More evidence of delaying notice to Voice of America listeners about shortwave cuts

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Governor Matthew Armstrong , the chair of the Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting, denies any role or responsibility for the mishandling of  shortwave cuts implementation.

According to sources, BBG Governor Matthew Armstrong, the chair of the Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting, denies any role or responsibility for the mishandling of the latest shortwave cuts implementation.

BBG Watch has obtained further evidence from multiple sources that a top International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive did not notify heads of Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) until 9:30 PM EDT Thursday June 26, 2014 9:32 that numerous cuts of shortwave radio broadcasts to Asia including Central Asia, Middle East (Persian and Kurdish), and Belarus would go into effect in just four days, on June 30.

Getting this information on such a short notice left Voice of America and other broadcasters with very little time for proper planning and notifying affected radio audiences, sources told BBG Watch.

The entire process was overseen by key IBB executives working closely with Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Republican member Matt Armstrong who is the chair of the Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting.

Sources told BBG Watch that Mr. Armstrong and IBB executives have denied in conversations with BBG members and others that BBG broadcasting entities were not given sufficient warning about shortwave cuts going into effect on June 30. According to sources, they are trying to shift the blame for any confusion and lack of proper announcements for VOA listeners and broadcasters onto VOA’s top leadership which remains publicly silent on this issue. Mr. Armstrong and IBB executives reportedly said that broadcasters (they probably mean entity heads) were fully consulted and very well informed about the shortwave cuts every step of the way.

We know, however, that working VOA broadcasters and VOA audiences were completely surprised by the June 30th date. VOA broadcasters may have known that this was coming, but they did not know when until late Friday. VOA shortwave radio audiences were not told anything until the very last moment.

SEE: Still no announcements on Voice of America main websites about shortwave cuts, BBG Watch, June 30, 2014.

André Mendes, Director of Global Operations

André Mendes, Director of Global Operations

Mr. Armstrong’s and Mr. David Ensor’s (VOA Director) role, if any, in the mishandling of the shortwave cuts implementation, along with any role of top IBB executives, André Mendes and Robert Bole (Bole has just left the agency, but according to some sources he may be back), needs further investigation.

To add insult to injury, newly obtained evidence suggests that Voice of America managers may have themselves decided to delay the announcement to the staff, not to issue any prior notices to audiences or to notify listeners of shortwave radio programs going silent only at the last minute. Were they told to do this by Mr. Ensor or somebody else, or did they make this decision on their own? The latter seems very unlikely.

VOA broadcasters found out from their management about the June 30th date for shortwave terminations only late Friday. Why was the notification to the staff also delayed, why all VOA employees were not notified, and why no official announcements were posted on the VOA websites?

Already record low employee morale at Voice of America has received another blow thanks to the mishandling of this entire process.

It needs to be determined who made these various decisions and when and how they were made; whether they were made at VOA or at IBB, or in consultations between top executives and managers from both VOA and IBB, and what Mr. Armstrong’s role was in the planning and implementation process.

If anything, this latest public relations and public diplomacy fiasco for the U.S. demonstrates once again that the central IBB bureaucracy, of which Mr. Armstrong has become a primary champion, is incapable of managing U.S. international media outreach and that VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio and TV Marti) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa) would be far better off operating on their own, with surrogate broadcasters being separated from VOA and OCB.

Mr. Armstrong is a strong opponent of the bipartisan Royce – Engel bill, H.R. 4490, which proposes such a solution. He called the bill’s wording “less than inarticulate” [sic] and the bill’s findings about mismanagement within IBB and VOA “overly harsh.”

It also needs to be determined who decided that BBG entity heads would only have a very short notice of when exactly the shortwave cuts, which have been anticipated, would be implemented.

Without the key piece information as to when exactly the shortwave radio broadcasts would go silent, and faced with having only a few days to react, no broadcaster would be able to communicate the news of transmission cuts properly to the audience.

