BBG Watch Commentary
Seven and a half hours after a Voice of America (VOA) interview with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (both text and video) was posted today, July 21, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. EDT, on the VOA English news website, it showed at 4:59 p.m. EDT only 106 Tweets, 50 Facebook “Shares” and just 2 (two) comments from readers, despite VOA’s claim of 171.6 million weekly readers, viewers, and listeners on all platforms–the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) management’s audience reach estimate which many find highly questionable. One of the only two comments on the VOA report with John Kerry interview was from a regular pro-Kremlin troll, “meanbill from: USA,” who frequently leaves anti-U.S. comments on the VOA English news website.
Audience engagement statistics on social media for John Kerry’s exclusive Voice of America video interview show that VOA has truly minimal worldwide online reach and has become irrelevant on social media for its English language and much of its foreign language news content. This is not the fault of VOA journalists or a reporter who conducted the interview, but rather a result of mismanagement of VOA, VOA news reporting and VOA digital outreach by those formerly in charge of the Voice of America and by the agency’s bureaucracy. Recent management changes and some recent improvements are not anywhere near enough to address and resolve these longstanding and deeply structural problems, inside sources told BBG Watch.
At 4:54 PM EDT, VOA Persian website was showing only 6 (six) Tweets, 381 Facebook “Shares” and 1 (one) reader comment for its post with text and video of John Kerry’s interview which was conducted by a VOA Persian Service reporter. For an exclusive interview with the U.S. Secretary of State, such social media statistics are embarrassingly low.
While VOA Persian website and its social media pages may be blocked for some in Iran, BBC, Deutsche Welle (DW), and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Persian language sites and social media pages, which are equally blocked, show far better social media performance. A Facebook post by DW on President Obama calling for the release of Americans jailed in Iran is showing 280 “Likes,” 7 Shares and 20 comments with many replies after only two hours. The VOA Persian Service does not have yet a Facebook post on this topic (as of 10:40 p.m. EDT).
An RFE/RL Radio Farda Persian language Facebook post on President Obama’s earlier statement about Iran is showing 2,491 “Likes,” 113 comments, and 59 “Shares” after seven hours on Facebook.
A VOA Persian Service Facebook post on President Obama’s telephone conversation with the President of China on the Iran nuclear deal is showing only 27 “Likes, 2 (two) comments and zero “Shares” after nine hours on Facebook.
A BBC Persian Service Facebook post on Secretary Kerry’s comments about Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement was showing 2,380 “Likes,” 114 comments and 26 “Shares” 10 hours after posting. Secretary Kerry would have done much better on social media if he had given the same interview to BBC, DW, RFE/RL’s Radio Farda or practically any major U.S. or international news organization other than the Voice of America.
RFE/RL’s Persian language Radio Farda reposted the VOA interview with John Kerry on its website, where view statistics are not shown for videos. Radio Farda did not upload the VOA interview to its Facebook page to allow for a direct comparison with VOA. But a Radio Farda report with Secretary Kerry’s Iran-related comments from another interview posted 14 hours ago on the RFE/RL Radio Farda Facebook page was showing 2,771 “Likes,” 81 “Shares” and 157 comments as of 9:15 p.m. EDT.
At 9:24 p.m. EDT, the VOA Facebook page post with VOA’s Persian Service exclusive John Kerry interview is showing after 7 (seven) hours only 818 views for the video, and only 35 “Likes,” 1 (one) “Share” and 8 (eight) comments.
VOA Persian Service appears to have been hours late in posting the video of the interview on Facebook and YouTube. After one hour on the VOA Persian Service Facebook page, the John Kerry interview had only 54 Likes and 3 comments. After eight hours on the VOA Persian Service Twitter page, the John Kerry interview showed only 3 “Retweets” and 9 “Favorites” as of 7:11 p.m. EDT.
By contrast, a video on the State Department Facebook page showing Secretary of State John Kerry hosting Muhammadu Buhari, President of of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, earlier today at Department of State was showing 34,964 Views, 1,860 Likes, and had 1,453 as of 6:27 p.m. EDT. The State Department’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages show that the official U.S. public diplomacy social media outreach in English can have thousands more “Likes” for a single post than similar journalistic outreach by VOA.
