BBG Watch Commentary
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists, former Minister of Communications of Lithuania, and two members of the U.S. Congress are urging the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to consider expansion of radio broadcasts — shortwave, medium wave (AM), FM, DRM, Internet, satellite — to eastern Ukraine and Russia in response to incessant propaganda by the Kremlin’s television and radio channels.
These calls for greater use of radio as medium are strongly resisted by the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and some Voice of America (VOA) executives even in cases when no extra funding may be required. BBG Watch fears that proposals to use radio to reach audiences exposed to Putin’s propaganda will be ignored.
Several years ago, IBB officials had made a strategic decision to eliminate or significantly reduce radio and to some degree also serious news reporting by VOA and other BBG entities in order to expand digital media program delivery platforms and placement of programs on local affiliates. Attempts were made to also weaken serious news reporting at RFE/RL, but those were to a large degree successfully resisted. Radio Free Asia (RFA) has also resisted attempts to increase soft programming at the expense of news.
At this time, some IBB and VOA officials are still strongly against any expansion of radio and improvements in news coverage that might require them to spend money which they control. They have already diverted large resources from radio and news production at VOA, leaving very little VOA radio and news content of sufficient quality to appeal for sophisticated foreign audiences. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, however, still has some radio broadcasting capability left, but lacks adequate program delivery, which IBB fully controls and is supposed to provide with the incredibly high 34% portion of the BBG’s entire budget.
After President Putin made his move to occupy Crimea, BBG Watch has learned of desperate appeals by RFE/RL Russian and Ukrainian journalists to start rebroadcasts of Radio Liberty Russian and Ukrainian radio programs on leased FM and AM transmitters in eastern Ukraine. These appeals have been so far completely ignored.
“It is necessary for BBG and IBB to start as soon as possible talks with the new authorities in Kiev to organize effective broadcasting of Radio Liberty Russian Service news programs from leased FM and AM transmitters to reach audiences in eastern Ukraine and southern Russia,” upset and concerned RFE/RL journalists told the management on numerous occasions. Radio Liberty broadcasters reported that they have not received any arguments from the management against this proposal except that IBB considers them as “too expensive.” Most of IBB’s money is tied up in salaries after its executives increased the number of IBB positions by 37% in the last seven years while at the same time cutting or reducing numerous VOA and other broadcasts and news.
BBG Watch suspects that nothing has been done by IBB to pursue rebroadcasting from Ukraine, which in fact may not be expensive at all, as Ukrainian authorities are just as eager to provide objective news to their Russian-speaking citizens, as well as Russian speakers in Russia. Unlike VOA, RFE/RL still has a viable Russian language and Ukrainian language radio news programs that badly need improved program delivery.
“FM and AM broadcasting for Crimea and eastern Ukraine in Russian can be done from Kharkiv, Chernigov and Melitopol regions. These rebroadcasts of Radio Liberty Russia (and Ukrainian) news programs would extend over nearby territory and also southern Russia. Such FM and AM rebroadcasts of Radio Liberty would provide coverage of Kursk, Belgorod, and Rostov regions in Russia. Reestablishing of effective and safe radio broadcasting to Russia is urgently needed because of the threat of blocking of Internet sites by the Kremlin,” RFE/RL journalists said.
IBB should have started planning for local FM and AM rebroadcasts in Ukraine long time ago. This move would be good not only for the BBG and U.S. public diplomacy, but also for the new government in Kyiv. It would also be a good funding opportunity for the State Department, USAID, or other U.S. government agencies that may want to help both U.S. international broadcasting and Ukraine at the same time. This kind of funding would not be seen as U.S. government interference with news since it would be applied only to program delivery. It is another option IBB and VOA executives should be pursuing.
Meanwhile two members of Congress are urging BBG Chairman Jeff Shell to start shortwave news broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia using U.S. government staff and U.S. government transmitting equipment at the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville, NC, which is operated by IBB and BBG.
Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and Congressman Walter B. Jones (R-NC) sent a letter to BBG Chairman Jeff Shell in which they argue for using U.S. government transmitting resources (and, by the way, also protecting U.S. jobs and increasing domestic support for U.S. international broadcasting — BBG Watch observation) in response to the emergency situation in Crimea, Ukraine, and on the Russian border with Ukraine.
Congress of the United States
Washington, DC 20515
March 27, 2014
The Honorable Jeff Shell
Broadcasting Board of Governors
330 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20237
Dear Chairman Shell:
We continue to be concerned with the future of the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville, North Carolina. Funding for the Murrow Station was reduced and transferred to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) last fiscal year, and now its proposed funding has been further reduced in the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Budget at a crucial time in American foreign policy. We are troubled by these changes.
