BBG Watch Commentary
The U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) offered this weekend its international audiences minimal coverage of the Paris terror attacks and showed disastrously low audience engagement numbers on social media compared to BBC, Russia’s RT and Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), in English, Russian and other languages.
Mismanaged for years by its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), whose executives have been diverting funding and positions in their $740 million annual budget from journalism to their own bureaucracy, Voice of America with its VOA English newsroom, which is practically empty on weekends and language services which have no resources to mount a 24/7 online operation, managed to produce only a handful of news reports on the Paris attacks.
As of 8:00 PM EST, Sunday, November 15, VOA had only 9 Paris-related Facebook posts in English and 7 in Russian.
BBC English had 50 Facebook posts and BBC Russian had 27.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which like VOA is also overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, had 13 Paris-related Facebook posts in English and 17 in Russian.
Germany’s DW had 34 posts in English and 34 in Russian.
RT had 52 Facebook posts in English and 77 in Russian.
Ironically, BBC, DW, and RT had much more coverage of U.S. reactions to the Paris attacks, including comments by President Obama, than the Voice of America.
But Voice of America’s disastrous failure was most reflected in the number of Facebook “Likes” and Facebook readers’ comments for VOA’s Paris-related posts.
The total number of Voice of America Facebook “Likes” for its English-language Paris-related posts as of 10:00 PM EST, Sunday, November 16, 2015 was only 12,706 worldwide.
BBC English had 691,101 Facebook “Likes” for its Paris-related posts, about 54 times more than VOA English.
RT English had 100,399 Facebook “Likes, or nearly eight times more than VOA English.
DW English had 20,021 Facebook “Likes” for its Paris-related posts, nearly 1.6 times more than VOA English.
RFE/RL English had only 315 Facebook “Likes” for its Paris-related posts.
Even when VOA English and RFE/RL English scores are combined, they do not come anywhere near those of BBC, RT or DW.
VOA’s disastrous social media performance was even more visible in the number of Facebook readers’ comments.
VOA English Paris-related Facebook posts had only 386 comments as of 10:00 PM EST Sunday.
BBC English had 39,703 comments, a hundred times more than VOA English.
RT English had 13,527 Facebook comments, 35 times more than VOA English.
DW English had 1,310 Facebook comments, nearly 3.4 times more than VOA English.
RFE/RL English had only 32 Facebook comments.
The Voice of America did even more poorly in terms of audience engagement through social media on the Paris terror story in foreign languages, including Russian.
VOA Russian Facebook posts on the terror attacks showed only 196 total “Likes” and 105 total readers’ comments as of 10:00 PM EST Sunday.
BBC Russian Facebook posts had 5,654 “Likes” and 587 readers’ comments — nearly 29 times more “Likes” than VOA Russian and nearly 5.6 times more comments than VOA Russian.
DW Russian Paris-related Facebook posts had 1,775 “Likes” and 166 comments — nine times more “Likes” than VOA Russian and about 60 more comments than VOA Russian.
RT Russian Facebook posts on Paris terror attacks had 4,807 Facebook “Likes” and 1,489 comments — 24.5 times more “Likes” than VOA Russian and 14 times more readers’ comments than VOA Russian.
RFE/RL Russian Facebook posts had 2,431 “Likes” and 180 comments.
Number of Facebook Paris Terror-Related Posts in English and Russian By International Broadcasters – November 13 – November 15, 2015, 8:00 PM EST
Number of Facebook Likes for Paris Terror-Related Posts in English By International Broadcasters – November 13 – November 15, 2015, 10:00 PM EST
Number of Facebook Likes for Paris Terror-Related Posts in Russian By International Broadcasters – November 13 – November 15, 2015, 10:00 PM EST
Number of Facebook Comments for Paris Terror-Related Posts in English By International Broadcasters – November 13 – November 15, 2015, 10:00 PM EST
Number of Facebook Comments for Paris Terror-Related Posts in Russian By International Broadcasters – November 13 – November 15, 2015, 10:00 PM EST
This is how a former senior Voice of America journalist compared VOA’s and BBC’s coverage of the Paris terror attacks:
“In recent years we have seen numerous examples of BBC superiority in breaking news coverage, compared to VOA.
On the Paris terrorist attack story, BBC showed yet again why it is globally respected for its breaking news coverage.
The London-based news organization has a 24 hour global television operation and is able to make use of the various parts of its well-oiled machine to produce compelling video and online content, including live stand-ups and Q&As with its reporters on the scene.