The Voice of America recorded an interview with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. But after more than four hours on the Voice of America news website, the VOA interview was showing only 39 Tweets, 31 Facebook “Shares” and one comment.
The President Buhari interview has been on the VOA YouTube page for four hours and showed only 24 views compared to close to 35,000 views for the State Department video.
With only 24 views in four hours for the VOA interview with the Nigerian president, the exclusive VOA video interview with Secretary of State John Kerry is not doing much better after seven hours on YouTube.
After seven hours on the Voice of America YouTube page, the original English language version of the John Kerry interview video had only 202 views in the entire world, many of them likely from the United States.
A short VOA English video segment from the interview, “VOA Interview with Sec. of State Kerry: Were Iranians Celebrating Deal Too Soon?” was showing only 15 views after six hours on YouTube despite its somewhat intriguing title.
Russia’s RT regularly gets thousands, often tens of thousands, of views for its videos, and thousands of Facebook “Likes” for its online news reports.
Russia’s RT interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recorded in April 2014 is showing today 96,000 views.
A separate Voice of America online post with the full transcript of VOA Interview with US Secretary of State John Kerry, posted at 9:30 a.m. EDT, is showing at 6:45 p.m. EDT only 1 Tweet and 0 (zero) Facebook “Shares.”
After four hours on the VOA Persian Service YouTube page, the interview had only 62 views.
On the VOA Russian Service site, the John Kerry interview (both text and video) was showing late afternoon D.C time only 11 Tweets, 0 (zero) Facebook “Shares” and 0 (zero) comments (the Russian Service post with the interview does not appear to have been open for comments). As of 6:45 p.m. EDT, the VOA Russian Service did not upload the interview to Facebook or YouTube.
At 7:45 p.m. EDT, the VOA Spanish Service report was showing only 15 Tweets, 1 (one) Facebook “Share” and 0 (zero) comments for the John Kerry VOA interview.
The VOA Chinese Service does not appear to have posted the John Kerry interview at all. The VOA Ukrainian Service also did not appear to have the John Kerry interview on its website, Facebook, and YouTube pages as of 7:00 p.m. EDT.
Dismal social media statistics even on such an important item as an exclusive interview with the U.S. Secretary of State call into question claims by Broadcasting Board of Governors’ officials that VOA has a weekly audience of 171.6 million readers, viewers, and listeners on all platforms. The BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau officials claim estimated audiences to any kind of paid or unpaid program placement on any foreign station, even if such a placement specifically excludes news content and may consist only of music, English lessons, or entertainment-related features. Unlike social media statistics, the numbers provided by IBB officials are only estimates. Many U.S. Government officials, including some BBG members, do not believe that these estimates of VOA reach are accurate or meaningful.
The Voice of America has a new interim director, Kelu Chao, who took over after the recent departure of former VOA director David Ensor. According to inside sources, she has started some management reforms which can be seen already in better VOA online news coverage. A recent VOA Russian Service post featuring an interview with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski is showing some improvement in audience engagement through social media. However, even the Tom Malinowski interview in Russian uploaded on July 20 is showing only 221 YouTube views as of 9:00 p.m. July 21, many of them most likely from the United States.
A VOA News video report “US Human Rights Report Highlights Role of Terror Groups, Conflicts, Corruption,” which included comments by Secretary of State John Kerry and Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski is showing 385 YouTube views after three weeks. In this case at least, the VOA report had more views than the State Department YouTube video of Secretary Kerry introducing the U.S. Human Rights Report.
But improving the Voice of America in a meaningful way would take years of hard work and extra resources which are controlled not by VOA but by International Broadcasting Bureau officials, inside sources told BBG Watch. One cannot reform VOA without first reforming the IBB and BBG bureaucracy and the entire structure of the agency, they said.
