Congress Speaks But Nobody Listens at the Broadcasting Board of Governors

“Voice of America (VOA) Worldwide English radio, which, at one time broadcast live 24 hours a day to the world in 1999, will be reduced to providing 1.5 hours of live programming a day.”

 

BBG Watch Forum -- Behind the HeadlinesThis commentary from a journalist employed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) explains how BBG executives have for years defied the will of Congress and provided misleading information to both BBG members and Congressional staffers. Most of their FY2013 budget recommendations were rejected on Capitol Hill by both Republicans and Democrats. These same BBG executives, who report to the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) director Richard Lobo, are now presenting BBG members with their budget recommendations for FY2014. BBG members will meet in a few days in a closed session to review these proposals, which — in a usual manner — have been secretly put together by BBG executives without any wider internal debate or outside review.

Congress Speaks But Nobody Listens at the Broadcasting Board of Governors

To The Broadcasting Board of Governors:

What part of the mandate from Congress don’t you understand?  

Language contained from the House Appropriations Committee and its counterpart in the Senate – language that has been adopted by both Chambers – disagrees with many of the misguided decisions that have been made in the last 12 months to reduce broadcasting operations in many language services at the Voice of America (VOA).  

Yet the bean counters and anti-radio factions in upper-level management continue to ignore the will of Congress and whittle away at radio because “It’s too old fashioned” and nobody listens and “besides we do the Internet and Social Media because it’s cool (not because it has an audience).”

We focus on the latest results of this misguided thinking which came Thursday (8/09/12) during a staff meeting of what’s left of the once proud – now highly demoralized – English radio operation.   Beginning after the nominating conventions, but before the election in November, Crossroads Asia, a 25 minute live news program to East Asia (in the morning our time), will go silent and will be replaced by feature programs that have yet to be determined.  One of them, still in the planning stages we are told, is “China’s Got Talent.”  How about “Dancing with the Supreme Leader” or “The Real Housewives of Beijing?”

As it is, Crossroads Asia is now broadcast live, recorded and played back in the two following hours (13 and 14 UTC).  
This is indicative of how management is coming up with unique ways to justify their own jobs:  do whatever it takes even when it makes no sense.  Breaking news?  Up-to-date information?  Information that will draw in listeners?  Who cares, they will tell you, but at least we can tell Congress we haven’t cut broadcast hours.

What’s happening to International Edition – a long-form program examining relevant WORLDWIDE news – is even worse.  Because of a severe staff shortage, beginning in July, IE lost its half-hour live program.  It was replaced by a replay of an International Edition program recorded seven hours earlier.  More tragic is that the recorded program is then replayed in the two following hours.  By the time the cycle is over, listeners (if we still had any) were given a half hour of nine hour old material.  Breaking news?  Up-to-date information?  Information that will draw in listeners?  Who cares, they will tell you, but at least we can tell Congress we haven’t cut broadcast hours.

And this isn’t the first time management has tried to pull a fast one on Congress.  Look at the Mandarin Service that was slated to be shuttered in FY 2013.  Instead of doing live programs to inform listeners, one program is now done live and then replayed 18 hours later. Breaking news?  Up-to-date information?  Information that will draw in listeners?  Who cares, they will tell you, but at least we can tell Congress we haven’t cut broadcast hours.

There is no more Middle East Edition, a half hour program dedicated to news about that region.  It went silent months ago. International Edition to the Middle East (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria et al) is now live for a single half hour.  It too is replayed two hours later.  Breaking news?  Up-to-date information?  Information that will draw in listeners?  Who cares, they will tell you, but at least we can tell Congress we haven’t cut broadcast hours.

The only live English radio program that will survive this Draconian shell game is Daybreak Asia, a half-hour live program in the evening (our time) – targeted to China primarily – and International Edition.  Both of these, we should point out are recorded and played back two hours later.  Breaking news?  Up-to-date information?  Information that will draw in listeners?  Who cares, they will tell you, but at least we can tell Congress we haven’t cut broadcast hours.

Now that the decisions have apparently been made to gut English radio by stealth, we remind management of the language contained in a directive from the House:  “The Committee recommendation continues a requirement that the BBG notify the Committees on Appropriation within 15 days of any determination by the Board that any of its broadcast entities were found to be in violation of the principles, standards, or journalist code of ethics.”   Ethics?  Who cares, but at least we can tell Congress we know how to find it in the dictionary.
  
The language from the Senate Appropriations Committee is also straightforward.  “The Committee is concerned that BBG’s broadcast priorities do not fully align with U.S. foreign policy priorities.  For example, the fiscal year 2013 budget request reduces broadcasting to Asia at the same time the Secretary of State has called for expanding engagement with Asia, particularly East Asia.”  The Senate language also instructs the BBG to inform the Committee about proposed language service changes.  

The newest member of the BBG Board, Tara Sonenshine, representing Secretary Clinton, will be glad to know that “China’s Got Talent” and nine-hour old news are the best we can do to fulfill our foreign policy priorities.
Breaking news?  Up-to-date information?  Information that will draw in listeners?  Who cares, they will tell you, but at least we can tell Congress we haven’t cut broadcast hours.

By my calculation, VOA Worldwide English radio, which, at one time broadcast live 24 hours a day to the world in 1999, will be reduced to providing 1.5 hours of live programming a day.  

The bottom line:  the BBG staff, long a very vocal opponent of broadcasting in English on radio, is circumventing the will of Congress.  The number of broadcasts are there, the BBG will tell Congress in its defense, but what they won’t say is the quality of the broadcasts is embarrassing and not worthy of a once-great International Broadcaster.  

We will forward this to members of Congress who care about what VOA does and the quality of the material produced along with a truck full of antacid.

Roving Correspondent Leppy Oatcakes

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