Voice of America broadcasters complained bitterly about being kept in the dark by the management on this major change and even of being prevented from saying goodbye and saying thank you to their loyal radio audiences of many years.

These public complaints via Twitter from veteran VOA correspondents and broadcasters were confirmed by other VOA journalists working in Washington in private emails.

One of them sent us this information from a colleague:

“Over the weekend, VOA, RFE/RL, and RFA suddenly pulled the plug on many shortwave broadcasts across various language services. Staff [VOA] was only informed about it in a late-Friday email, and the broadcasters [VOA] were requested not to say anything to their audiences until moments before the final broadcasts. Below is the text of the email. It’s fair to say that many broadcasters are outraged, not least because of the disrespect shown to their audiences in informing them just hours before that the broadcasts were going away.

It’s likely for many listeners – and yes, people still do listen to shortwave in many places in the world – VOA simply gave up on them and disappeared. It’s only the latest example that for those at the BBG, the only audience they care about is the one on Capitol Hill.”*

*In fact, many members of Congress are opposed to cuts of shortwave broadcasts serving the most needy audiences and have offered in the past many amendments to prevent them. IBB executives, not Congress, had proposed these cuts.

This is the note circulated Friday evening by VOA management to only some, not all VOA broadcasters:

“FAREWELL TO SHORTWAVE – We were informed late Friday that BBG’s proposed shortwave cuts for FY2014 have been approved by Congress. As of the end of the day on Monday, June 30th, all shortwave frequencies for English News programs to Asia will be eliminated. We will no longer be heard via shortwave in the morning (12-16 utc), and the evening (22-02utc)…mostly in Asia. Shortwave frequencies for the following services will also be eliminated: Azerbaijani, Bangla, English (Learning), Khmer, Kurdish, Lao and Uzbek. Shortwave being used by services at RFE/RL and RFA are also being cut. Because shortwave has been a cheap and effective way to receive communications in countries with poor infrastructure or repressive regimes, it was a good way to deliver information. But broadcasting via shortwave is expensive, and its use by listeners has been on the decline for years. At the BBG, the cost vs. impact equation no longer favors broadcasts via this medium to most of the world. Important for us is that we will continue to be heard on shortwave frequencies during those hours we broadcast to Africa. Also, we know through our listener surveys that about half of our audience in Asia and the rest of the world listens to us via the web and podcast – so all is not lost. Let’s break the news about this change to our audiences starting Sunday night. I doubt specific frequencies are critical to announce. The important point to make for our listeners is that we encourage their continued listening through local affiliates, and on the web at voanews.com.”

There were no official announcements on the VOA websites. No advance warning, no apologies, and no thank you to loyal shortwave listeners of many years, especially in countries without free media. Many critics in the U.S. and abroad say this was an absolute disgrace.

Sources provided BBG Watch with this comment from one of VOA broadcasters:

“As one of VOA’s current hosts – we were not told until one day (a Friday) before the decision was to be implemented. There was no time to say good-bye. They just hit the kill switch.”

This comment forwarded to BBG Watch apparently came from a former VOA broadcaster:

“The way in which BBG pulled the plug was an act of disrespect and downright cowardness directed at the VOA audience, as well as the many VOA professional broadcasters. What goes around, comes around. BBG will ultimately be held responsible for this, and years of gross negligence, mismanagement, and incompetence.”

Victor GoonetillekeBut the most devastating criticism came from a VOA radio listener in Asia. Victor Goonetilleke, Frequency Manager at PCJ Radio International, has sent this comment to BBG Watch:

“If international broadcasting was meant to build public relations for the U.S. with the world, earn respect, make people understand the American way of life, its policies and interests — the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) executives in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) have done everything wrong.

This was like pulling out of Saigon in 1973 and leaving behind people who had risked and then lost their lives for the United States. This is like breaking the pot after fetching water the whole day.

The BBG has let America down….the respect and faith we had in the U.S. has been shaken. This was like a coup with no regard at all for the listening audience.

