Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Tuning Out and Gone
by The Federalist
The behavior of senior officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the International Broadcasting Bureau (BBG/IBB) continues on a distaff trajectory early into 2013.
First, as reported by BBG Watch, Voice of America (VOA) director David Ensor put out a statement on his blog, “State of America’s Voice.” This statement was timed to coincide with President Obama’s State of the Union address.
The thrust of Mr. Ensor’s post was to make a claim that the agency is in good shape. Mr. Ensor claims, “VOA gives America real global impact.”
This is not the case.
Mr. Ensor seems to be avoiding the agency’s own research which shows that its audiences, including VOA audiences, are in a state of accelerated decline. Hovering around 141.1 million for VOA on all platforms (radio, television and the Internet) in FY 2011, latest numbers for FY 2012 put the tally for VOA at 134.2 million.
BBG’s global audience of 175 million in FY 2012 was also less than in FY 2011 (187 million), and it was no larger than in FY 2008.
Across a global population of 7 BILLION, that reduces the agency’s “global impact” to what amounts to a statistical zero.
Remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately before and after leaving her post also make clear that whatever the agency is doing, it isn’t working.
With all the technical resources that Mr. Ensor cites in his statement, the payoff in audience is paltry. That could mean a combination of various factors including countermeasures by foreign powers opposed to the US point of view, the inability of potential audiences to access the media choices made by the BBG, the agency’s own decision to cut core radio and television transmissions and the exponential proliferation of new global media. Cumulatively, the end result is serious audience decline for US Government international broadcasting.
Once a trend becomes established, it is hard to break. The agency’s “flim flam, Soviet style strategic plan” undoubtedly contributes to the agency’s audience decay. Indeed, we see it as an accelerator of the decline. As long as the IBB remains doggedly committed to this plan (they have to because they cannot admit it to being a failure – see below), the end result will not be a pretty picture for the agency or its employees.
Where things are at this point, the agency is hardly worth the millions of American taxpayer dollars being spent on it. It is a failed agency and the IBB apparatchiks intend to keep on failing – and collecting six-figure salaries and bonuses in doing so. Their fate hinges on continuing this multi-million dollar charade to hide the depth of the failure.
In our view, there is nothing on the radar – including the proposal for a so-called “Chief Executive Officer” (CEO) – that will come even remotely close to changing the direction the agency is heading. That direction is implosion.
(A meteor has a better chance of hitting the earth than a CEO emerging to pull off a miracle for US Government international broadcasting.)
Not to be outdone by Mr. Ensor, Brian Conniff – the head of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), the agency’s grantee operation of Arabic broadcasts on Radio Sawa and Alurra television – proclaims that MBN has made audience gains! But the claim isn’t supported with any published new data, even the often questioned data supplied by the agency itself. If there is new data gathered at the end of 2012, we would like to see it. Even assuming that there was an increase in Alhurra’s audience, the overall trend is down.
Here, the ploy is to make MBN appear relevant in the middle of violent upheaval in the Arab/Muslim world (you know, that Western media, kumbaya-phrased “Arab Spring” thing).
Guess what? It isn’t relevant. MBN is barely a blip on the radar with the rest of US Government international broadcasting – off the radar in particular with regard to effectiveness among Arab/Muslim publics. Remember the premise behind Radio Sawa: play pop music to Arab youth and they will turn toward Western-style democracy.
Isn’t going to happen.
What Mr. Ensor and Mr. Conniff have in common is a tactic the agency has practiced for years and – until recently – has gotten away with; namely, making unilateral declarations unsupported with facts or by the reality of events on the ground, hoping the declarations will be accepted as fact, and perhaps hoping even more to manipulate public perception of the agency.
Those days are over.
All of that changed when the IBB laced a State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the BBG with an open, virulent and insubordinate assault directed against current members of the Board, especially Ambassador Victor Ashe. This report – and the subsequent fallout from it – revealed the agency’s senior management for what it is: a cabal of self-serving, grossly insubordinate, self-perpetuating apparatchiks intent upon carrying out their agenda and viciously attacking anyone finding fault with what they are doing.