The Murrow Station fulfills a critical mission in our nation’s foreign policy efforts. In light of the unlawful and egregious actions taken by the Russian Federation in Crimea, and its recent announcement to increase its military presence worldwide, now is the time to increase our utilization of the shortwave transmission capabilities of the Murrow Station, not decrease them.
We are not alone in our desire for robust international broadcasting operations. In fact, on Tuesday, March 25, 2014, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed H.R. 4278, the Ukraine Support Act, which contains increased funding for programming to Ukraine and Crimea to provide factual information on political and economic developments and to counter misinformation produced by Russian supported news outlets. This bill will be voted on by the House of Representatives later this week and will likely become law. We believe the Murrow Station, which was created during the Cold War to combat Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and Latin America, is well positioned to assist in this effort.
The Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station has been an integral foreign policy asset for our country for over 50 years and we intend for it to remain an asset for many more years to come. We believe strongly that the Murrow Station possesses unique capabilities that are desperately needed to bolster our foreign policy efforts now and in the future. We respectfully request justification for the BBG’s decision to decrease funding for the Murrow Station in its FY15 budget request. We would also like to know to what extent and capacity the BBG intends to use the Murrow Station over the next five years.
Thank you very much.
Very truly yours.
Member of Congress
Walter B. Jones
Member of Congress
The shortwave option may not be as effective as local FM and AM retransmissions due to diminished shortwave listenership, but it offers several advantages that other options do not provide. Shortwave broadcasting should be utilized together with other means, including the Internet, as part of a multimedia and multi-platform program delivery strategy that will not be made completely ineffective if Russia decides to block RFE/RL and VOA news websites. The current IBB strategy for Russia and Ukraine relies heavily on unobstructed Internet access. While there is nothing wrong with having strong Internet and social media presence and audience engagement, IBB forgets that the Internet cannot be relied upon in a national security emergency. IBB strategic planners also ignore the fact that a significant segment of the aging and poor population in the region, among which many Putin supporters are recruited by his propaganda, do not have and are not likely to have access to the Internet.
Another advantage to the shortwave Greenville option is that could be launched without any delay, using U.S. government equipment and personnel. It is one of the few options, and possibly the only option, that could not be shut down by local authorities abroad or eliminated by Russia in case of a further Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a strong U.S. national security asset.
But even after recent management reforms undertaken by Chairman Shell and the renewed BBG board, IBB interim management team may not be eager or even able on such a short notice to transfer money for use on local FM and AM and trans-border shortwave and AM radio transmissions.
It is also not clear when and if $10 million promised in the House bill will be appropriated. Congress should move fast to provide this money but also to make sure that IBB does not waste it on its own bureaucracy but uses it for radio and TV programs and transmissions to Ukraine and Russia.
In the short-term, however, the BBG board should pressure IBB staff to release some of its money reserves immediately while also looking for alternative funding sources. It is after all a national security emergency and there should be a multi-agency U.S. government response. The BBG and IBB staff should have been working on getting such a response and significant extra funding, but in the meantime IBB should have provided emergency funding to RFE/RL and to VOA’s Ukrainian and Russian services, as well as to VOA central newsroom.
While shortwave transmissions alone are no longer sufficient due to changing media use habits, they should not be seen in isolation but as part of robust U.S. radio broadcasting and news reporting that IBB officials have been trying to reduce and eliminate to Russia in recent years, putting all of their eggs in the risky Internet basket. They also proved themselves to be extremely poor strategists. In 2008, just a few days before Russian troops invaded parts of the territory of the Republic of Georgia, IBB had shut down all Voice of America direct radio and television news broadcasts in Russian. IBB also wanted to eliminate VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and did eliminate VOA radio broadcasts to Ukraine (leaving only satellite TV and poorly updated website).
But one of the most serious strategic misjudgments by a former RFE/RL executive and IBB planners was a decision made in the early 2000s to eliminate Radio Liberty Russian language rebroadcasts on affiliate stations in eastern Ukraine. Later, the same IBB officials made a decision to end Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Right now, some of these officials appear to refuse to even consider increasing radio broadcasts to Ukraine and Russia because they seem to have concluded that radio and radio news have no future in the era of Internet. They continue to ignore repeated attempts by various governments to block Internet access, as well as the fact that many people abroad, including poor and aging populations of eastern Ukraine and Russia where there are many Putin supporters, have no Internet access or are too poor to afford it.
