BBG Watch Commentary
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) plan to merge the grantee-surrogate broadcasters into one large administrative structure is meeting with a strong opposition among both management and employees of Radio Free Asia (RFA) as a killer of effective journalism, efficient management and good labor relations.
The consolidation plan is also being widely criticized by managers and employees of other BBG-run grantee-surrogate broadcasters, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), as an attempt by BBG executive staff to centralize corporate control to the detriment of specialized reporting in support of media freedom and democracy.
President of Radio Free Asia Libby Liu made the strongest case against consolidation in a memo sent to Radio Free Asia Board of Directors who are also members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency which manages RFA, RFE/RL, MBN, the Voice of America (VOA), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB — Radio and TV Marti).
All nine members (five Democrats and four Republicans) of the BBG sit on Radio Free Asia’s corporate board. Michael Meehan serves as Chair and the Vice-Chair is Victor Ashe. With the two current vacancies at the BBG, Radio Free Asia’s corporate board is made up now of the following seven Broadcasting Board of Governors members, four Democrats and three Republicans:
Michael P. Meehan, RFA Corporate Board Chair – D
Victor H. Ashe, RFA Corporate Board Vice-Chair – R
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – D
Michael Lynton – D
Susan McCue – D
Dennis Mulhaupt – R
Dana Perino – R
But party affiliations do not necessarily determine how BBG members view various recommendations from the senior executive staff. Both Ashe and Meehan have strong reservations about the consolidation plan. For example, both Meehan and McCue also sided early with Ashe in opposing the staff’s proposal to eliminate Voice of America broadcasts to China and Tibet and to reduce some RFA broadcasts. Eventually, all BBG members changed their vote on this issue. It remains to be seen how, after strong outside criticism and internal opposition to the merger plan, RFA Board members will respond to Liu’s memo.
View PDF file of the memo.
Libby Liu’s memo was in response to the Grantee Consolidation Plan, which was prepared at the request of BBG members by Brian Conniff, President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. Even though Conniff put together the report, it is being mischaracterized as “his” proposal. Conniff like Liu has serious reservations about the proposed consolidation. He keeps telling his associates that he was asked “how to do it,” not whether “it should be done.” He is also quoted as saying that he “doesn’t see the why either” and admits privately that the numbers in the report are largely guesswork. MBN sources told BBG Watch that Conniff will not rebut Liu’s memo.
Sources also told BBG Watch that the only enthusiastic supporter of the merger plan among the top management at the grantee broadcasters is RFE/RL’s new president Steven Korn. He was rumored to be former BBG chairman Walter Issacson’s pick to run the new bureaucracy, sources told BBG Watch. Both Isaacson and Korn were formerly executives at CNN and have had experience in corporate broadcasting. This may explain their approach to corporate mergers and centralization of news production, which critics say are politically unrealistic and unsuitable for U.S. taxpayer-supported overseas broadcasting to many separate audiences.
One of the key elements of Isaacson’s vision was the creation of the Global News Network to combine news output of all grantee broadcasters, Voice of America, and Radio and TV Marti. Sources told BBG Watch that heads of nearly all BBG broadcasting units are also opposed to this plan and see it as a waste of resources to support a news product for which there is no target audience inside or outside of the United States. Meanwhile, BBG/IBB executives have proposed the elimination of many broadcasts to countries with restricted media and dozens of journalistic position in anticipation of implementing the strategic plan.
Isaacson, who had embraced the strategic plan and the grantee consolidation plan developed by the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) top officials, resigned last January. But before his resignation, the Board approved their recommendations. According to critics, they used Isaacson unfamiliarity with U.S. international broadcasting and Congressional intent to push for increasing their central control and authority.
Since then, Congressional committees in the House and the Senate took bipartisan actions to rebuke various portions of the strategic plan and criticized the BBG staff for repeatedly resisting directives from Congress.
It is likely that the U.S. Senate will not approve the key component of the BBG strategy — modifications to the Smith-Mundt Act which prohibits the BBG from distributing its programs in the United States. The BBG/IBB staff convinced Isaacson and other Board members that they can get these restrictions lifted by the U.S. Congress, but after a firestorm of protests in the U.S. media, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D – NY), who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced that she favors keeping the troubling amendment out of the Senate bill and stripped out in conference committee when the House and Senate bills are reconciled.