We said it before and we’ll say it again: the IBB overplayed their hand and they did so in a very public manner – for the entire world to see.
There isn’t a whole lot that separates the IBB from operatives of some of the world’s most autocratic regimes. They are – the IBB ‘s self-serving propagandists. And the term fits them rather well.
Here’s another thing:
Right before the president’s State of the Union address, the agency propaganda office put out a press release on February 11, 2013:
“Iran, Cuba, Syria and Egypt Among Target Audiences for State of the Union Address Global Broadcast”
Iran and Syria: good luck.
By the way, did you happen to notice in the headline to the press release the absence of China and Russia?
Only toward the very end of the press release, almost as an afterthought, you have the following regarding Russia:
“In addition, VOA will live stream the Tuesday night event and will provide live reporting via partnerships with local media in countries including Russia, Bosnia, Albania, Ukraine, Indonesia, Cambodia and countries throughout Latin America.”
What is the operative phrase here?
Answer: “local media.”
What local media in Russia. The former RFE/RL management team and their IBB promoters gave up an AM broadcasting frequency in Moscow without much of a fight because President Putin made holding a broadcasting license by a foreign entity illegal. Rather than start broadcasting on AM from Lithuania and expanding online radio and television broadcasts to show Mr. Putin that U.S. international broadcasting will not be silenced, RFE/RL fired dozens of experienced and highly respected journalists, including digital media specialists.
We don’t know how these “local” broadcasts went. However, right away, when you see “local media” in the context of Russia, you are talking about a very controlled media environment.
Keep in mind, the agency has fallen far and fallen hard in its broadcast effort to Russia. At present, the effort is virtually meaningless. The VOA has a mediocre website in place of direct broadcasts. And Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) went postal on its own Russian Service, removing a solid cadre of veteran journalists with broad credibility to be replaced with something as bad as what VOA Russian has become.
Which brings us to China.
No mention of China in that press release headline?
That’s because the IBB “genius pool” killed live radio broadcasts by the VOA Mandarin and Cantonese services at night (Washington time).
No matter – no doubt the Chinese could probably rely upon their own CCTV for coverage of Mr. Obama’s address. And they probably covered it thoroughly, as did the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and others.
That said there are more serious repercussions.
No broadcast of Mr. Obama’s speech in Mandarin and Cantonese to China sends a very strong, negative message. The message is two-fold:
First, Mr. Obama’s speech is not important to the Chinese people.
Second, Mr. Obama’s speech is not important to be heard by the Chinese people in their own languages.
In essence, Mr. Ensor and other senior agency officials dismissed the Chinese audience altogether and insulted the Chinese people as a result.
(Indeed. Our Peoples Liberation Army [PLA] analyst would have argued to his superiors that this presented a golden opportunity to demonstrate to the Chinese people that the Americans have unilaterally capitulated in the arena of international broadcasting. If the CCTV provided in-depth coverage of Mr. Obama’s speech, it would be argued that their broadcast coverage was superior and suggests to the Chinese people that they can obtain better information via their state-run media rather than from the decaying VOA. It also fits nicely into the Chinese replication of its own Internet. It is the kind of thing one would expect the Chinese to do more of and exploit the obvious weakness and defeatism of the IBB.)
So there you have it – the IBB unilaterally conceding coverage of the State of the Union address to the most important strategic nation in Asia – and increasingly to the world – and with it, the strategic Chinese audience.
Of course, let us not rule out the fact that the Chinese have been very successful in blocking VOA programs. But, to not even mount an effort – pathetic.
(Did we say blocking programs? Child’s play! Our Chinese adversaries are a world leader in cyber warfare, particularly the unit of the Peoples Liberation Army based in Shanghai, even if they don’t choose to admit it. Blocking programs is only one aspect of their cyber warfare operations. It is but a small step to insinuate effective cyber attacks against the agency’s other cyber/computer systems. Don’t think they can’t or wouldn’t make the effort. They can do it. They will do it. If successful, it would be a master stroke – disrupting or blocking programs from getting out of the Cohen Building altogether.)
