BBG Watch Commentary
Former Voice of America (VOA) deputy director Alan Heil told Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members at an open board meeting last Thursday that U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA is not dysfunctional. Many critics, including members of Congress of both parties, claim the Voice of America and its parent agency have been dysfunctional for many years. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when she was still at the State Department and an ex officio member of the BBG board that the BBG is “practically defunct” in its ability to deliver America’s message abroad. She also said that the U.S. is losing the information war.
Speaking as a member of the public, Alan Heil told BBG members that VOA cannot be dysfunctional if it has an estimated weekly audience of 164 million.
ALAN HEIL: “VOA is dysfunctional. I beg to differ. It can’t be dysfunctional if it reaches 164 million listeners, viewers, Internet readers, users of cell phones increasingly around the world each and every week.”
In 1989, VOA had an estimated weekly audience of 130 million, composed almost entirely at that time of radio listeners overseas. VOA’s audience grew by approximately 34 million in the last 25 years, according to BBG’s estimates. The world population grew from 5.2 billion in 1989 to 7.1 billion in 2013.
While the 1989 VOA overseas audience estimate had only radio listeners, VOA content has been also delivered for many years since then through video, TV, Internet, cell phones and social media. VOA also now reportedly includes some domestic U.S. Internet users as part of its current audience estimate. VOA’s U.S. radio listeners were not included in the 1989 audience estimate.
Outside observers also point out that the 1989 estimate was for radio programs that almost always featured VOA newscasts. A number of VOA programs included in the current VOA audience estimate have no newscasts because local stations and networks on which VOA places its programs do not want newscasts or such news placement is not allowed by foreign authorities. VOA audience outreach numbers through social media are minuscule even when compared to social media outreach indicators for the U.S. State Department’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
Heil said that claims of VOA being dysfunctional are a myth. In addition to audience numbers, Heil also mentioned wide-range of VOA news reporting, including several interviews with Secretary of State John Kerry. Heil also said that claims of duplication between Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) are also a myth. He said that there is very little duplication between VOA and the so called surrogate U.S.-funded media outlets.
VOA has some of the lowest employee morale in the entire federal government, according to Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). This year’s FEVS numbers showed further declines in employee morale and employees’ respect for senior leaders. Heil has been in retirement for many years, but he continues to lobby for more funding for VOA and defends VOA as an effective news organization. VOA’s critics claim that it has lost its news effectiveness due to mismanagement by senior executives.