BBG Watch News Commentary

Rep. Walter B. Jones

Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) is asking the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to modernize the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville, North Carolina, but sources tell us that his request is not likely to receive a favorable response from the current BBG executives who earlier had wanted to close down the facility.

Sources also tell us that unless these officials are replaced by the Board, the future of the Voice of America (VOA), and especially its radio broadcasting, is seriously threatened, as is employee morale at the BBG. It is already at the lowest level among all federal agencies according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys.

BBG senior staffers have been in conflict with Congress, human rights groups, media freedom organizations and their own employees going back many years, but they somehow manage to hold on to their positions while getting successive Boards in trouble on Capitol Hill. None of this bodes well for Congressman Jones’ request to modernize the Greenville facility, but BBG Watch has learned that the BBG staff may schedule a redecoration ceremony at the station.

BBG senior executives offend both Republicans and Democrats. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) charges that the Broadcasting Board of Governors lacks both transparency and accountability. Senator Coburn also called the BBG “the most worthless organization in the federal government.” Last year, in a bipartisan move, the Senate Committee on Appropriations had rejected the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ proposal to end Voice of America (VOA) radio and TV broadcasts to China and criticized the BBG for lacking transparency.

In a letter to the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo, Congressman Jones points out that some of the radio transmitters in Greenville date back to the 1950s and “are in dire need of modernization.” He asked that they be upgraded over a period of several years. Richard Lobo was appointed to his job by President Obama and he and his wife have been raising money for the Obama reelection campaign. Sources tell us that Lobo is not a hands-on manager and relies heavily on his executive staff.

BBG Governor Amb. Victor Ashe at the Greenville Transmitting Station.

BBG executive staffers, who now work for Lobo, wanted to have the station closed down permanently and are adamantly opposed to any modernization proposals. Their efforts to shut down the facility were thwarted by BBG’s senior Republican member Victor Ashe, a former mayor of Knoxville and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland, who demanded that the last U.S. government-controlled shortwave radio transmitting station on U.S. territory be kept operational in the interest of national security. Ashe was concerned that governments of other nations where BBG leases radio transmitters often dictate how they can be used and sometimes make it impossible to retransmit news from the United States to countries like China. Despite strong objections from BBG staffers, Ashe visited the station last December.

Ashe is reportedly also concerned about losses of American jobs and the BBG staff’s push to eliminate Voice of America radio broadcasting to countries without free media. The BBG’s latest budget proposal calls for ending VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet and many other countries lacking free press. It is assumed that Ashe voted against the majority of BBG members on many of these proposals to cut or reduce programs. The Board is composed of nine members. Eight members (4 Democrats and 4 Republicans) are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The ninth, the Secretary of State, serves ex officio. The Secretary is represented on the Board by the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

While Ashe was able to save the station and the jobs in Greenville due to a reported compromise with former BBG Democratic Chairman Walter Isaacson, who had resigned last month, our sources tell us that Ashe is often stymied by some of the other Democrats on the Board and even by one of his Republican colleagues, S. Enders Wimbush. Wimbush is one of the strongest supporters of eliminating Voice of America radio broadcasts to China, Tibet and other countries. Last year, he argued forcefully for ending VOA radio to China in a letter to the editor of The Washington Times. S. ENDERS WIMBUSH’s LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF THE WASHINGTON TIMES Ending VOA China presence politically smart.

Last year, all Democrats and all Republicans on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted to stop the BBG plan to end VOA radio and television transmissions to China. But with Wimbush’s support, the BBG executive staff was again able to persuade the majority of BBG members to approve even more drastic cuts for FY2013, including the elimination of the VOA Cantonese Service. It is unlikely that with the current BBG and IBB staff in place, Congressman Jones’ plea for modernization of the Greenville transmitting station will receive a favorable response, unless another move in Congress will force the BBG to reverse its radio program cutting decisions. Last year, a successful effort to counter some of BBG’s program cutting decisions was led by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Congressman Jones sent Rep. Rohrabacher a copy of his letter.

Congressman Jones also wrote to Director Lobo that he or his field representative would like to attend a re-dedication ceremony at the Greenville facility to restore its original name as the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station. Victor Ashe demanded that the name, which was removed by the BBG staff bent on closing down the station, be again used and new signs with the original name be placed at the facility.