The man who [at] his inauguration reached out to those people listening huddled round a radio in some forgotten corner of the world. His Administration has been let down by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

 

Does President Obama even know what the BBG is doing?

 

Other U.S. and international reactions can be found on a Facebook post by former VOA White House and foreign correspondent Dan Robinson.

 
 

 
 

The following information about cuts to VOA shortwave transmissions appears to have come from an agency spokesperson, but it does not appear on VOA or BBG websites:

VOA Azerbaijani 

  • Cuts: 30 minutes shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Satellite TV (HotBird) and satellite audio (TurkSat); multimedia web and mobile sites and social media

  • Shortwave is used by just 2% of adults weekly in Azerbaijan, and does not yield significant audiences for the service (0.4% weekly reach on radio in BBG’s most recent survey). By contrast, satellite dish ownership is widespread, at 56%, and 18% use the Internet weekly. The service has both satellite and online products, which are far more likely to reach audiences in Azerbaijan. VOA Bangla 

  • Cuts: 1 hour shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: 1 hour medium-wave (AM); FM and TV affiliates; multimedia web and mobile sites; social media

  • Shortwave is not widely used in Bangladesh (just 2% weekly), and the majority of the service’s audience comes to its programming via FM and TV affiliate networks in the country. VOA English (in Asia) 

  • Cuts: 6.5 hours shortwave  (2 hours of programming that was repeated)

  • Continuing Distribution: Some medium-wave; multimedia web and mobile sites and social media

  • Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, English speakers are rarely users of shortwave radio. They are more likely to be educated and affluent, and to have access to a broad range of media. Years of BBG research questions on consumption of VOA English on shortwave have failed to find any significant audiences outside Africa, in large part because usage of shortwave radio in other regions is mostly very low. VOA Lao

  • Cuts: 30 minutes shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: 30 minutes medium-wave; 7 affiliates in Thailand on Lao border, with reach into Laos; multimedia web and mobile sites; social media

  • Shortwave is very little-used in Laos — less than 1% of adults report listening to shortwave radio weekly. In BBG’s most recent research in Laos, no surveyed listeners reported using the shortwave band to access VOA content. A majority (66%) hear VOA on FM, through affiliate stations on the Thai border that carry VOA content (Laos is so small that border FM stations have decent penetration into the country). VOA Special/Learning English 

  • Cuts: 5.5 hours shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Learning English programs continue on shortwave on English to Africa. 30 minutes medium-wave; multimedia web and mobile sites, including special interactive teaching products; social media, including social English lessons

  • BBG audience research indicates strong interest in learning English, but very limited shortwave listenership to VOA Learning English, outside a few select markets. The service is working more closely with other VOA language services to create English learning products for distribution on more popular channels. And Learning English offers a variety of digital products that are increasingly popular, including a Skype call-in show, videos on YouTube, and a website featuring both audio and transcripts for online audiences to follow as they listen. VOA Uzbek 

  • Cuts: 30 minutes shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Satellite audio and TV (HotBird); FM and TV affiliates in neighboring countries; multimedia web and mobile sites (with circumvention tools deployed); social media

  • SW is not widely used in Uzbekistan (just 2% weekly), and does not yield significant audiences for the service (0.3% weekly). Adults in Uzbekistan are much more likely to own a satellite dish (13%) or use the Internet (12% weekly) than to use shortwave, so the service provides content on those platforms. Uzbekistan is an especially difficult market to penetrate with USIM content, but shortwave is not an effective platform for the country. RFE/RL Persian (Farda) 

  • Cuts: 1 simultaneous shortwave frequency for 6 broadcast hours

  • Continuing Distribution: Shortwave on multiple frequencies for all 24 broadcast hours remains on, in addition to 24 hours daily medium-wave; “Radio on TV” on VOA Persian stream; 24 hours daily satellite audio with slate plus 24-hour audio on 4 other satellites including Hotbird, the most popular satellite in Iran; multimedia website (with circumvention tools deployed); social media; mobile app with anticensorship proxy server capability built-in.