Our sources indicate that the Third Floor operatives were being particularly self-congratulatory with regard to what coverage they did provide to the State of the Union address.
There is no question that the employees of the agency did some fine work. They are known for that. However, the big questions are: who saw their work, who heard their work, who read their work on the Internet? As the audience numbers indicate, on a global scale, not many. If we are correct in our analysis, perhaps not in places where US strategic interests count the most.
You can have the finest programs – but the net effect is that they may not be seen, heard or read by many folks outside the Cohen Building. And that renders the programs worthless.
Our sources also report that there is talk of new programs in the pipeline either in the language services or in the schizophrenic Central Newsroom. This could be an indication of one of two things:
First, the existing programs have no resonance.
Second, the Third Floor is desperately trying to repackage programs to see if anything sticks, in an attempt to find something that resonates with international audiences.
In short, you can dismiss the pronouncements of Mr. Ensor and Mr. Conniff as nothing more than propaganda. Neither statement is a reflection of the reality confronting the agency. And that reality is the approaching end of US Government international broadcasting. The global audience number for BBG is now the same as in 2008. In carrying out their strategic plan, IBB bureaucrats can’t even keep up with the world’s population growth.
VOA global audience in FY 2008 – 136.5 million.
VOA global audience in FY 2012 – 134.2 million.
Result: minus 2.3 million.
MBN (Radio Sawa) global audience in FY 2008 – 17.2 million.
MBN (Radio Sawa) global audience in FY 2012 – 13.4 million.
Result: minus 3.8 million.
MBN (Alhurra TV) global audience in FY 2008 – 25.8 million.
MBN (Alhurra TV) global audience in FY 2012 – 22.9 million.
Result: minus 2.9 million.
These are BBG’s own figures. Need we say more.
BBG WATCH says STOP THE PRESSES. We don’t often check the BBG Strategy Blog that almost no one reads and certainly almost no one comments on, though it must costs tens of thousands of dollars in salaries for its BBG/IBB contributors and in other costs.
The BBG Strategy Blog has an explanation for the decline of audiences and a solution: measure annual audiences instead of weekly audiences.
We could not resist reposting this most amazing bureaucratic government spin job by the Office of Strategy and Development experts who in the past had proposed eliminating Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to Russia and China and VOA radio to Tibet, claimed that their Internet strategy will help BBG reach a 216 million audience in 2016, and pushed “fluff journalism” in countries ruled by some of the most authoritarian regimes as a sure way of growing the audience.
From the BBG Strategy Blog:
It may at first sound counterintuitive, but one of the best options the BBG has for growing audience is to better serve the audience it already has…
In its latest strategic plan, the BBG stated an aspirational goal of reaching an audience of 216 million people each week by 2016.
That goal felt a bit harder to achieve last month when the agency announced that the BBG global audience for 2012 was 175 million weekly, down from 187 million weekly in 2011.
As much as we would like to see the line on the audience chart to rise at a 45-degree angle every year, we know it’s more realistic to expect gains and losses along the way. In 2012, for example, audiences we up in Ethiopia and Libya, but down in Indonesia and Egypt.
So how can the BBG add more than 40 million new viewers, listeners, and readers in four years — in an environment with more media competition and budget austerity? It won’t be easy, but it’s not a lost cause.
There are a number of tactics that could do wonders for the goal of 216 by 2016.
Most discussions about audience increases center around the need for additional distribution and marketing. While those arguments are completely valid, and the Office of Strategy and Development signs new distribution deals every week, at some point the conversation needs to turn to content. For purposes of this argument, we’ll focus on a couple of broad ideas.
Consider this premise:
One of the best ways to increase the BBG audience is to work to better serve the audience it already has.
