BBG Watch Commentary

Why is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) trying to silence Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Tibet when Tibetan Buddhist monks are self-immolating to shock the conscience of the world and the Chinese government is increasing its repression of the Tibetan people and their culture? Why are the Voice of America Cantonese Service and many other VOA brand-names, including VOA English and VOA Spanish, being put on the chopping block by the BBG when China and even Iran are expanding their radio and television broadcasts around the world, including Latin America?

The answer to these questions was provided recently by the BBG’s chief strategist in an important article posted on one of the BBG’s websites.  Because of its significance, we are providing a link to Mr. Bruce Sherman’s article and reposting it at the end of our commentary. He holds the position of  the Director of  the BBG Office of Strategy and Development.

In a display of unlimited confidence, Mr.  Sherman explained that his federal agency can change brand-names at will. No name or institution is safe.  Even those that have been around for more than 70 years, have Congressional mandates and are closely associated around the world with America and its support for freedom can be erased and silenced overnight.

“Where our brands resonate with audiences, we want to preserve them. Where they don’t, we have the flexibility to invent new ones. Radio Sawa (‘together’ in Arabic) helped us rebrand our efforts in the Middle East and reach millions of new listeners.” — Bruce Sherman —  The BBG: One Organization, Many Brands

This is how the Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Office of Strategy and Development described the elimination a few years back of Voice of America (VOA) Arabic broadcasts and the banning of the VOA brand-name from the Middle East by the BBG. Mr. Sherman did not elaborate further that the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decision to kill these broadcasts and their brand-name was based on audience research showing that words like “America” and “American” were disliked in the region.

Using the same logic,  the United States should not have used the “Voice of America” name to call its radio station established during World War II to broadcast news to Nazi Germany. It should have used a more neutral one. Perhaps a name like “Radio Together with Music” would have been less offensive to most citizens of Hitler’s Germany, who after all overwhelmingly supported their leader and viewed America as an enemy until almost the end of World War II.

In his article, Mr. Sherman overlooks an important fact that the American people and the U.S. Congress have always wanted the Voice of America to provide news and hope to those who are the most silenced and the most oppressed.

These audiences are often condemned to censorship and silence not only by their governments but also by the majority of their countrymen fed on regime propaganda. And yet, these marginalized groups that the BBG wants to abandon in its pursuit of a mass audience often produce the most influential intellectual and political leaders in support of freedom.

Think of Sophia Magdalena Scholl (9 May 1921 – 22 February 1943), a German student active within the White Rose non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany. She was executed and widely condemned by the vast majority of Germans at the time of her death. The Voice of America brand-name surely did not resonate well with those who cheered her death sentence.

Chen Guangcheng (born November 12, 1971), an illegally detained civil rights activist in the People’s Republic of China, and Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate, belong to the same category of officially marginalized activists and intellectual figures for whom the Voice of America was established more than seventy years ago. They are not likely to receive news through the Internet. The VOA Mandarin and Cantonese websites are in any case effectively blocked by the Chinese cyber police, especially in prisons, labor camps and for those kept under house arrest like Chen Guangcheng and his family.

Yet, the BBG strategists wanted to do away with the VOA Mandarin and Cantonese shortwave radio and satellite television broadcasts and to rely on Internet only. Their great idea for getting a mass online audience is to  promote English lessons with high school juvenile humor, which while being both creative and popular are ignored by the Chinese censors because they are unthreatening to the regime.

Mr. Sherman would no doubt point out that the agency planned to continue Mandarin and Cantonese radio news broadcasts on Radio Free Asia (RFA), also managed by the BBG. RFA is a “surrogate” broadcaster performing a very important function but was not created to represent the United States by providing American viewpoints. It was created to provide internal Chinese dissident viewpoints delivered by independent Chinese journalists. Two different missions, both equally important.

Still, Mr. Sherman’s commissioned research shows that  the RFA’s brand-name resonates even less well with audiences in China. Should it also be killed and replaced with something more neutral, perhaps even more neutral than VOA once the VOA radio and TV brand-name is also eliminated? The U.S. Congress needs to step in and stop this before it goes any further.

What is then the real reason for killing the best-known American international radio brand-name in China? The real reason — we suspect — is a bureaucratic desire to take control over U.S. international broadcasting away from the American people, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

It’s not about saving money when budgets are tight. The BBG and its bureaucratic arm — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — are wasting U.S. taxpayers’ money right and left.

It’s not about moving to new Internet platforms, which as everyone knows are inexpensive and often free, and which VOA and other U.S. international broadcasters have already been using and expanding their use for many years. It is about preserving and creating new bureaucratic jobs by eliminating critical international news programs.

It is about firing close to 300 journalists and program support staffers so that the BBG can give a 50 million dollar audience research contract to the Gallup Organization.

Gallup has already reported to the BBG that the majority of people in China think that their media are free. This kind of finding is hardly worth millions of dollars. But the VOA Tibetan radio service and the VOA Cantonese news services are to be eliminated to pay for this kind of research in China.

What’s the point of doing questionable research in support of disappearing programs?