Online, the BBC was observed to have a main lead ‘Paris Attacks Leave Dozens Dead’ with several sub-links, including LIVE coverage, In Pictures Paris Shootings, Footage Shows Paris Attack Scenes, and Paris Attacks: A Lot of Dead People. Notably, there was a link to a full page devoted to coverage.
In contrast, VOA did what it often does — stuck a main story up with photo, and a link to some video, and as observed at about 2300 UTC, one tweet from British Primer Minister Cameron. That was pretty much it from the Voice of America.
One assumes, though we did not hear it, that VOA used newsroom-produced copy on whatever passes for its on-air radio/Internet newscasts.
VOA’s primary reporter at the time of the attacks was Lisa Bryant, a stringer the VOA has relied on for years since closing its Paris bureau. VOA apparently has moved its London reporter into the French capital, and was also using another reporter Jamie Dettmer.
On the BBC full page devoted to the attacks, a user could find Key Points, Key Video, and Live coverage, including a bylines of three BBC World reporters assigned to handle breaking events. BBC provided at least four separate video links.
This is where BBC excels — not only does it consistently demonstrate superiority in reacting within seconds to breaking news, but it breaks stories into their component parts, giving its online audiences numerous content choices.
VOA, meanwhile, stuck the names of any reporters involved in providing material at the bottom of its one and only story, in barely-readable light font type.
After President Obama’s statement at the White House, VOA lagged slightly behind BBC in getting presidential content into news stories. BBC posted full video of Obama’s statement fairly quickly after the president’s briefing room statement.
What stands out, of course, is that VOA has no live TV presence. That’s not a surprise. VOA is a non-presence around the world when it comes to this. Yet, its so-called “Digital First’ strategy has been far less effective than its originators intended.
Observed the day after the Paris attacks, the main VOA story [on the VOA English website] was seen to have only FOUR comments.
Overall — VOA has improved when it comes to responding to breaking news like the Paris attacks. However, it should be noted again that this came only after intense criticism by BBG Watch and others of numerous breaking news failings.
It should also be noted that the new BBG CEO John Lansing has made a point of saying that VOA should not be focusing on what he calls ‘spot news’. It remains unclear what his timeline for this is, and to what extent he expects other BBG entities.”
A BBG staffer sent this comment:
“We don’t have any people.
Like every other corner of this building, everyone has been cut to the bone.
If they were to put another segment on the air after Midnight we couldn’t do it.
Because I now have only one studio technician on Third Shift. And the Intake Center for incoming feeds now closes at 9:00 p.m. In fact, Central Recording is now down to only five technicians and studios are down to 39 techs total.
There is no “wiggle room” in the schedule to do a series of add-on broadcasts for a significant event such as Paris. Much of our radio programming is now digitally automated playback.
And it’s not any better in the newsroom either. I just got an e-mail from English news today saying that many of our programs during the Christmas season will be done without a producer in the studio because central news does not have the personnel for vacation relief. So, our techs will be taking cues from talent with the hope that everything will go OK.”
Some in Congress may think that something is actually being done at the Voice of America.
The presentations that the BBG provides to Congress are slick indeed and they project the image that BBG and VOA are doing great things with little budget. (BBG’s entire budget is not so little: $740 million — more than RT’s or DW’s. VOA’s budget within the BBG’s budget is about $200 million. Much of BBG’s budget goes to the agency’s bureaucracy. RT may be using trolls to beef up its social media statistics, but it’s unlikely that BBC and DW are engaging in such practices. BBC English News may have more resources than VOA, but not overwhelmingly more to explain such an enormous difference in social media performance. Any differences between budgets for BBC Russian and VOA Russian is likely minimal. Both RT and DW have smaller budgets than the BBG.)
A BBG staffer reported:
“Here’s another curious thing I just found out moments ago:
Since the Intake Center now closes at 9:00 p.m., all calls coming from stringers and reporters worldwide for our various language services now get routed through Radio Master Control until the Intake Center opens up again the next morning at 6:00 a.m.
Has there had been any influx of calls coming in due to the incident in Paris?
The answer is, Nope. It’s just like any other night with very few calls.
Also, there was no influx in Walk-In recording by the various language services with additional news stories to voice either.”
The most devastating critique of the BBG/VOA management, however, came earlier in a form of a comment about VOA broadcasts to Pakistan.
The comment was titled:
Ashamed of my Job after 15 years
After 15 years as a journalist at VOA, I have reached rock bottom. I am ashamed of my job.
VOA CAN IT GET ANY WORSE? YES, IT CAN!
