BBG Commentary

VOA Director David Ensor
VOA Director David Ensor

The Voice of America (VOA) director David Ensor has announced that President Obama’s FY 2014 budget proposal includes elimination of VOA radio broadcasts to Iran and a cut in VOA radio to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ensor did not announce any specific cuts in executive positions at VOA or at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the bureaucracy and support organization which consumes the largest portion (35%) of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) budget. While a few management positions in the overblown bureaucracy may be lost, the vast majority of losses are in programming positions and among contractors who produce programs.

As every year, VOA and IBB bureaucrats are eliminating programs, slashing journalistic and other programming jobs while protecting their own positions.

It is not know if and when the president’s budget will be approved and how many of these cuts and reductions will be approved by Congress and will actually happen.

[aside] Voice of America director David Ensor announced the following cuts as part of the FY 2014 budget proposal:

Reduction of 24 positions for VOA English Central News.

VOA Greek Service to be eliminated (loss of 4 positions).

VOA Georgian Service to lose 4 positions.

VOA Afghan Radio to lose 10 positions.

VOA Albanian Service to lose 3 positions.

Three overseas VOA positions currently not filled will not be filled.

VOA English Service to lose goes down 11 positions.

Near East front office eliminated, combination of divisions currently existing to save six slots.

VOA Latam and Creole to lose 8 positions.

Two million dollar reduction in VOA contractor spending.

Reduction in VOA Urdu radio of 4 positions

Closure of VOA New Delhi bureau.

Voice of America radio broadcasts to Iran (PNN Radio) to cease to exist, leaving just VOA television to Iran.

Total number of lost VOA positions, including some foreign nationals employed abroad, is 84 positions in the FY 2014 budget.[/aside]

Unofficial transcript of Voice of America Director David Ensor’s meeting with VOA Central News staff, April 10, 2013

(ENSOR) “Obviously, these are very difficult budgetary times for the U.S. and the president and White House instructed international broadcasting to come up with a smaller budget and they were pretty much into the weeds about exactly how small. This is a budget developed under White House and OMB direction. Other players involved were BBG and myself, and senior leadership of the VOA.

There are reductions in this budget that I decided on, sometimes in consultation with other managers here and that I am very much content to support in a reduced budget environment. I don’t want to make any cuts…but in a reduced budget there are some that we were content to make, willing to put on the table..others that we fought and were overruled…so it is mixture of different players involved in how this budget came out.

…this is one step in a complex U.S. budget process, we do not know how it will come out. This is the President’s proposal, Congress disposes. Last year, the President made a proposal and very little of it having to do with us has come to pass. I don’t know what will happen this year…so many different players and factors involved…No actions under this budget will be taken until we have from Congress what it is they desire we do…

We will be using vacant positions to offset the reductions proposed in this budget. If this budget comes to pass or parts of it do and there are substantial numbers of vacant positions…in some ways you guys have already suffered the pain of this budget. In Central News for example, as I understand it, there are more than 20 position vacant at the moment and that is actually a pretty serious problem for your work flow and I understand that, but should this budget come to pass, the pain of this budget will be far less….very few of you will be leaving under this budget if it came to pass, because of the vacant positions.

I am not happy about this budget I am grateful that it is not as bad as fiscal 2013. And I understand very very well that having this discussion yet again is disheartening and frustrating for the folks who work….it is for me too. I also get that the limbo that you find yourselves in, of not knowing what is going to happen is hard to is for me also. I wish the US budget process were different, it needs reform, that is a news story we cover, a serious matter, but we can’t avoid it we are in the federal government, we are caught up in it.

I think, just say that I appreciate everything that folks here in Central News do every day, and I think you have made some extraordinary strides over the last year and a half in improving and increasing your relevance to what we put out and improving the journalism, which has been exciting in many cases, really interesting and good journalism is being done here. You work hard, there is professionalism here, there is skill, there is expertise, and the strongest thing I notice is the dedication to the mission, it is palpable and it’s one of the most important things about VOA, people care so much about what they do here, people are passionate.

Despite this budget, despite the vagaries, we need to keep it that way. We need to keep the standards up, we need keep our chins somewhere up here. Because we are the Voice of America, we make a huge difference for our country and we must and can continue to do so. We are in this together. I and my senior team will continue to fight and believe me, I can’t go into the details, we have fought hard and we won some as well as losing a few on this budget..will continue to fight for the VOA and its budget and its relevance and try to get you what you need to do your jobs, and I know it is threadbare in many areas.

