International Broadcasting Bureau – Dysfunctional and Defunct (The Agency’s Branding Label): Return To The Russian Front
by The Federalist
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
– Sir Winston Churchill, Radio broadcast, October 1, 1939
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has put out a press release (“Russians Turning to Internet for Unbiased News,” February 6, 2014).
Timed to coincide with the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia the press release shows the results of surveys in Russia conducted by the Gallup organization in 2013 as part of its five-year, $50-MILLION dollar 5-year contract with the agency.
Public polling in a foreign country like Russia and China is something of a dicey proposition. They can be reflected of conditions inside the country combined with the intended direction of the questions being asked. Both can influence responses, as well as a desire of a foreign company to continue to do business.
On its face, this survey isn’t particularly good news for the BBG or the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
Some observations reflected in this survey:
- External programming is having a tough time on radio and television in Russia where programs are scrutinized, censored or pulled off the air altogether, sometimes also revoking the broadcast licenses of stations.
- Freedom House ranked Russia at position 176 out of 196 countries for press freedom in 2013.
- The agency claims the Internet is one of the least-controlled avenues for news and information in Russia with 70 percent penetration into Russian homes in 2013.
- A robust Internet strategy is necessary to engage younger generations of Russians.
The press release is also good for a quotable quote from Michael Meehan, member of the BBG:
“On the eve of the Olympics, it is fitting that we can be here today to discuss this data and how we as broadcasters can effectively use taxpayer dollars to provide news and information that Russians just aren’t receiving from their local press,” said BBG Governor Michael Meehan. That data, he explained, informs the BBG on how best to reach Russian audiences.
We’ll return to Governor Meehan’s statement later in the piece, but we think Governor Meehan already he knows that anything IBB officials and strategists process, make decisions and deliver to the Board for pro forma approval can put BBG members into a lot of trouble. It did in the past and it will do again, unless BBG members exercise real leadership and oversight.
We also took a look at the PowerPoint presentation linked to the press release. PowerPoint presentations are often favored by Bruce Sherman, one of the authors of the agency’s failed “strategic plan.”
Certain things caught our eye in the PowerPoint slides:
- There is no mention of any international broadcaster as a percentage of Russian audiences: no radio, no TV and no Internet. Nothing.
- There is no mention as to who Russians specifically go to as external sources of news and information, including on the Internet.
On its face, certain things in the survey should be worrisome to the BBG/IBB especially as far as their mantra of “supporting freedom and democracy:”
- When asked about the most suitable political system for Russia, a combined 54% favor either a Soviet system or a hybrid Soviet system that is more democratic and market based. Only 18% favor a Western styled democracy.
- When asked if they are satisfied with the way democracy works in their country, a combined 34% were either very dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied. On the other side of the spectrum, a combined 19% were very or somewhat satisfied. The majority portion (43%) was neutral in this 2013 survey.
- A combined 78% believe an active opposition is important.
- Interestingly, in 2013 48% of respondents believed the media in Russia have a lot of freedom.
- Television continues to dominate (86%) the way Russians get their news. It is important to note that the vast majority of Russian television and other media are either controlled or watched very closely by the Russian government.
- The vast majority of Russians (89%) are interested the most in news about Russia.
- At the same time, only 51% are interested in news about the United States; of that total, only 13% are very interested. This is more bad news for the BBG/IBB.
Overall, the big problem for the BBG/IBB is finding a niche in what the Gallup poll describes as an “overcrowded (media) landscape.”
With this in mind, we return to Governor Meehan’s quote in the press release:
“On the eve of the Olympics, it is fitting that we can be here today to discuss this data and how we as broadcasters can effectively use taxpayer dollars to provide news and information that Russians just aren’t receiving from their local press,” said BBG Governor Michael Meehan. That data, he explained, informs the BBG on how best to reach Russian audiences (emphasis added).
In turn, we have three questions for IBB strategic planners whom Governor Meehan knows well because of their bad advice in the past to him and the Board:
Question: Who ended direct radio and satellite television broadcasting to Russia by the Voice of America (VOA) Russian Service in 2008, not many days before the Russians conducted military operations against the Republic of Georgia?
Answer: The previous BBG Board on the strong advice of IBB officials. (Sources report the BBG decision wasn’t unanimous).
Question: Who attempted to decimate the credible, veteran Russian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), or at least did nothing as it was being done?
Answer: IBB officials.
Question: Where is the “Russia Review,” that was supposed to be written in the aftermath of the RFE/RL fiasco?
Answer: Someone needs to ask IBB’s Jeffrey Trimble that question, as he was tasked to do it.
In short, as far as VOA is concerned, the agency has no relevant broadcasting presence in Russia of any consequence. Without the effort to rescue the RFE/RL Russian Service (Radio Liberty / Radio Svoboda), the absence of uncensored, locally-focused Russian language broadcasting media funded by the US Government in the Russian Federation would have been complete. A highly respected, independent Russian media scholar Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy concluded in a 2011 study commissioned by IBB officials that the VOA Russian website had a “pro-Putin bias.” IBB officials did everything possible to make sure the study would be forgotten.
The medium is not a substitute for the message and for good management, which IBB strategists and officials have been incapable of providing.
Governor Meehan knows this. These are issues and examples from recent history that also should have more weight in how newer BBG members think about IBB’s senior staff.
As far as being able to “effectively use taxpayer dollars to provide news and information that Russians just aren’t receiving from their local press,” the BBG has a big problem as long as it keeps following IBB officials’ advice.