BBG Watch has learned that the BBG executive staff no longer tries to oppose the restoration of the station’s name, but in an email to other members of the management team, one top-level IBB executive is said to have speculated on the best ways to resist Congressman Jones’ request for modernizing the Greenville facility, apparently even before the letter was shown to BBG members who have the ultimate authority to make such decisions.

The proposed modernization would involve replacing old analog radio transmitters with new transmitters that can operate in both analog and digital mode. Congressman Jones pointed out in his letter that modernizing the transmitters “would provide for substantial increases in operating efficiencies, lower power costs” and reduced maintenance needs.

Defending the importance of radio broadcasting, former Voice of America deputy director Alan L. Heil Jr. pointed to the BBG’s most recent surveys which show that VOA has a 75% audience share of all who listen to, watch or consume U.S. international broadcasting in any format each week, 141 million of 187 million people altogether.   Of the total, 104 million still use radio and research has shown that a multimedia approach — including radio — amplifies audience numbers and cross-streaming for new media.

National Public Radio (NPR) reported this week that Tibetan Buddhist monks — several of whom have recently set themselves on fire in protest against repression by the Chinese communist regime — are listening secretly to Voice of America Tibetan radio broadcasts, which the BBG executive staff and most BBG members want to discontinue. Protests, Self-Immolation Signs Of A Desperate Tibet.

As early as 2008, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) specifically warned the Broadcasting Board of Governors not to stop Voice of America broadcasts  to Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tibet and to the Balkans, “where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.” Acting upon their staff’s advice, bipartisan BBG members serving the Bush Administration ignored Senator Leahy’s plea and ended VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just days before the Russian military attack on the Republic of Georgia.

In 2007, the same BBG executive staffers convinced the Board to propose reducing radio broadcasts to Tibet, but a highly emotional silent sit-in on Capitol Hill by a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks produced such an outcry of protests in Congress that the BBG was forced to drop its plan. Some of our sources believe that BBG executives may have failed to tell the current BBG members about the 2007 Tibetan protest as they convinced them to propose a complete elimination of VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet in their FY2013 budget.

But while critics argue for keeping VOA radio programs on the air in Tibet, China and in other nations without free media, the BBG and IBB executive staff — led by IBB deputy director Jeff Trimble, director of the Office of Technology, Services and Innovation André Mendes, and director of strategic planning Bruce Sherman — pushes hard to reduce the number of VOA radio broadcasts and the number of VOA language services. They argue that money is better spent on the Internet and other new media program delivery methods. VOA and Radio Free Asia websites, however, are blocked in Tibet and China. Iran and Cuba also block VOA websites. The same staff is responsible for formulating the BBG restructuring plan, which the agency plans to present to Congress. Critics charge that the plan would further reduce transparency, accountability and public scrutiny while giving BBG officials more opportunities to expand bureaucracy wasteful spending of taxpayers’ money.

Rep. Walter B. Jones' Letter to IBB Director Richard Lobo.

Congressman Jones wrote that he is proud of the Greenville station’s staff’s contributions in promoting freedom in the Caribbean, Latin and South America as well as in Africa. He described the facility as an asset to U.S. foreign policy in an area of the world which in his view has been neglected by the United States over the last decade due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congressman Jones wrote that he is a strong proponent of refocusing on the neglected regions and believes that the Greenville facility can be useful in this effort.

But the FY2013 budget proposal approved by the majority of BBG members calls for eliminating 14 positions in the Voice of America Spanish Service and does not anticipate using shortwave radio transmissions to any countries in the region except for Cuba. The budget proposal also calls for eliminating 71 positions used to prepare English-language programs. Some of these journalists based in Washington, DC prepare news and programs for Africa.

The independent nongovernmental Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB), which promotes free flow of uncensored news from the United States to countries without free media, said that it is outraged by the proposed cuts and reductions of broadcasts to Tibet, China and other critical nations while the Broadcasting Board of Governors executives use U.S. taxpayers’ resources to enlarge their own bureaucracy. CUSIB Opposes BBG’s FY2013 Budget Proposal.

Link to Congressman Walter B. Jones’ letter to IBB Director Richard Lobo.