It sounds it bit crazy until you compare just two numbers from BBG audience research. The first number is the previously mentioned audience estimate of 175 million people every week.
The second number is the BBG’s annual audience figure. That number hovers around 300 million.
This means that without a single additional affiliate, satellite transponder, transmitter, or billboard, 300 million people know about BBG services and check them out at least once a year. However, our metric is weekly audience — and just less than 60% of that 300 million spend time with us on a weekly basis. It’s notable that other large international broadcasters such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France International also use weekly reach as their prime audience metric.
It’s hardly surprising that BBG broadcasters would have groups of heavy viewers and listeners and occasional viewers and listeners. Virtually all product-driven businesses have similar subsets of customers.
Think about your own media consumption and you’ll undoubtedly see similar patterns of heavy and occasional use. These patterns can fluctuate based on news cycle, or even be seasonal. I, for example, don’t spend much time with WCBS-AM/New York this time of year, but will become a very heavy user once baseball season comes and the station starts broadcasting New York Yankees games.
Incoming president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, in referencing the ups and downs of the news cycle, said that CNN needed to be relevant more than 25 nights a year. That is, the channel, like all channels, needs to constantly work to turn occasional viewers into regular viewers.
It’s no different for BBG broadcasters. I can recall some ten years ago attending focus groups for RFE/RL’s Radio Svoboda in Moscow. A few attendees at the time talked about rarely listening to Svoboda — unless there was a crisis. One respondent said Russia needed Svoboda “just in case.”
We may wholeheartedly agree, but realistically, “just in case” may be an increasingly tough sell on a budget-conscious Capitol Hill.
For any of us on the product side, our job is to take a potential customer that just walked in the door, and turn that person into a regular. Whether it’s VOA news, Levis blue jeans, or Dannon yogurt — the job at hand is largely the same.
With 125 million people aware of and using BBG news services annually but not weekly, there is a significant opportunity to turn at least some of them into more regular users – if the content is compellingand offered in a way that makes it easier to consume.
One of the biggest obstacles to consumption of BBG content is something I call The Law of Media Clutter.
It’s a simple rule of thumb stating that as media options increase in a given market, appointment viewing and listening decreases.
Again, think about your own media consumption. It’s just harder than it used to be to remember to sit down and watch your favorite TV show on Tuesday nights at 8:30 pm. It’s a global phenomenon.
Unfortunately, for many BBG broadcasters with affiliation strategies, getting lost in the media clutter is becoming as big a threat as jamming.
An adjustment to counter The Law of Media Clutter is to employ a reach and frequency strategy. That is, get the content aired as many times as possible in an effort to reach a larger audience. Generally, this is how most cable television channels are programmed — develop a hit show, and air it almost constantly. Consumer media behavior is such that as people channel surf, new viewers find the program every time.
For example, VOA Urdu’s Zindagi 360 looks like a hit in its 7 p.m. Friday time slot. But even a single replay of the show on Saturday or Sunday morning would make it an even bigger hit in Pakistan, growing its audience and reinforcing the brand.
There are many other content strategies, such as employing short-form tactics that would enhance affiliation prospects.
To reiterate, the objective is not just to find new audiences, but also converting current audiences from annual users to occasional users (think monthly), and then the occasional to weekly.
Acknowledging that the content itself is an integral part of audience growth is the first step. Accepting the truth behind The Law of Media Clutter is another.
In the Office of Strategy and Development, we have conducted an analysis of all BBG broadcasters and language services, comparing annual versus weekly reach where such data is available. The analysis is not intended to make judgements on the quality of content, but rather look for consistencies and best practices among the top performers that might be applied elsewhere.
All BBG language services would do well to brainstorm how they might convert just 1 in 10 of their occasional viewers or listeners into weekly viewers or listeners. Converting just that ten percent would yield weekly audience growth of more than 12 million people across the BBG — all the while serving their core audiences better.
Additional specific tactics will come in future posts.
– Paul Marszalek
Office of Strategy and Development