Much of what Mr. Sherman writes in his article are conclusions based on similar research findings consisting of only half-truths. Mr. Sherman claims for example that millions of new listeners were reached in the Middle East with the new Radio Sawa brand-name.

It is true that millions of new listeners came to the station over the years. But what Mr. Sherman fails to explain is that the BBG is now paying millions of dollars each year to put music-heavy Sawa programs on local FM and regional AM transmitters — something it had not done for Voice of America Arabic programs. If the same millions have been spent on the production and especially local FM distribution of the old VOA Arabic broadcasts, millions of new listeners also could have been gained for a much more substantive news and information on an American-brand radio and website.

In fact, the audience research data which Sherman swears by is highly misleading and practically useless for countries like China, where people are too afraid to give honest answers to politically sensitive survey questions. Yet, on the basis of this kind of research in highly repressed nations, which may show that broadcaster “A” has 0.1% weekly rating and broadcaster “B” has only 0.04%, the BBG makes strategic decisions to kill brand-names that have been around for 70 years and represent America, its institutions and its values.

How can any sane person make such decisions on the basis of a fraction of one percent difference when the margin of error in this kind of survey can be 3 to 5 percent and more? How can a survey conducted among Tibetan refugees in Nepal be used to prove that VOA Tibetan satellite TV programs should continue but VOA Tibetan radio programs should be eliminated when everyone knows that the Chinese authorities rigorously control private ownership of satellite dishes?

“Where our brands resonate with audiences, we want to preserve them. Where they don’t, we have the flexibility to invent new ones.”

What it means is the flexibility to decide what brand-names resonate with BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau’s officials  who want to have greater control of U.S. international broadcasting resources. They want the power to kill brand-names, to show incomplete and unreliable research data to BBG members, and to get them to approve their decisions.

Tibetans, victims of human rights abuses in China will be ignored if it means saving the IBB’s bureaucratic jobs, giving $10,000  bonuses to its top executives, allowing them to travel around the world at taxpayers’ expense, and giving them the power to distribute multi-million-dollar contracts. All this for being rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) government-wide employee opinion surveys as being the worst leaders and managers in the federal bureaucracy. Should the U.S. Congress give even more power to this group of bureaucrats held in such low esteem by their own employees who are experts on their own countries and regions?

If that happens, the U.S. Congress, which had created the Voice of America and gave it its Charter and its mandate, will be ignored as well.

The BBG’s own data show that there is little strategic vision in BBG’s strategic planning.  Afghanistan and the Middle East are important, but strategically China represents the greatest  and the fastest growing public diplomacy challenge for the United States. And yet,  the BBG’s per capita spending on China is 39 times less than in Afghanistan, 29 times less than in the Middle East, 18 times less than in Iran, eight times less than in Tajikistan.

A BBG member Michael Meehan pointed out recently that the Chinese spend 6.6 billion dollars a year doing what the BBG is doing. (The BBG’s annual budget is about $750 million.) If there is not enough money, which is clearly the case, the last thing BBG members should be doing is giving more money to their bureaucrats and allowing them to eliminate programs to Tibet and China. This can hardly be based on any kind of strategic thinking.

But perhaps it is be unreasonable to expect BBG and IBB bureaucrats to propose eliminating their own positions to absorb budget cuts. The bureaucrats  will always push for cutting programs and jobs of journalists and broadcasters. That’s why BBG members have a responsibility to protect these important broadcasts. And yet they have failed to exercise this duty. They have given away their powers to Presidentially-appointed IBB Director Richard Lobo, his deputy Jeff Trimble and to Director Sherman.

Among BBG members, Ambassador Victor Ashe seems to be the only one speaking out publicly about the bureaucratic waste and abuse while strategically important broadcasts are silenced for no good reason. Most of the other BBG members approve whatever the IBB executive team puts in front of them, including ending VOA radio to Tibet.

A letter addressed to Congresswoman Kay Granger (R – TX), Chairman of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the House Committee on Appropriations and to Ranking Member Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D – NY) criticizes the Broadcasting Board of Governors for expanding their bureaucracy at the expense of critical overseas broadcasts and U.S. strategic interests:

The proposed reductions are driven not by a considered strategic world view, but by bureaucratic expedience and a fundamental misunderstanding of the mission of VOA. If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted, the staff level for VOA will be reduced by 13.2% from the current year. In contrast, only 3.3% of the positions from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which provides administrative support to the BBG, will be cut.

If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted the number of full time equivalent (FTE) positions for the IBB will rise from 593.2 in fiscal year 2011 to 678.2. In the same time period VOA will lose 121.2 FTE positions. The general trend of the IBB has been to grow larger while the number of language services they support is being reduced. Broadcasting should be the last thing to be cut. It makes little sense to grow the bureaucracy while cutting that which it is meant to support. The eliminations and reductions in broadcasting to Tibet, China, Laos, and Vietnam alone will cut 28 positions from VOA.

Link to the Letter

BBG proposes to cut VOA’s funding by more than 9% ($17.096 million) while increasing funding for IBB’s major bureaucratic offices.

