Digital investment in Radio Liberty wasted by incompetence and strategic blunders
A commentary by Ivan Trefilov, former Radio Liberty economic analyst
At the request of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has allocated in 2012 a significant amount of money for improving Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. In particular, the funds were intended to open a new multimedia office in Moscow. While there was nothing wrong with continuing or even speeding up the digital transformation process — which, by the way, has been going on for at least six years and enjoyed wide support among the former staff — its implementation by Mr. Korn turned out to be a complete catastrophe that threatens the entire future of Radio Liberty in Russia.
An analysis of the decisions made so far by the RFE/RL president should give the BBG a pause as to the effectiveness of the way Mr. Korn and his new Russian Service director Masha Gessen went about spending public money. It’s not only that this money is being wasted because of blind nepotism that led to hiring incompetent new leadership and staff, public money becoming private play money. But far more important is a basic management oversight mistake on the part of the BBG, not in terms of pursuing digital media, but in entrusting such important reforms to Steve Korn and Masha Gessen.
On what grounds do I base these assertions? According to experts familiar with the development of the Russian media market, investing in digital technology and in technical support for the RFE/RL Russian Service Moscow bureau would be strategically and economically justified if Radio Liberty preserved its brand name, i.e. reputation, and its reporting and analytical resources, for which it was well known and respected.
Moreover, these new technological and multimedia capacities (even considering the interruption of AM broadcasting) would have put the Radio Liberty Russian Service in a position to further improve the considerable achievements already made by its former highly talented and creative multimedia staff. Under the right leadership, Radio Liberty would have been able to effectively compete with the leading providers of news and information in Russia, including Ekho Moskvy.
It is exactly this kind of multimedia program content with analysis, which was already being produced by the fired journalists and the Internet team, that according to media experts will be required in the future by a growing portion of the Russian population in view of the lack of objective news and analysis in media outlets controlled by the government.
But the BBG, at the insistence of Mr. Korn, has approved the appointment of Masha Gessen as a new Russian Service director, and apparently gave its blessing for some staff reductions. It is doubtful whether the board knew who was being fired, and Mr. Korn himself admitted that he neither knew who these individuals were or knew anything about them — an amazing confession for a manager of a public broadcasting institution. Unfortunately, these fired professionals were well known in Russia and represented Radio Liberty’s brand to the Russian public, especially to the one quarter of the population that drives reforms in Russia.
This traditional target audience has now condemned the new leadership and turned away from the station. This explains why major political and human rights leaders strongly criticized Mr. Korn during the roundtable discussion in Moscow and categorically demanded that the old team be brought back and their programs restored.
What these highly respected public figures and scholars do know is that Masha Gessen’s ideas about the direction in which the Russian Service reform should go are fundamentally different from what media experts say the target audience expects from Radio Liberty. According to her public statements, the Russian Service should diminish emphasis on news and information in favor of some abstract human interest and social interest stories not covered by the official media — an exclusive, but essentially apolitical product. The roundtable participants, including a famous sociologist Dr. Gudkov, criticized her ideas as not supported by their research in Russia and concluded that neither she nor Mr, Korn could answer their questions.
It is evident that for Masha Gessen and the team of journalists brought in by her (whose previous experience was limited to working in weekly or monthly magazines), this kind of change is the only available option given their lack of professional experience in the delivering of substantive information and analytic content on a daily basis.
The question then arises whether the new Russian Service team will be able to take full advantage of the technical facilities in the new multimedia office in Moscow, for which substantial financial means have been allocated. The old team was far more competent and eager to use these new facilities to a good purpose, but these journalists, Internet content editors and video reporters are now gone together with their audience and the station’s reputation in Russia.
Approving the funding for the technological development of the Russian Service Moscow bureau was the right decision. Its potential benefits were completely cancelled, however, by the hiring of a new team, which is professionally untrained in multimedia and incapable of functioning under the new conditions.
But the main strategic mistake the BBG has made was to allow RFE/RL president Steve Korn and the new Russian Service director to change the basic programming philosophy of the station and to destroy its brand among the audience.
As a result of these decisions, in half a year to a year from now, Radio Liberty in Russia (despite the substantial investments made in its technological development) will cease to play an appreciable role whatsoever in the market of reliable and objective media, while the need for such media among the Russian population will increase.