The problems with VOA news reporting, its websites and social media outreach are not new. Voice of America reporters have been complaining for years to former director Ensor and his chief deputy Steve Redisch who has since moved to another job within VOA, that the Voice of America was becoming irrelevant as a news organization in the digital age. According to some current and former Voice of America correspondents, their warnings and pleas to executives formerly in charge of VOA were ignored.
THIS IS AN ACTUAL CONVERSATION THAT OCCURRED BETWEEN TWO VOICE OF AMERICA REPORTERS IN 2013. SOME INFORMATION HAS BEEN EXCLUDED TO PROTECT IDENTITIES
VOA REPORTER NO 1: This is my personal opinion, the place [VOA] doesn’t have any traction anymore. I don’t mean to be hurtful, or sharp, with colleagues who choose to stay there, but the gut sense that you get, when you put aside all of the polls and all of the statistics and audience BS that they roll out, all of the seminars they hold [on things like] listenership in Latin America, the gut sense when you look around the media environment, is one of invisibility.
VOA REPORTER NO 2: Well, I told you what happened here in this building . . .that our bosses are a bunch of liars for saying we have more than 200 million [VOA and other BBG-managed entities]? . . . a [high ranking U.S. Government official] who has the [deleted to protect identity] portfolio here. He and I are on very good, friendly terms and he gives me a bunch of stuff, it’s just good stuff. They were having [a major review meeting in] Crystal City . . .
Well it’s rare that they open it up to the media. They had nine seats. I thought I was on their good list, I am always invited. . .I am always given access to people. . .and stuff like that. And they can always count on my being on the plane. So, this time I didn’t get one of those. . .seats, and I answered that invitation within four minutes. So, I walked over and I said you know. . .this is rare, there must be some mistake. [He said] no, there is no mistake. [I said] what happened? [H]e said well you meet all of the criteria except for one. [I said] what is that? [He said] — reach.
I said my bosses say we [VOA and other BBG entities] have an audience of more than 200 million around the world. He turned beet red and said, I am glad you attributed that because that is bullshit, and your bosses are a bunch of f’ing liars. There is no way you have that many listeners, no f’ing way.
VOA REPORTER NO 1: Oh my God, what did you do at that point?
REPORTER NO 2: I smiled, [and] started laughing. I said well, you got them [VOA executives] but . . . He said well, that is why I love that you attributed it, thank you. It’s not personal. So, he said The Washington Post and The New York Times have verifiable numbers.
VOA REPORTER NO 1: That’s what he said?
VOA REPORTER NO 2: So, I mentioned it to [a top VOA News Division manager] because you know how some people put [the 200 million weekly audience claim] at the bottom, on their signature to their emails? I won’t do that.
VOA REPORTER NO 1: No, I won’t do that either.
VOA REPORTER NO 2: Because, look, I don’t believe that nobody is listening, because people are. But I don’t believe that [200 million BBG audience] figure. And the reason I don’t is because, having served around the world for this organization, you often get the reaction — oh, you guys are still around? I used to listen to VOA all the time, it was my main source of news, oh wow, you guys are still around, oh that’s great. But then you go to places in West Africa and in Tibet, and in China, where people listen to us to learn English, where people say they listen to us, they respect us, they depend on us, you still hear that. And that is what keeps me going.
But can I, I mean and call myself a journalist, call myself an honest person, put out that 200 million [BBG] figure? You got to prove it to me first.
VOA REPORTER NO 1: No, you know, you don’t let people blow smoke, and that is what they have been doing in many cases, I think.
VOA REPORTER NO 2: So, I mentioned [the incident] to [the top VOA News Division manager] because I was really hurt, and I said look, if we were to just go about our business, we’re a rinky-dink little service, we’re here for the U.S. government’s benefit, because they’re paying for it. [If] we try to not to pretend we are more than who we are, I think people will respect us more than if we try to pretend we are CNN. He said well you know, that’s a third floor matter, I have to go take it up there. [I said] well, [it’s] up to you. I wouldn’t. Because, I mean, if they [BBG/VOA executives] are bold enough to put out a lie like that, chances are they are going to defend it. They’re not going to actually turn around and say, well you know what, you’re right.