to sharpen our mission and our focus, as U.S. international broadcasting takes on the increasingly complex challenges of a global, multiplatform media landscape in the years ahead,” he said.
A BBG official said in an email that the reorganization has created “a lot of chaos and confusion.”
New board members were appointed last summer, Mr. Lobo joined in March, and a new VOA director will be appointed next month.
“Big changes [are] coming, but nobody knows for sure what they’ll be,” the official said. “The key word is ‘consolidation’ with the ‘radios’ [RFE/RL, MBN, RFA, Marti], but nobody knows for sure how that will happen.”
A former BBG official said U.S. international broadcasting is in serious trouble because of a lack of focus and mismanagement - problems that have plagued the agency for several years. The shift to Internet and social media services is rife with problems, the former official said.
“The whole Internet strategy is bogus,” this former official said, noting that Iranian hackers shut down some 40 VOA Internet broadcast sites for five hours in February.
“It demonstrated the vulnerability of relying on Internet broadcasting. One can only imagine what the Chinese can do.”
The Iranian VOA hacking followed by two weeks the disclosure that VOA is ending all radio broadcasts to China this year in favor of Internet broadcasting and some radio through the heavily jammed Radio Free Asia.
The decision was made after China refused to permit VOA to use China-based ground stations to transmit its programs, even though the Obama administration provided China with broad access to U.S. airwaves for its state-run media.
BBG spokeswoman Letitia King said the strategic review has been under way for a year and has not been completed. The plan is looking for ways to make international broadcasting more efficient and to reduce duplication and overlap, she said.
On the cutbacks in radio, Ms. King said: “The board has made clear that they recognize the value of radio and television as really important media worldwide.”
New media are an extension of news and information outlets, but are “by no means the central boulevard for broadcasting,” she said.
‘Painful’ but ‘necessary’
A BBG report outlining the “realignment strategy” for shortwave and medium-wave radio broadcasts stated that “the process and transition will be as painful as they are necessary.”
According to the report, the radio outlets face tight budgets, an “onerous” federal labor structure and aging technology. The draft strategy calls for using more joint facilities, overturning legislative obstacles and “de-federalizing” the workforce - shifting from federal workers to contractors, a process likely to involve large-scale layoffs.
Plans to cut short- and medium-wave radio broadcasts are projected to save $75 million annually and be carried out in phases by closing VOA stations in the Philippines, on the Pacific island of Saipan, in Germany and in North Carolina, and scaling back Kuwait-based stations. The goal is to cut $82 million by 2014, the report said.
Under a section on “higher-profile eliminations,” the report revealed plans to cut broadcasts to Cuba, China, Iran and Pakistan.
Yet broadcasting uncensored news and information to those regions is more critical than ever, current and former BBG officials said.
Some shortwave outlets to be kept under the plan include radio beamed into North Korea, Burma, Tibet, Pakistan’s tribal areas, Afghanistan, Africa and in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Risk of losing audience
However, the report stated that BBG’s new focus is on creating a “global newsroom” using “inter-entity connectivity, content sharing and virtual studies.” New media, such as Facebook and Twitter, will be expanded through “robust Internet connectivity.”
The former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the board has failed to properly analyze the risks of the Internet strategy.
For example, targeting audiences in China with Internet access fails to address the fact that China’s security services use 50,000 Internet police to monitor electronic traffic.
The Chinese are unlikely to tune in to U.S. broadcasting and risk losing Internet access or even being arrested for listening to banned news on the Internet, the former official said.
The lessons of Russia and the Middle East also appear to have been ignored in the reorganization. Internal VOA surveys have shown that the BBG’s decision in 2008 to end all direct radio broadcasts to Russia was a disaster because most of VOA’s audience was lost after listeners declined to listen to the radio on the Internet.
U.S. broadcasts to the Middle East also are lacking. Mrs. Clinton recently suggested that the United States has lost the “information war” against terrorism in that region.
Critics traced the problems to a decision in 2002 to give up VOA broadcasting and launch the U.S.-funded radio and television.
“We have not really kept up with the times,” Mrs. Clinton said in March. “We are in an information war, and we cannot assume that this youth bulge that exists not just in the Middle East, but in so many parts of the world really knows much about us.”
The current and former officials said the Arabic-language stations have failed to garner wide audiences in the Arab world, where Al Jazeera, often sympathetic to Islamic terrorists, has flourished.
“We’ve had this intense media effort for the last 10 years, and we don’t have a lot to show for it,” the former official said.
Another part of the proposed reorganization is to move BBG operations out of the large headquarters building in Southwest Washington, the Wilbur J. Cohen Building, and relocate employees to the Dulles Town Center area in Northern Virginia.
To counter the cut in Chinese broadcasting, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, helped pass an amendment last month to a House bill that would add $13.7 million to VOA’s budget for Chinese broadcasting.
Ms. Cullum said large numbers of people around the world do not have access to the Internet. In China, she said, access is limited to large cities and to the affluent population.
“There is an audience throughout the world who do not have access to the Internet, which is the intended foundation under the BBG strategic plan,” she said.
“Where will they go when we are not there? We know the Internet has vulnerabilities. If VOA relies largely on this method of distribution, it is setting itself up for failure.”