Funding for IBB management




Director’s office

$5.91 million

+ $0.113 million

($6.023 million in total)


Office of General Counsel

$2.224 million

+ $0.032 million

($2.256 million in total)


Office of Chief Financial Officer

$14.432 million

+ $0.36 million

(14.792 million in total)


Office of Contracting and Procurement

$2.869 million

+ $0.18 million

($3.049 million in total)


Source: Broadcasting Board of Governors FY 2013 Budget Request


BBG’s Strategic Vision and Planning Is Seriously Unbalanced

Country/ Language


Mandarin/Cantonese/Tibetan/Uyghur (VOA & RFA)


Pashto & Dari (VOA & RFE/RL)

Arabic(MBN & RFE/RL)


Persian (VOA & RFE/RL)



$34.59 mil.

$29.6 mil.

$129.25 mil.

$34.42 mil.


Target Population

133.8 mil.

28.4 mil.

174 mil.

(15 Arabic nations)

73.2 mil.


Average $per Capita



(39 times)


(29 times)


(18 times)


Country/ Language










Target Population


7.5 mil.

82.8 mil.

Average $per Capita



(8 times)


(same as China)

Mandarin Service


2010 budget

Hourly Programming Expense

Weekly website visitors

Weekly website visit


Weekly audience reach

VOA Mandarin

$12.744 million





(160 million)


RFA Mandarin

$9 million





(40 million)




1 : 1.62

1.5 : 1

2.33 : 1

4 : 1

2.5 : 1

Cantonese Service


2010 budget

Hourly Programming Expense


VOA Cantonese

$1.27 million


10% (7.24 million)

RFA Cantonese

$1.07 million


4% (1.81 million)



1 : 1.6

2.5 : 1

Tibetan Service


2010 budget

Hourly Programming Expense

Weekly website visit


VOA Tibetan

$3.46 million



28% (1.51 million)

RFA Tibetan

$5.44 million



24% (1.30 million)



1 : 1.87

1.29 : 1

1.17 : 1

Burmese Service


2010 budget

Hourly Programming Expense

Weekly website visitors

Weekly website visits


Weekly audience reach

VOA Burmese

$2.41 million






RFA Burmese

$2.5 million








1 : 1.26

1.02 : 1

1.6 : 1

1.1 : 1

1.13 : 1

Vietnamese Service


2010 budget

Hourly Programming Expense


Website Visit


Audience Reach


$1.96 million



0.9% (0.79 million)





0.2% (0.17 million)



1 : 1.6

1.04 : 1

4.5 : 1

NOTE: All data are sourced from BBG 2010 Annual Language Service Review Briefing Book unless otherwise noted.


BBG Watch is providing a copy of Mr. Sherman’s article posted on one of the BBG websites:

The BBG's brand logos“One organization, many brands” is integral to the BBG’s new strategy, Impact through Innovation, and Integration. The ability to have multiple brands offers several advantages…

More from the BBG Strategy Blog [UPDATE: BBG Strategy Blog is no longer online. Its domain name has been purchased by an unknown entity and is used for business advertising.]

By Bruce Sherman
BBG Office of Strategy and Development

The BBG’s major brand names are, of course, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra TV, Radio Sawa, Radio Martí and TV Martí. There are also various sub-brands such as Radio Azadi (RFE/RL) in Afghanistan and Deewa Radio (VOA) in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Popular BBG programs — Parazit in Iran, OMG Meiyu in China, and Studio 7 in Zimbabwe — often acquire identities in their own right.

Differential branding is beneficial. It lets us position our products for specific markets and target key audience segments (women, youth, etc.). It helps us stand out in cluttered media environments and deal with challenging political realities, including anti-Americanism. All this helps boost our reach and impact — a BBG priority.

Where our brands resonate with audiences, we want to preserve them. Where they don’t, we have the flexibility to invent new ones. Radio Sawa (“together” in Arabic) helped us rebrand our efforts in the Middle East and reach millions of new listeners.

While the BBG sponsors multiple brands at the agency level, local audiences see only one or perhaps two brands in their particular markets. Research shows they usually know one from the other, and often use one more than the other — which is to say, the brands have unique audiences. Preserving those audiences is decidedly in the BBG’s interests.

Our brands, as symbols of our organizations, also reflect our statutory requirements — to do the news (local and international), represent America, and present U.S. policy. They each are established in law and have supporters in Congress. Preserving the brands thus upholds our congressional mandates.

That said, while supporting the brands, the BBG will become an increasingly unified international media network. Each brand will produce value-added content and retain editorial control. Where two brands coexist, they will complement each other so as to satisfy both audience needs and mission imperatives. The BBG will support them through integrated strategy, budgeting, research, distribution, marketing, and administrative management.

This is the “one organization, many brands” vision. The FY 2013 budget proposals to begin streamlining management and ending language service duplications are steps towards realizing this vision. So, too, is the board’s decision to combine the three grantee organizations (RFE/RL, RFA, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks), into one entity and to seek legislation to achieve definitive agency restructuring.


Bruce Sherman

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