To our way of thinking, aside from intentional actions reducing the US Government media footprint in Russia and reducing news delivery in favor of fluff journalism (the trend reversed at RFE/RL but continuing full-speed with the blessing of IBB’s strategic planners at the Voice of America (VOA), the agency’s focus seems to be almost entirely on the (newer) technology platforms and not on the message or the image of the agency and of the United States in Russia and elsewhere. Regardless of the technology, the Russian government appears to have effective countermeasures in place, for every platform chosen by the IBB. It is time to focus on the message and good management. May be then, audience research, augmented with in-house expert knowledge at RFE/RL and combined with the ability to interpret it, will come in handy as Governor Meehan seems to suggest.
But if you are Vladimir Putin or people working for him in the arena of media and communications, you have to be feeling pretty good these days.
The IBB/Gallup survey handed you a gift, maybe a whole truckload of gifts:
- You have successfully garnered control of Russian domestic media and at the same time put some serious hurt on external media and their ability to bring alternative news to Russia. The message to domestic Russian media: you do things the Russian way or, you don’t do anything at all. That message has been heard loud and clear.
- The IBB/Gallup survey says that the Russian people are increasing their view that their media has a lot of freedom: 48% as opposed to 42% in 2010! In short, the policies of Vladimir Ilyich are “moving the market!”
- The Russian people are more interested in news about Russia than news about the United States. First order of business: understand the Russian people. Russian people know that news on the home front comes first.
- The IBB/Gallup poll shows that the Russian government has to give opposition elements in the country “a piece of the action.”
- The survey also shows that Russian people are not all that keen on Western-style democracy. A lot of people – at least in the survey – like the heyday of the Soviet system or want a hybrid form of a Soviet/market-based system with some democratic concepts.
Yes. If you are Vladimir Putin, you have to be feeling pretty good right now. And one can be certain that Mr. Putin won’t rest on the results to this point. A lot of work remains to be done. But there is some measure of comfort in seeing things seemingly turning in the intended direction.
Mr. Putin also should be feeling pretty good with the success of RT (formerly known as Russia Today) in reaching an international audience, particularly in North America.
And there’s more:
The Russians are proud people. They have a sense a national pride, which they clearly hope to build upon by way of the Winter Olympics.
Russians have their own unique way of looking at the world. They have been studying the United States all the way back to the time of George Washington. They may know us better than we know them. Indeed, they may know us better than we know ourselves!
(The so-called “Reset” in relations between the United States and Russia is also a bust. See: “A Front-Row Seat for the Death of the Russian ‘Reset,’” by Matthew Kaminski, the Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2014).
More bad news for the agency, in so many words.
Lastly, at times in reading the press release, we are not sure whose Russia IBB “strategists” were talking about.
Let’s make a point:
There is no way that in the long-run Mr. Putin is going to allow Western media a free hand in Russia via the Internet, mobile devices or anything else. That would not be the Russian way. Not by a long shot. If nothing else, tightening up Internet controls is on Mr. Putin’s “To Do” list. More than likely, the Russians will adopt a model much like that used by the Chinese and Iranians, including applying technology to monitor Internet usage by individual users in Russia.
Last but not least, Mr. Putin has the traitor Edward Snowden in his Russian stable. Need we say more?
The Russian government is headed by a trained professional, as we like to say. It would be a fair assessment to say that Mr. Putin does not respect the United States leadership. With a policy of “leading from behind,” the United States appears weak and cowardly.
The Russians lead from the front.
Except for the folks of the RFE/RL Russian Service, we have lost an audience in Russia of any meaningful consequence.
Advantage Mr. Putin.
FEBRUARY 6, 2014
Washington, DC — Although television remains the most prevalent medium in Russian households, Internet access is rising dramatically nationwide, according to media research data released today by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.“On the eve of the Olympics, it is fitting that we can be here today to discuss this data and how we as broadcasters can effectively use taxpayer dollars to provide news and information that Russians just aren’t receiving from their local press,” said BBG Governor Michael Meehan. That data, he explained, informs the BBG on how best to reach Russian audiences.
Russia’s restrictive media environment is increasingly limiting broadcast avenues for non-state media. Television and radio stations carrying programming deemed “unfavorable” by Russian authorities often find themselves targeted by the Kremlin and pushed off the air.
These restrictions are not going by unnoticed — the data from the BBG media survey show that there is dissatisfaction among Russians with the limited news and opinions that major Russian media provide; 30% of adults said that Russian media do not offer enough variety in perspectives on current events and issues. A 2013 Gallup World Poll survey of Russia found that only 48% of respondents felt that media in Russia was free, and Freedom House ranked Russia 176 out of 196 countries for press freedom in 2013.
The Internet, however, is one of the least-controlled avenues for news and information in Russia. The survey results released today show that as more Russians get Internet access – seven in 10 have access at home in 2013 – more of them are getting their news online. A majority of Russians (56.4%) said they receive their news from the Internet at least once a week. The Internet outdistances traditional media such as newspapers and magazines (49.8%) and radio (43.8%) as a source for weekly news. And, as Paul Tibbitts, RFE/RL Director of Market Insight and Evaluation observed, “With this increasingly Internet savvy audience that expects on-demand, personalized news, a robust Internet strategy is key to engaging younger, digital audiences and expanding reach in Russia.”
A research brief and presentation with further information about this data can be found here, and a recording of the briefing will be added in the coming days. More information about the BBG’s media research series is available here.