Just a quick word about the future of the VOA…despite this and despite the various things one could say, the dark side, I think there is a good future ahead for VOA, and over the last year and a half we have done a few things to try and take advantage of some of the changes. For example, one of the first things I did when I got here was prod/push the board and get their assent so the VOA could have its own congressional liaison officer, something all other entities had, we did not were not allowed to, that has changed now…Steven works for us he works the Halls and he tells VOA’s story to our elected representatives. With the amendments of the Smith Mundt Act which will become law July 2nd I think it is, that opens up some opportunities for his work, my work, all of our work, to become better known by Americans, especially the diasporas that are from countries that we broadcast to, they know better than anybody how important what we do is here and we hope to engage in a dialogue with them. We hope that in some cases our broadcasts can be America maybe by Somalis in Minnesota…whatever, they will get to know better what we do and we are going to try to make sure that when they go talk to our elected representatives one of the things on their list that they want to say is important is the VOA and its budget and its relevance and its important, the importance of soft power for the United States. I will also be..doing more speaking, public speaking, appearing on panels..West coast tour in May..and I will be talking about VOA and what a good deal the taxpayer gets out of what we do here and how enormous the impact is… I certainly saw that on my trip to Africa two weeks ago.

So, we’re working on improving the environment within which we work, in terms of knowledge of what we do and its relevance. So I am here for less than half an hour to talk right now, but I want to continue this conversation with you about your to move VOA to help Central News be all it can be..I think we have done some amazing things this year and I think we will get through this…


(Question) 24 positions of a total of what, what is the total head count?

(Budget official identified as Barbara) There are some 124 or 123 positions domestically, the overseas positions are different so the 24 positions..there are 24 positions to be reduced, your HQ level is 123 positions and currently you have 21 vacant so right now if we were doing….it would impact three people sitting in this room.

(Question) You mean 123 in Washington or 123 nationwide? Here…and that is not including the domestic bureaus and not including overseas.

(Question) You had different people weigh in on how to make the cuts, who weighed on having Central take 24 positions, who was pushing for that?

(ENSOR) I don’t think to be honest it makes sense, and I am actually not supposed to discuss the deliberations that went into the president’s budget so I am not going to flesh that out for you.

(Question)But that didn’t come from the White House, that is a VOA decision?

(ENSOR) Well, I am not going to answer questions because frankly I am not supposed to. I told you there are three factors, three players involved and all had influence on the major parts of this budget one way or another.

(Question) By not filling any vacancies…save existing people?

(ENSOR) The other thing about this place and what we are doing, we have to be able to sort of work on several plains at the same time. I am keenly aware, Barbara is keenly aware, of the need Central News has for some more people just to get the jobs done that you are all assigned to do, so we are trying to get some temporary assignments here. At the same time…frankly we’re playing on several levels here and we’re hoping that one way or another we will be able to make some of those temporaries permanent, but we don’t know what the future holds. We have to plan for a number of contingencies, including this one.

(Question) Last time (year) you came down here and said 40 cuts or 43…to what extent did the people who departed keep position alive going forward?

(ENSOR) Well there what is it 20 positions that are vacant at the moment and some of those are the ones that were vacated by folks in the last year….

(Question)A question regarding contractors, we lost a number of contractors over the years, very few have been replaced, wondering how deep the cuts will go?

(ENSOR) In this proposal there is a $2 million cut for contractors writ large for the whole of VOA. What about Central News? It isn’t broken down yet, so I don’t have a number for you.

(Question) What is the total contractor budget that $2 million comes out of?

(Barbara) About $30 million, that includes overseas stringers as well.

(ENSOR) $30 million everybody, I mean every last stringer in Hausa/Nigeria.

(Question) Does it also include housekeeping, are we going to see it all over, contractors in HR reviewing position descriptions, does it include HR?

(ENSOR) HR is not part of the Voice of America….

(Question) Why are you saying that VOA has a bright future?

(ENSOR) Because, it has at the moment a huge and growing impact around the world for our country in terms of supplying first of all news and information in places that don’ get enough of it without us, and secondly information about the U.S, its values, culture and news that is going on here. We are good at this, people know that…we are reaching, even without counting the enormous expansion in Latin America over the last year we are reaching $134 million people a week…well over 150 million a week, that is just VOA by itself. We reach more than 75% of the audiences of USIB we are the big, we are the people with impact, we are the best bang for the buck in USIB.

