BBG Watch Commentary
Tax-funded Voice of America (VOA), which costs U.S. taxpayers quarter of a billion dollars a year ($224 million in FY 2017), finds it difficult to attract sizable audiences to its serious news content on social media platforms even after purchasing boosting ads on Facebook, also with U.S. tax money.
The federal agency in charge of VOA, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) with its $777 million budget (including VOA), declares its mission to be “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
Perhaps nothing advances such a noble mission better than the Voice of America posting on its English-language Facebook news page what VOA promoted as “Rare Video Captures Underwater Love Triangle“.
The video, which was originally posted by Brown University, shows what’s further described as “Dramatic Fighting By a Male Cuttlefish for a Female Mate.”
While the Voice of America did not spend any tax dollars to produce the video, it used government employee or contractor time and government resources to package it and put it on the web.
The posting of this video by VOA on Facebook was obviously designed to improve its dismal web traffic. Indeed, as of early afternoon on May 16, about 14 hours after the video had been posted, it shows about 20K views. These could be views of just a few seconds. When it comes to meaningful audience engagement for VOA, there seems to be almost none. Several hours after its posting, the video has only one comment on the VOA Facebook page.
When it comes to serious English language news programs and Facebook posts, Voice of America’s performance is truly embarrassingly dismal.
Toward the end of the VOA Asia program on Sunday, May 7, 2017, it was showing 6 Live Facebook views in the entire world. At one point the number of Live Facebook views got down to 5. It was never more than 14 during the entire program.
Assuming that some of these Live views were from VOA staffers monitoring the Facebook transmission, the show finished with perhaps 3 or 4 Live viewers in the entire world of 7.5 billion people, 3.2 billion of them Internet users, 1.5 billion English speakers, most of whom are Internet users.
Since about half of VOA English web traffic comes from the U.S., that may very well leave only between 2 and 4 Live viewers to the VOA Asia English-language program in the rest of the world. Perhaps one or two of those Live Facebook viewers were in Asia.
The total number of views for the program, about 240 at the end of it, as shown on Facebook on May 7, can be misleading since it includes people who have tuned in for just a few seconds and then left, which was indeed the case as the number of Live Facebook views for VOA Asia was always changing quickly between 5 and 14 and kept declining as the show progressed. Most of the time it was below 10.
This can’t possibly be the best use of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.
Employee morale at the Voice of America and throughout the federal part of the agency is dismal. One VOA reporter said “No one seems to be in charge.”
VOA has recently lost much of its reputation and credibility in China when a live interview with a whistleblower was cut short. Angry Chinese web users accused VOA management of caving in to pressure from the communist government in Beijing. The senior management, which was behind the decision to shorten the interview despite previously aired promos that it would last much longer, put a first line manager and four VOA Mandarin Service journalists on administrative leave and launched an investigation. It was yet another blow to employee morale at the agency.
The official explanation from the senior management was greeted by even more sarcastic comments from Chinese web users and a protest demonstration by Chinese Americans in front of the VOA headquarters building in Washington, DC. They even staged a mock funeral for VOA.
BBG CEO John Lansing, an Obama administration appointee, insists that the Voice of America under its director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara, also Obama administration appointees, is dramatically improving its impact when it comes to supporting freedom and democracy around the world. It may seem, however, to taxpayers and members of Congress of both parties who approve BBG’s and VOA’s budget, that showing videos of fish sex qualifies more as creative waste of taxpayers’ dollars than as proof of the agency’s ability to respond to and to counter ISIS propaganda.