Deewa Radio, Voice of America’s Pashto language service to the volatile border region of Northwest Pakistan, commenced in 2009. Its target audience resides in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, home to some of the most poor and isolated populations in Central Asia.
US drone strikes target the FATA area and it has been a wild west area for the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Surveys have shown that the drone strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where they have contributed to a negative perception of the United States. There is, perhaps, no more important area for the mission of both US public diplomacy and the mission of the Voice of America.
Now senior managers have a plan to expand Deewa radio to Deewa TV.
Television watchers in the area have few choices. Pakistan state television is the only broadcaster on terrestrial television. Headquartered in Islamabad, it is visually sophisticated, using cutting edge video technology and state of the art studios for its news broadcasts. Those few residents with the money to purchase a satellite dish are able to downlink other broadcasters, such as: Al Jazeera and the BBC world Service, both well-regarded and sophisticated players on the global media market with vibrant, fast-paced and polished news broadcasts
VOA plans to step into this market soon, however, not with visually sophisticated, state-of-the-art production, not with cutting edge technology and not with “vibrant, fast-paced and polished news broadcasts.”
VOA’s plan is to put two guys in an old TV studio and have them talk on the telephone to Pakistan. That’s right. Remember 1980s cable access channels? Well, they are still alive and thriving at the Voice of America. Our so-called leadership truly believes that producing seven hours a week of untrained TV ANCHORS TALKING ON THE TELEPHONE to (unseen) people in Pakistan passes for a news program that can both inform and influence the people of the region. Now, how can they possibly believe that televising a radio call-in show is competitive and effective news broadcasting? There are only two ways:
Reason #1 With colonialist condescension, they actually believe the inhabitants of this region are so backward and unsophisticated that they will find this type of so-called TV program interesting. (Maybe residents of the region will also wonder “how those little tiny people got into that box”!) As if those who live in Waziristan are too stupid to see the obvious quality difference between BBC and Al Jazeera programming and the embarrassingly amateurish drivel produced by VOA.
Reason #2 They don’t believe it. They know that VOA is producing junk. But they also know NO ONE WILL LOOK AT IT AND DEMAND ACCOUNTABILITY! Not their bosses. Not Congress. No one. VOA senior management will be able to write in official documents and to say in Capitol Hill testimony that “VOA broadcasts 7 hours a day of TV news to NW Pakistan” and no one will ever ask “What EXACTLY do you broadcast? Show it to us. “ No one will compare their content to the BBC’s or Al Jazeera’s because NO ONE in the US GOVERNMENT WATCHES THE VOA PROGRAMS! No one at VOA management, no one at the IBB, no one on the BBG board, no one at the White House, no one at the State Department, and no one at Capitol Hill – those who allocate our funding.
And if Lansing is watching them – which I truly doubt – any questions he has about the poor quality will be batted away by the IBB bureaucrats who will assure him everyone is working to improve quality.
VOA IS NOT TRYING TO IMPROVE QUALITY.
Just the opposite. Our current leadership is working only to increase output – output that is guaranteed to be of the lowest, most amateurish production — because six or ten people in a service can’t possibly produce a good daily television show in addition to several hours of radio and a 24 hour website. VOA management only cares about the number of hours it can claim to broadcast, not the content of those broadcasts, so employees are left to “shovel shi*t on the air” in order to fill airtime. The demand for additional programs that is coming from the 3rd floor has left professional journalists laughing in the hallways – because it is no longer sad, it is now absurd.
STOP INTRODUCING NEW PROGRAMS. FIX THE ONES WE ALREADY HAVE!
So here is my idea for BBG Watch. Please bring in a television professional, perhaps a retired network producer from ABC or CBS and show him our content.
Show him the so-called high-priority Russian Show (a joint program with RFE that is so bad the acting head of RFE actually flew to Washington to beg Acting VOA Director Kelu Chau to improve its quality.)
Show him the programming output of the English Division. Hours of badly produced junk that goes up on a satellite to NO WHERE!
Show him the absurd Radio-on-Television programs that do little more than insult the intelligence and sophistication of viewers around the world.
Have him look at the programming on the “satellites to nowhere” and issue a report on their professionalism.
Ask him to rate the production values of our content: the quality of the video and audio, the lack of video sequences, the amateurish framing, the lack of white balance, the hands and arms that appear in soundbites, the video elements that are splattered into a package instead of stacked, the constant use of old b-roll, and, overall, the structure-less video we glue on top of a radio track and call a TV package and news report.
Then post these programs on your website along with the critiques of professionals and send the links to Congress and The White House.
That will get their attention!”
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