Despite being called by other members of Congress as “opaque in [their] decision making and incredibility tone deaf to Congressional priorities,” the BBG’s management team working for the International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo continues to lobby BBG members and members of Congress to go along with the grantee consolidation plan. Knowing that the merger is highly controversial in Congress and among the grantees and their outside supporters, BBG/IBB executives are trying to push it through without congressional hearings. But they have met with strong opposition from at least one BBG member, Ambassador Victor Ashe, who is demanding a thorough public discussion of the plan’s potential risks to the efficiency, specialization and independence of grantee-surrogate broadcasters. He has accused BBG/IBB executive staff of trying to move forward with the consolidation plan and the proposed CEO position at the BBG without proper public and Congressional scrutiny. In response to Ashe’s demands, the executive staff eventually asked for public comments on the consolidation plan.
The grantee broadcasters have long been viewed as generally much better managed than the bureaucracy of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the International Broadcasting Bureau. The grantees have been valued by their audiences abroad, members of Congress and other supporters in the United States for their ability to produce highly-targeted, specialized programs at a relatively low cost to US taxpayers.
Critics of the plan argue that it will destroy the grantees’ competitive advantage and transfer control from area specialists and journalists to bureaucrats. They point as an example to management changes implemented by Steven Korn at RFE/RL, where all top managerial positions are now held by non-journalists. They replaced “old white guys,” a term reportedly used by Korn in an email to a BBG member to describe some of the previous managers who were journalists or regional and U.S. international broadcasting specialists with long professional experience. Rank and file RFE/RL employees, and particularly RFE/RL journalists, broadcasters and lower level managers, are strongly opposed to the merger, sources tell BBG Watch.
Opposition to the merger is likewise very strong managers and employees of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which include Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV.
Of all the grantee broadcasters, Radio Free Asia is reported to be particularly well managed and its top management has excellent relations with RFA employees and their union. As Libby Liu’s memo points out, in the 2011 OIG report on Radio Free Asia, RFA is described as an organization whose personnel at all levels are “dedicated to its mission of providing accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.” The report elaborates on the positive pieces of the company to conclude that, “staff morale and job satisfaction are high.” The OIG inspection further observes that RFA has “strong, experienced executive direction.”
The union representing RFA workforce sent the following letter, which was shared with BBG Watch by some of the employees:
To Whom It May Concern:
The Newspaper Guild/CWA will be watching any consolidation very carefully. Obviously we view with great concern any consolidation that potentially could fracture the excellent relationship between the union-represented employees at RFA and the current RFA management. Further, we would remind the decision makers that you can’t simply apply new policies to the Guild members. Any changes would need to be bargained. If this plan moves forward, it would behoove the BBG to engage the union earlier rather than later.
Paul A. Reilly
Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild
1100 15th Street NW Suite 350
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202 785-3650 x13
Fax 202 785-3659
In a memo to Radio Free Asia Board of Directors, RFA President Libby Liu also expressed her deep reservations and concerns about the consolidation plan. Her memo was also shared with us by RFA employees.
Liu wrote that after careful review, she is concerned that “the proposed merger may neither save money nor improve programs while contravening the clearly‐stated will of Congress.” Liu pointed out that “Radio Free Asia and RFE/RL were created by Congressionally‐enacted federal legislation in the midst of substantial debate and lobbying resistance.” “The intent of Congress is clearly stated in the conference language with each piece of the relevant law,” she told BBG members.
RFA president also stated:
“The expenditure of taxpayer money to fund a consolidation in order to achieve an organizational structure considered and rejected by the Congress when these laws were enacted, contravenes the letter and intent of actual legislation which still has the full force of the law. In the absence of a Congressional directive, such a course seems imprudent and wasteful if not irresponsible.”
