BBG Watch Commentary
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employee union, AFGE Local 1812, has posted on its website a number of commentaries on the crisis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) brought about by the actions of its outgoing president Steven Korn and his closest associates. They include RFE/RL vice president of content Julia Ragona, vice president of administration Dale Cohen, and the new director of Radio Liberty Russian Service Masha Gessen. Together, they managed to make Radio Liberty an enemy of the entire human rights and political opposition movement in Russia and to alienate the majority of the station’s supporters.
Korn, who was selected for his position by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, claims he is resigning on his own for personal reasons. But BBG Watch and other media report that he was forced to resign by the BBG and stripped of authority to fire any more RFE/RL employees.
Korn ordered the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty’s best journalists so that Masha Gessen could bring in her own team composed of her friends and associates. Most of them are completely unknown in Russia, unlike the star journalists who were fired. After they were suddenly dismissed without any warning, they were not permitted by RFE/RL management to say good bye to their radio and online audience of many years.
AFGE Local 1812 does not represent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty employees. They have a different employment status than BBG employees in the United States. Most of RFE/RL employees are based overseas.
But the union representing BBG’s federal employees is taking a keen interest in the events in Prague and in Moscow out of union and professional solidarity, but also because the same BBG executives who have oversight over RFE/RL also manage the Voice of America (VOA) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB).
These executives were responsible for formulating BBG’s strategic plans. To what degree they take direction from part-time board members and what degree they pursue their own agenda is a matter of some dispute, but the BBG employee union believes strongly that the blame for many of the things that went wrong with U.S. international broadcasting falls on this group of BBG officials. In the opinion of many critics, they failed to advise BBG members on the right course of action and failed to warn them about serious risks and looming crises.
BBG Watch is reposting several recent commentaries from the AFGE Local 1812 website which compare management decisions at RFE/RL with actions of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives, under the directorship of Richard Lobo, which affect the work of VOA and OCB.
Korn’s Crash Landing, BBG Left to Pick Up the Pieces
by American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812
In his comments on the resignation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Steven Korn, as reported by the website BBG Watch, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Ambassador Victor Ashe noted that Mr. Korn “was feared and disliked by most employees. His self-serving letter of resignation sets a new standard for arrogance and delusion. His hiring was a terrible mistake we will spend years recovering from.” Tough words, indeed.
What we at AFGE Local 1812 find interesting is how much of Mr. Korn’s resignation letter echoes the prevalent attitude of Agency management at the Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting these past 10 years or so. An attitude that seems to be: if only we could fire, or force all of them into retirement, we could make the place so much better and increase audiences. Guess what? That’s a fantasy. The mess overseas at Radio Liberty Russian proves it.
Maybe the spectacle of the debacle at RFE/RL’s Russian Service, not to mention the de-facto destruction of VOA’s Russian Service when it was switched to Internet only, will finally lay that fantasy to rest.
Nowhere in his resignation letter does Mr. Korn allude to the tragic impact of his decision to fire most of RFE/RL’s staff which gave the new Russian Service director Masha Gessen a clean slate with a new team. Similarly, here at IBB headquarters in Washington DC, we’re not aware of any IBB or VOA managers admitting to the disastrous impact of the decision to turn VOA’s Russian Service into an Internet only service, which sunk it into irrelevance.
There seems to be an inability on the part of Mr. Korn, or the Agency upper management teams, to acknowledge that perhaps they could be wrong — even when, according to their own measurement of choice, their decisions have led to a catastrophic loss of audience.
Adopting the tone of a martyr to the cause, Mr. Korn also seeks to perpetuate a string of false conceptions that appear widespread throughout Agency management that change is good, inevitable, constant, and necessary to the continued vitality of RFE/RL. “To be frank, when I arrived I found a degree of institutional inertia and insular self-satisfaction that I thought could be harmful to the future of the company,” he intones. He failed to realize that this is a reflection of poor management – not a failure of employees. VOA and OCB employees (and we are sure RFE/RL employees as well) have seen a number of technological changes in the broadcasting business over the years and have adapted to them.
In the union’s opinion, it is totally unnecessary to belittle the staff, to chop it to pieces in the press, to plot the firing of employees and vengefully show them the door in order to institute change in international broadcasting whether at the Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, or RFE/RL. Instead, why not work with the staff in an honest fashion to move forward and allow employees the opportunity to change along with the organization? Why not exploit their vast knowledge and experience? It appears that the fired RL Russian team was already advanced in the new technologies and pioneered it on their website. So what was the real reason, we and others ask, for their firing?
Mr. Korn seems to have opted for the nuclear option because he could but we contend that someone must have given him the permission to do it. Perhaps he believed he would “show them” who was right and who was in charge. There is a philosophy of management that insists that keeping employees anxious and fearful for their jobs enables one to get the best out of them. Perhaps this was his motive. We believe this management philosophy leads to demoralization and diminishing of the product. This type of management style employed at the Voice of America has left the newsroom eviscerated, language services unable to cover important stories, and the Agency largely incapable of fulfilling its mission to present the United States and its best values to the world. And the OPM Human Capital Survey has shown that this management approach has been devastating as the BBG, year in and year out, is dubbed the worst place to work in the federal government. Mr. Korn has indicated that the decision to fire the RL Russian journalists was only done after consulting with every member of the BBG.
AFGE Local 1812’s question: was it actually the BBG who approved the decision or was it the BBG Executive Staff in conjunction with the IBB Director who were the responsible parties in this decision which has effectively destroyed the Radio Liberty mission in Russia? Was a decision made with the knowledge of only one or two BBG Members? Supposedly, there will be an investigation and perhaps there will be an answer. Perhaps not.
This brings us to Mr. Korn’s apparent disregard for the core mission of RFE/RL’s Russian Service. Someone with a measure of diplomatic or international broadcasting experience might not have made the decisions he made. But why hesitate when at headquarters here in Washington, Mr. Korn probably heard from higher-ups that the mission “no longer matters.” We contend that the missions of U.S. international broadcasts have a higher purpose than just generating the largest audience.
Like VOA managers, Mr. Korn seemed to have equated success with “audience numbers”. The mission has become the audience. Coming from the private sector, it’s not surprising that he would have sought to prioritize any story by any staffer that might attract large numbers of young people: babes and bikinis no less. But what sells to some people in the U.S. does not necessarily sell abroad. The snafus concerning the risqué Kazakh videos put out by RFE/RL to a predominantly Muslim country proves it.
We believe that our missions are not to provide light fluffy content to the world. The light stuff can always be found somewhere else. But solid, informed stories on hard topics are more difficult to find and it takes experienced journalists and broadcasters to do that. That used to be what we focused on at VOA, OCB, and we assume RFE/RL, but now management insists on changing that. As his resignation letter makes clear, Mr. Korn favored this change of focus. This is what led to his miscalculation and what now appears to be the destruction of the Radio Liberty Russian Service.