And look at the situation, over a 3 year period that ended a year and a half ago, the Chinese publicly announced they were spending $8 billion in a two-year period on CCTV, Xinhua and other similar broadcasting and other kinds of soft power. Press TV, RT, our competitors on what I would frankly call the “dark side,” they believe that television and radio and Internet and mobile phones broadcasting of one kind or another is in their interest. I think they are going to waste a lot of their money, the Chinese will, because they don’t have a very attractive message, but they have hired some of the best television producers people I used to work with at ABC and CNN to make it look nice for them. We don’t have the kind of money they do to make our shows look nicer, flow well, have great pictures and all that…but we have got a better message and we have got better people and better values and we have a pretty damn good outfit here. You know people talk about VOA as being sometimes on the negative side, it’s always the federal bureaucracy, it is limited, slow — we’re not slow, we have been nimble, we have been creative, we’re moving faster than any of the others in USIB to be on the new kinds of platforms that humans are using to communicate with each other while still staying strong in radio especially in the places where that really makes a difference. We are growing radio in Africa, because there is much more audience than we can get to and I think we can and will do that.

(ENSOR) This is not a pleasant day and I am not standing here smiling….but I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. This is tough, I don’t like it, but I wanted to look you in the eye, talk to you about it directly and also say to you that I am not pessimistic about VOA’s future despite this..if we make our case I and I will do my best to do this on your behalf for this organization to the American people in all sorts of different ways and to Congress, we will be OK. I have many disadvantages as Director, but I am old enough I have been around enough, I do know people in the White House and I do know a lot of people at the State Department where I once worked, and some of that has worked to our advantage over the last year. This budget could be a lot worse than it is to be honest with you.

(Question) Can you put it in perspective David how the VOA cuts compare to the other entities?

(ENSOR) Well…when you see the budget, it is all going to be on the web at 1:30…I think you will take the view that the entity that takes the worst hit in the budget is OCB (Office of Cuba Broadcasting)…they are the hardest hit. I will say to you I think we maybe have somewhat larger reductions than some of the other entities…not entirely..about that…

(Question) Why does VOA not have an Iphone app? Do we have an Iphone app?

(Answer) Yes we have several.

(Question)  Why don’t we know about that?

(Answer)  We just unveiled a whole series of mobile apps…

(Question)   I already have BBC, I have CBC…

(ENSOR) Well they broadcast to the U.S. they have a mandate to work here, we don’t, here…

(Question)  So we can’t…?

(ENSOR) We’re all over the mobile phones in a lot of countries that we broadcast to. We can’t spend a single dollar doing that here. That said, the Smith Mundt changes are going to allow us, you’re going to start seeing our product here. We will find ways to do that, we will get creative about that in the next year.

(Question) Can you explain your vision for the future of Central News…but we here are going to be doing…who we are going to be serving…mission?

(ENSOR) I mean you guys are still the heart of the VOA and so you will remain. You cover America more than anyone else does, though the services also do. You are, you do one thing that I have reduced the amount of, but we still must have, that is a rundown of 10, 15 number to be determined by David Jones and others, the lead stories, we’re putting out a package of 10 to 15 stories, we think these are the lead, we will put those out, we will re-write the wires to make sure we have those stories if we don’t have them in some other form.

You are and increasingly will be a clearinghouse for the best material, not only produced and reported by people in Central News but by reporters throughout the house. And I think also we’re going to start doing more and more to try to use the best of the people at the other entities, in other words, we’re going to collaborate more. Kevin Klose has become the head of RFE. He is a journalist. Hallelujah. You know, I can talk the same language as he does and we’re going to be able to do some collaboration in Russia and Ukraine and others that wouldn’t have been so easy before Kevin came on board.

. . . I should have organized points for you and I don’t. You guys are central to what we do you will remain so, the roles are shifting, the media markets are shifting, the ways we have to work are changing somewhat, but some of the best reporters in town are standing in this room, and I am not saying that just to flatter you, it is true, I know it is true, and I want to make sure more and more people realize that I want to make the best possible use of our reporters. In a time when media writ large is cutting back especially on foreign coverage, we’re not, we stand out as people who cover that nexus between America and the rest of the world, foreign policy, the relationships and in some cases know more about those things than anyone else does. We’re a very unique news organization and I think we must remain that.

(Question) It is your understanding that if this budget is approved the sequester would end or could we be facing another 7 to 8 percent on top of these reductions?

(Barbara) I don’t think that there is really any known answer to that in terms of, essentially this budget will ignore the …of the sequestration, the administration created a budget based on last year with the sequestration happening in the middle so how they intersect at some point in the future is unknown, but that is why you will hear much of this day today that this budget is quote unquote DOA and it really isn’t going to be dealt with in this form from Congress.

(Question) Well is their total number higher or lower than the sequestration number?

(Answer) Higher.

(Redisch) Right now, the VOA budget is higher, the 2014 proposed budget is higher than the sequestration number.