RFA President Libby Liu also voiced concerns about the impact of the proposed consolidation on the journalistic performance of Radio Free Asia and other grantee broadcasters:
“Among my chief concerns is the validity of the claim that there would be no ‘negative impact on programming’. Upon review of the Plan, I interpret that claim to be literal in the sense that it means that there are no anticipated job eliminations in the ranks of the content producers. There will, however, be a dramatic negative impact on the editorial leadership insomuch as an Executive Editor is a completely different caliber of journalist than a ‘brand manager’.
Furthermore, I cannot see how having a much reduced and less specialized/more dispersed team of support (finance, human resources, technology, facilities, legal and communications) can help but adversely affect the ability of the journalists to maintain the quality of their product. The Plan assumes that the same number of content producers (or more) can be fully supported and managed by roughly one half of the support and management they currently have.
She also quoted an observation of one RFA senior manager:
“Nowhere does the grantee consolidation plan take into account the certainty that a more bureaucratic, top‐heavy organization would impede the competitiveness and the rapid journalistic decision‐ making that is required for RFA to maintain its standing with its listeners and viewers.
The plan is not designed to support effective journalism.”
Libby Liu also expressed the concern of RFA managers that the consolidation plan would result in dilution of managements’ familiarity, expertise and attention to the specialized missions of the grantees and needs of their employees.
“The cultural authenticity that prevails through RFA’s approach cannot be replicated in a larger hierarchy in which each rung of the decision‐making ladder is not intimately familiar with the history, context and nuances of each of our mandated language services,” Liu wrote to BBG members.
Other than supporting the BBG strategic plan, there does not seem to be any clear reason for actually undertaking this consolidation, the memo states:
There are no compelling arguments that a consolidated large grantee will enhance the successful delivery of content or achieve more effective impact by any of the three private corporate grantees envisioned and created by Congress. The separate missions and distinct corporate cultures are neither mentioned nor considered.
The memo points out that instead of proceeding with the unpopular and risky consolidation that would be contrary to the existing laws and Congressional intent, the BBG could take other steps to save money and increase efficiency:
Savings or improvements that can be achieved without Grantee Consolidation:
Several savings strategies which could be pursued and achieved without the disruption and negative impacts described above include the following:
- Negotiating group contracts of high value services – wire services, health insurance, other benefits.
- Subletting the DC RFE space and accommodating the RFE staff in RFA’s space at 2025 M St.
- Common secure storage capacity is currently available with no additional costs.
- Links between the offices could provide backup paths for redundancy in the near term.
- Common reporting practices can be developed for apples to apples financial analyses between the grantees.
Radio Free Asia President Libby Liu concluded her memo with the following appeal to the members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors:
“In my position as President of Radio Free Asia, my duty is to make decisions or recommendations in the best interests of Radio Free Asia after performing due diligence. Based on the information presented and discussed, I conclude that the plan as proposed demonstrates costs (or harm) far outweighing the benefits (even if accepted without substantiation).
As I have advised previously, it is the Radio Free Asia Board of Directors’ fiduciary responsibility to make decisions in the best interests of Radio Free Asia and to exercise the necessary due diligence to make an informed decision. It is entirely within your purview to come to a contrary position from mine. But I would respectfully request that you consider the best interests of Radio Free Asia when you make this decision for Radio Free Asia.
The best interests of Radio Free Asia have not been addressed or considered to my knowledge in any of the discussions, working groups or written reports to date. Neither have I heard the respective best interests of RFE/RL or MBN addressed or considered in this matter. As far as I have been informed, these decisions appear to be driven by a majority of the Broadcasting Board of Governors acting on behalf of US International Broadcasting generally – although, as noted above, I do not see the information thus far presented as substantiated, complete or persuasive that the Plan satisfies even those broader interests.
In open BBG meetings I have heard articulated the notion that this is a first step in a larger restructuring of the entire US International Broadcasting enterprise. If it is a first piece of a whole, shouldn’t the entirety of the plan be already developed, examined and approved? Standing alone as so‐called “low hanging fruit,” the proposed grantee consolidation is damaging to the people who depend on us, to national security interests, and to the effective and efficient execution of our Congressionally‐mandated mission with hypothetical benefits.”