  • This is only a reduction to the number of simultaneous frequencies during some of the broadcast day. Shortwave radio, with 5% weekly use in 2012, is considerably less popular than other platforms on which audiences can access Farda content, such as medium-wave (10% weekly use), satellite television (26% own a dish, and 33% watch satellite television weekly) or the Internet (39% weekly use). RFA Lao 

  • Cuts: 2 hours shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: 5 FM radio affiliates in Thailand provide cross-border coverage; multimedia web and mobile sites; social media

  • Shortwave is very little-used in Laos — less than 1% of adults report listening to shortwave radio weekly. RFA Lao’s listeners come overwhelmingly via FM stations on the Thai border — 94% of past-week listeners report hearing RFA on FM. (Laos is so small that border FM stations have decent penetration into the country). RFA Vietnamese 

  • Cuts: 2 hours shortwave

  • Continuing Distribution: Medium-wave coverage of all broadcast hours remains on; multimedia web and mobile sites (with circumvention tools deployed) include webcasts and other videos; social media

  • Shortwave radio is very little-used in Vietnam — less than 1% of adults report any weekly use of the waveband, and RFA reaches just 0.2% of adults weekly on radio. Medium-wave is slightly more popular, but the future for USIM in Vietnam is likely online: 26% of Vietnamese use the Internet weekly now (with much higher rates among certain populations, like the young and the well-educated), and three in four personally own a mobile phone. While Vietnam attempts to block access to sensitive sites, Vietnam is actually the most active country in our most popular Internet Anti-Censorship tools with almost 600 million hits per day.Languages that continue on shortwave:

    VOA

  • Afan Oromo/Amharic/Tigrigna to Ethiopia and Eritrea

  • Bambara

  • Burmese

  • Cantonese

  • Dari

  • English to Africa

  • English to South Sudan

  • French to Africa

  • Hausa

  • Khmer

  • Kinyarwanda/Kirundi

  • Korean

  • Kurdish

  • Mandarin

  • Pashto (to FATA and Afghanistan)

  • Portuguese to Africa

  • Somali

  • Swahili

  • Tibetan

  • Shona/Ndebele/English to Zimbabwe OCB

  • Spanish to Cuba RFE/RL

  • Avar/Chechen/Circassian

  • Belarusian

  • Dari

  • Pashto (to FATA and Afghanistan)

  • Persian

  • Russian

  • Tajik

  • Turkmen

  • Uzbek RFA

  • Burmese

  • Cantonese

  • Khmer

  • Korean

  • Mandarin

  • Tibetan

  • Uyghur MBN

  • Arabic (Afia Darfur to Sudan/Chad)

 
ALSO READ: Still no announcements on Voice of America main websites about shortwave cuts, BBG Watch, June 30, 2014.

READ MORE: Broadcasting Board of Governors has let America and Obama down, BBG Watch, June 30, 2014.

READ MORE: Some world reactions to sudden VOA shortwave shutdown in Asia, BBG Watch, June 30, 2014.

READ MORE: Last Voice of America English shortwave program to Asia with hardly any prior notice, BBG Watch, June 30, 2014.

READ MORE: IBB ends long-term partnerships with rebroadcasters in two-sentence emails and no thank you, BBG Watch, June 29, 2014.

ALSO READ: PCJ Radio making fun of Voice of America and BBG executives on radio cuts to Asia and Middle East, BBG Watch, June 29, 2014.

ALSO READ: Bureaucrats gave listeners little time to learn about shortwave cuts by VOA, RFA, and RFE/RL, BBG Watch, June 28, 2014.

ALSO READ: Dropping radio and going all digital: VOA Asia Twitter not updated since May 3, BBG Watch, June 29, 2014.
 
 

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