BBG Watch Commentary
In early 2011, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) proposed to eliminate Voice of America’s Mandarin and Cantonese language radio and TV broadcasts to China, and cut 65% of staffs and budget of VOA China Branch. Despite overwhelming evidence that the Chinese government had almost total control of the Internet in the PRC, the BBG proposed transferring those VOA China radio/TV operations exclusively to the Internet. The U.S. Congress stopped BBG’s plan.
Congressional Directives for the BBG
• In the Senate Subcommittee report No. 112-85 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill for FY-2012, it states that “the Committee directs the BBG to notify the Committee when BBG broadcast hours are reduced or increased and when transmission platforms are changed.”
• The FY2012 report also states that “…the Committee is concerned with the lack of clarity about the impact of the China broadcast restructuring proposal on all VOA radio and television programs broadcast to the PRC and Taiwan, and the lack of transparency of the ‘optimize BBG transmission’ proposal. The Committee does not support either proposal and includes funding for the continuation of these broadcasts and transmissions.”
• The Senate Appropriations Bill on State/Foreign Operations, in the section “Related Agency, Broadcasting Board of Governors, International Broadcasting Operations,” states that: “Reductions and increases to BBG broadcast hours previously justified to Congress, including changes to transmission platforms (shortwave, medium wave, satellite, and television), for all BBG language services shall be subject to the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.”
BBG Actions in Contradiction with Congressional Directives
Year after year, the U.S. Congress appropriates the funds and in authorizing language provides the BBG specific directions regarding the conduct of U.S. international broadcasting in the national security interests of the United States. Year after year, the BBG chooses to ignore its Congressional mandates. This happened again in 2012. Disregarding the express wishes of the Congress, the BBG at first tried to cut 4 hours of Mandarin radio broadcasting to China and to replace it with a one-hour Mandarin satellite TV program. After the Congress didn’t concur with the cutting, the BBG tried another tactic and decided, instead of cutting outright, to replace the 2 hours of live broadcasts in the afternoon (Beijing time morning) with reruns, starting May 6, 2012. It is worth noting that changing live broadcasting hours to repeats has always been the precursor for actually cutting the broadcasts altogether because once the program is repeated with old news, the listenership declines.
BBG’s strategic plan is still to eventually eliminate all shortwave radio broadcasting to China, even if the Congress says otherwise, although other forms of transmission have not been proven to be as effective as shortwave radio broadcasts.
Consequences of BBG’s new maneuver in Cutting Radio Transmissions
• A 17-hour news gap (from 12 pm EDT to 5 am EDT the next day) of on-air broadcasts every day
• The long gap of news updates on air and lack of original reports have hurt VOA’s reputation in China (one longtime listener’s complaint is attached)
• Less visits to VOA Chinese website because of diminished content material on VOA Chinese website which was the direct result from assigning around 80% of manpower to produce two hours of TV programs
• Serious shortage of manpower, training, equipment, facilities, and other necessary resources for optimum and competitive TV program production. TV program production costs much more than radio program production, at least at a ratio of 7:1. There are simply not enough trained journalists or equipment such as computers and editing equipment for TV program production to produce an effective product.
• This reduction in radio broadcasts happened at the height of the dramatic Chen Guangcheng incident. While Mr. Chen and many human rights supporters in China desperately listened to VOA for latest developments, VOA stopped broadcasting in China’s morning hours.
Congressional reaction to BBG’s new maneuver
On May 24, 2012, the Senate State/Foreign Operations Subcommittee on Appropriations issued its FY2013 report, and once again, repeated what it had stated in its FY-2012 report. Subsequently, the Subcommittee report was approved by the full Senate Committee on Appropriations. In the section “New Program Initiatives,” it states “The Committee supports BBG’s efforts to identify new program formats but is concerned that BBG proposes reductions in current programs before testing new program models for effectiveness, particularly in priority languages. Therefore, the Committee recommends funding to sustain BBG broadcasts to the PRC as well as for the VOA Mandarin television initiative begun in fiscal year 2012.”
On May 15, 2012, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, wrote a letter to Congresswoman Kay Granger, Chairman of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the House Committee on Appropriations, and Congresswoman Nita Lowey, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of House Committee on Appropriations, stating that “I recommend in the strongest terms that the Appropriations Committee include report language along with the FY 13 Foreign Operations bill that directs the Voice of America to maintain 8 hours of live daily Mandarin radio at FY 12 transmission power levels and on the same number of frequencies. Specific and strong report language is clearly required to maintain the irreplaceable radio infrastructure of VOA until other forms of broadcasting can be proven to work in China.”
In the House Appropriations Subcommittee Report language for FY2013, under Broadcasting to Asia, it specifically states “The committee supports maintaining a diversified broadcasting program to China that includes the continuation of short wave broadcast services. The committee does not concur with the proposed cuts in VOA and RFA broadcasting to East Asia. The Committee directs the BBG to continue such broadcasts, including to China (Cantonese and Mandarin), Tibet, Lao, and Vietnam, at not less than the fiscal year 2012 levels as measured both by funding and broadcast platform hours.”
• Immediately restore the two hours of original live daily Mandarin broadcasting to China which BBG has replaced with a replay program. Restore the full eight hours of original live daily Mandarin broadcasting to China. This means restoring live broadcast studio time, manpower, funding, and other necessary resources.
• Any future initiative for broadcasting to China should not sacrifice the current Mandarin radio and Internet operations until new program models are proven effective.
VOA CHINA AUDIENCE COMPLAINTS ON VOA MANDARIN BROADCAST CUTS
Mr. Hu from Anhui province commented on VOA programming during a live call-in show on Friday, May 25, 2012. He has used short-wave radio, satellite, and the web to access VOA content for over 28 years. He said:
The US government, regarding certain issues, to use a Chinese way of saying it, is quite foolish. The United States made a serious mistake in not seeking a “reciprocal media presence” with China. At present, CCTV, The People’s Daily, and even the Xinmin Evening News’s foreign edition have expanded into the US market. But we in Mainland China are unable freely to watch any US TV, listen to any US radio broadcasts, or read any US newspapers/magazines/publications. In dealing with China, you (US) should insist on equal media presence as a basic condition. Without such conditions, we in China are unable to access information from the American side, individual cases [such as Chen Guangcheng] and the overall situation of human rights, and you Americans can hardly keep up with all the changes in China.
For example, VOA morning news has been cancelled, so has the 6:00am-8:00am program. This is a regression. When America has regressed, what hope is there for human rights in China?
Although it is difficult to listen to VOA right now, we must persevere. During the Cultural Revolution, it was difficult to listen to VOA. Compared to today, it was tens, hundreds or even thousands of times harder. At that time, listening to VOA would lead to arrests and even death sentence. Right now, at the very least, you can still listen to VOA. In the past, you had long (broadcast) hours, but now, you continuously reduce broadcasting time. In the past you had 12 hours of programming, then, reduced it to 8 hours, and now, it is 6 hours. Your (broadcasting) hours keep getting shorter, what is left for the audience to listen to? Your programming is also losing perspectives and is getting narrower in scope. Good radio programs like Legal Issues and Americana programs do not exist anymore.