There is also a third option of relatively safe and immediate expansion of medium wave (AM) radio rebroadcasts to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine that IBB officials also appear to refuse to even consider despite the fact that this option could probably be used without any extra cost to U.S. taxpayers.
As BBG Watch had reported earlier, IBB officials ignored numerous proposals from their business partner and strong supporter of U.S. international broadcasting, journalist, writer, and former Lithuanian Minister of Communications Rimantas Pleikys, who tried but failed to get their response to his plan of broadcasting to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova from a strong medium wave (AM) transmitter in Lithuania.
This option could expand Radio Liberty’s audience and allow listeners to pick up the signal on car radios without any significant extra cost. According to our sources, Mr. Pleikys proposed that IBB switch from one of the shortwave frequencies currently used to using an AM transmitter in Lithuania, which he operates, and even arranged for all the necessary government permits. Sources told us that he never received any serious response to his proposal, leaving him completely frustrated with the U.S. government bureaucracy.
There are a number of reasons some IBB and Voice of America officials have developed a strong bias against radio and serious news reporting.
1. Shortwave radio listenership has been on the decline and Internet use has been growing. IBB staff in Washington has concluded that international radio has no future and therefore almost all resources should go to digital media and the new bureaucracy they build around it. Being exceptionally bad managers, they have not only wasted the digital dividend that should have come to the BBG from a partial switch to much less expensive Internet-based program delivery technologies, but as incredible as it may sound, they made digital media far more expensive for U.S. taxpayers than analog media. They did it by creating more jobs and hiring countless contractors and consultants.
2. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has not exercised effective control over IBB or the tremendous growth of its bureaucracy. IBB budget and bureaucratic positions in Washington have been growing ( with 34%, it’s now the largest part of the BBG budget) while IBB officials kept cutting broadcasts and programming positions. Any diversion of money to additional radio broadcasts and transmissions would now hurt the IBB bureaucracy where most of the money is tied up in salaries.
3. Many newer VOA executives do not have experience in international news reporting or international radio broadcasting. Some of them have a background in U.S. domestic TV market. They have opted for TV and video productions that are time-consuming, expensive, and journalistically shallow. In pursuing this expensive strategy, they have reduced radio broadcasts and seriously undermined Voice of America news reporting. Bad management, poor employee morale and hostile work environment forced many experienced and talented VOA journalists to leave the organization. Some of them were replaced by inexperienced employees and contractors who are friends and former business associates of current managers.
4. IBB and VOA officials have developed a marketing strategy that relies heavily on placement of BBG programs on local affiliates. Most local affiliates for various reasons are not eager to take long-form radio programs or serious news reports, especially such news programs that may upset their governments. This has led to production of exceptionally poor quality videos that have zero BBG mission impact and may even harm U.S. interests and American lives, as in this example below of a VOA promotional video for Pakistan showing a blood-thirty zombie dressed as an Uncle Sam character attacking a Pakistani.
5. Both VOA and IBB need money for the production of non-news videos and programs and do not want to switch back to reporting news. Officials in Washington are extremely reluctant to use any part of their current budget to increase funding for radio broadcasting to Ukraine and Russia or even to augment news reporting to these countries. VOA Ukrainian and Russian services still do not have enough staff to promptly update their news websites and social media pages. That’s how dysfunctional IBB and VOA management has become.
Short of a major management change imposed by the BBG on IBB and VOA or a much stronger intervention from Congress, chances of any kind of increase in broadcasting to Ukraine and Russia — either shortwave from Greenville, FM and AM local rebroadcasts from Ukraine or trans-border AM transmissions from Lithuania — seem to us very slim. The BBG wants to appoint a permanent CEO who could conceivably reform both IBB and VOA, but a quick selection for this position, which has not yet been authorized by Congress, does not appear likely.
It is far more likely that the current VOA and IBB leadership will continue to produce videos as the one shown below.
Another option, which Chairman Shell and BBG board should consider is appointing an emergency response team composed of some of the more capable IBB, RFE/RL and VOA managers, as well as outside advisors, who could recommend and implement actions that current VOA and IBB top executives seem unable to conceive of and implement on their own. Otherwise, the production of zombie videos and posting by VOA of late, unbalanced, and shallow news reports will continue while both RFE/RL and VOA journalists still producing first-rate news broadcasts will not see them delivered to audiences in Ukraine and Russia. U.S. national security interests require an immediate response by the Broadcasting Board of Governors to this crisis.