BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of America Bingo Poster
Voice of America Bingo Poster – Art Night! is reportedly next.

Things get stranger and stranger at the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) under the dysfunctional management of its top executives and officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). They in turn function under the oversight of the federal nine-person bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which has as one of its members (ex officio) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Former BBG member and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described last year the agency’s international media outreach as “defunct.” There is a largely renewed BBG board now in place.

Most of Voice of America employees are highly educated, multilingual journalists, many with years of U.S. domestic and international experience, but their news organization has one of the lowest employee morale within the federal government. This is almost entirely due to the quality of senior executives at VOA and IBB.

These managers are deadly afraid of being asked politely to leave by the new BBG board, whose recently appointed chairman is Jeff Shell, a highly competent and energetic private media executive. He has already told the staff that he considers journalists working for the BBG as the agency’s most valuable asset.

Under Shell’s chairmanship, some International Broadcasting Bureau executives already have left or were reassigned, bringing some relief and hope to the professional staff. But not much has changed at the Voice of America, which continues to fail to provide timely news reports due to what VOA journalists say is incredibly poor management and lack of leadership at the top of the organization. Journalists also complain about top managers’ “roughness and abusiveness in dealing with staff.”

In an attempt to counteract criticism before the approaching BBG board meeting, one VOA executive told a Washington Post columnist that improving employee morale is a long-term process that may take from three to five years. We do not think that BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and other board members would agree with this statement.

Some VOA reporters left biting comments under the Washington Post article. They did it anonymously fearing retaliation by the current management team, which has a record of trying to discredit outside investigative reporters who criticize them and even asking for their press accreditation to be revoked while also intimidating VOA journalists and contract employees. This is happening at a taxpayer-funded agency created to defend press freedom. See:  Agency tries to improve its low employee morale, Joe Davidson, Washington Post, The Federal Diary, Feb. 19, 2014 and Voice of America journalists propose replacing gimmicks with real reforms – Recommendations I, BBG Watch, Feb. 19, 2014.

A group of VOA journalists told BBG Watch that there is a much simpler, faster and much less expensive solution to the morale problem at the Voice of America. (The Washington Post reported that IBB executives have paid a private contractor $84,000 to tell them how to make employees like them.)

The solution is to replace as soon as possible truly bad managers, who have been there for many years, with some new good ones; to cancel the morale improvement contract, saving U.S. taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars; and to focus instead on the fundamentals of good management. After all, these current managers are paid three-figure salaries in addition to numerous other federal employment benefits; they should already know how to manage well. If they don’t, they should be replaced.

Art Class at Elementary School

So, is this for real?

As part of their more ale improvement scheme, the discredited management team had already organized a Bingo Night for employees at the federal building in Washington where the Voice of America has its headquarters — a highly questionable action on many levels at a federal facility. See: Gambling U.S. federal style – Bingo at Voice of America while Ukraine burns lacking U.S. news, BBG Watch, January 26, 2014.

Now comes this electronic memo forwarded to us:

Mark your calendar for Art Night!

Funfest: Agency Art Night

Sometimes we need help thinking outside the box and unlocking our creativity. Whether you’re a master artist, or struggle to stay inside the lines, come socialize with colleagues and friends within VOA and IBB and unlock your artistic potential.

You bring your creative spirit. Art supplies (paintbrushes, crayons, markers, colored pencils, paper, and more!) and some refreshments to spark the imagination will be provided. […]

Date: Thursday, February 20, 2014
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Location: Eurasia Conference Room

Please note: The FunFest group activities are not sponsored by the BBG and participation is not required.  If you choose to participate, it is at your own risk and the BBG is not liable for any physical or other injury resulting from your participation in this event.

If this announcement is also for real, it’s not just ridiculous, but also insulting. It’s treating professionals like five-year-olds. It shows the appalling quality of VOA/IBB management, their patronizing attitude toward employees, and their complete disconnect with their own professional staff.

This kind of attitude, displayed earlier with the “Bingo Night” idea, is also reflected in VOA top managers’ programming policies. They have resulted in dozens of news reports on the British royal family, Justin Bieber’s drinking problems and dog shows, while news about Ukraine and Bosnia, even some reactions from the White House and the State Department and Secretary of State Kerry, do not get reported. See: Voice of America news goes to the dogs, but not to Bosnia, BBG Watch, Feb. 11, 2014.

No wonder that employee morale has been at record lows for years, especially if in addition to this kind of simplistic and patronizing attitude one adds intimidation of the staff by executives with anger management problems that their bosses choose to ignore.

If the “Art Night!” announcement is really for real, and not a prank by a creative VOA journalist making fun of the previous “Bingo Night” announcement, which was for real, then it should serve as the final signal for the BBG board to take immediate actions to replace the current management team at VOA, which lacks any kind of common sense, public relations skills or creativity.

What could possibly journalists at BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle or RT think of their VOA colleagues after seeing such announcements? Hopefully, they feel sorry for VOA reporters and broadcasters. But if they also think that Voice of America and International Broadcasting Bureau executives have completely lost their minds, they would not be wrong.

The BBG board needs to bring in managers who know how to practice good public relations and how to communicate with and inspire mature professional employees — employees who do not need to be reminded how to “think outside the box” and how to “unlock [their] creativity.” They are journalists, for God’s sake. They should be treated as such and given freedom to be creative in their own profession, not in an art class for five-year-olds — and that may even be an insult to majority of intelligent five-year-olds who can already tell if they are being patronized.

These journalists don’t have the freedom nor a creative atmosphere under the current VOA management team. This needs to change or the dysfunction will continue and get worse, while VOA and IBB executives play “managers” at taxpayers’ expense. Audiences abroad won’t get the news they expect from the Voice of America, which will leave telling America’s story abroad to Russia or China.