(ENSOR) The overall US broadcasting is $731 million in this budget and is $713 under sequestration. We don’t know where it is going to end up.

(Question) Getting back to your vision of the newsroom in terms of the balance between the different media, TV, Internet, video where do you see that going, where do you think we should be. Also you mention domestic vs international, from where I sit I wouldn’t say necessarily that we have any special emphasis on domestic coverage, but you think we should, or get that more infused when we cover the rest of the world?

(Ensor) Well if you take the whole place including the features writers..I view it as one big pot frankly, then yes we do have some emphasis on the U.S. you know and we do some very good reporting about the U.S. I am hoping to see over the next year under Steve’s leadership, Sonja’s, David’s a strengthening and perhaps a few extra beats and those beats will be, you guys will all work together to figure out what we mean by a beat, the definition of a beat may be evolving but beats obviously produce on all platforms, they need to be able to do that. That is kind of an essay question.

(Redisch) As far as producing for domestic dissemination, I don’t think we’re going to put an emphasis on that, domestic dissemination would be a byproduct of whatever it is we do.

(Question) Buyouts?

(ENSOR) We don’t know. This is a very tight budget. I am clear as I stand here where the money would come from, but in principle obviously we would like to be able to help people who are trying to make a retirement decision who would like to be able to go out on that kind of a note with some extra funds, we would like to help people do that, but right now I can’t tell you what is going to happen.

(Question)Are any services going to get additional people or programs, any language services?

(ENSOR) Yes…who put you up to that? The VOA gets in the budget, this budget, $5 million additional for Africa and $200 thousand additional for Burma. Long story why — there is actually an $8 million increase, just a little less than $3 million of which would go to MBN for Maghreb, and we get $5 million to do some things in the Sahel, Nigeria and so forth, some of that would probably go to English (to Africa) as well…

(Question) I am hearing that we are not….the African service uses our stuff…I went to the Latam service this morning…if we are so central…we’re losing 20 percent of our staff? Is that our reward for being central….?

(ENSOR) What you need to do and what I need to do and what everybody in the chain needs to do is the question really. I fought for your budget, and it’s not as bad as it could have been, believe me, but it is what it is and I would just emphasize that counting vacant positions it is not a really draconian cut…may or may not become law, we will continue to fight, there are many many steps through the budget process, we will continue to argue. I do not think we could afford any more reductions and I know….Barbara is working to fill at least temporarily some of the slots in here because I know how desperate you are for people…

We have got to work on multiple levels here. I can’t really answer folks have done a lot in the last year-and-a-half to up your game in various ways. It’s a process, never finished and there is lots more we can together do to make your stuff even more relevant and effective but it already is, very very much used, Latin America uses your stuff every day without fail, so do most of the other…services.

(Question) Recent bid to fill 5 positions, is that likely to go through?

(Barbara) Yes…we still have to balance sequestration because that money…but we are looking to those areas specifically most impacted by last year’s reductions where we were held to no hiring for the longest so you’re in that boat, Spanish is in that boat, Afghan is in that boat.

Because no hiring is not a sustainable…? We know that

(Question inaudible)

(ENSOR) Under this budget proposal….ten management positions will be lost, but remember that an awful lot of what is called “management” is relevant to VOA…works for VOA…it’s a situation I do not like all that much but here it is, I arrived here, many pieces of what used to be VOA moved over to something called the IBB and I don’t control them. This is not a good set up. That is why I so strongly support something the board voted for which is to ask the president and Congress to create a CEO of international broadcasting, so there will be one full-time professional boss, not 9 part-timers, who hopefully will be hired on the basis of a resume that shows experience in journalism and media management and to whom I could appeal VOA’s case and with that kind of situation I like our chances because we are the most cost-effective part of international broadcasting, we have the most reach…

(Question) And that is contained in the budget, that request?

(ENSOR) That is a good point, the White House decided to put the proposal to create this CEO for international broadcasting into this budget. You may remember last year there was a little effort to get it through an authorization committee…it didn’t work…now they are trying it by putting it in an appropriations bill to see if it will make it through this time…and you know we will see what happens..we strongly feel and I strongly feel it is best for VOA if we can get away from a situation where I have 9 bosses..get to a situation where I have one boss.

(Question) Did IBB take a hit?

(Ensor) Yes, a severe one. As VOA director…it’s not good for us. They are many of our colleagues, people we care about, they work with us, many of them are former VOA’ers anyway and they do things that are essential to VOA. I still think of them as an extended family…we need the services…I am not thrilled, pleased about that…Yes, they did the a hit, bigger than us I would say. OK, well thank you very much for your time, thanks for the work and thank you for your service to our country.