BBG Watch Commentary
The most worrying characteristic of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is the ever growing number of its activities not related to programming or even program support. Another even more worrying characteristic is a large number of former Voice of America broadcasters and journalists who are no longer engaged in broadcasting or journalism but have been assigned to non-programming projects, while VOA ceased to be able to post and update news on a timely basis and has lost its competitive position among major international broadcasters.
IBB executives constantly come up with projects and activities to justify creating new bureaucratic positions and spending taxpayers money that could have been much better spent on news reporting and programs for audiences abroad.
One of such activities are public panels in Washington, DC to present already vastly overpriced IBB-Gallup audience research. Very few people come to these panels and the results could have been just as easily posted online for everybody to see. IBB has a five year $50 million audience research contract with Gallup. We understand that not all of this money is being spent, but still most of the actual spending is completely unnecessary for the agency’s needs and mission. Some of it goes to paying for these public panels in Washington as well as for constant, expensive and devoid of purpose international travel by IBB executives. Broadcasts and other media outreach programs have been terminated to fund the Gallup contract that measures an audiences that has not grown in many years.
While BBG audiences have been stagnant, from 2007 to 2011 there was a 23% increase in the IBB staff — an additional 47 employees on board. The projected increase for FY 2014 is a 37% increase from 2007 or 77 new authorized positions.
These additional IBB staffers support and evaluate fewer and fewer programs. Their numbers and their activities keep growing while the quality of journalism and independence of broadcasters decline. This is especially evident among entities closest to the IBB, particularly at the Voice of America. Its audience now is essentially the same as it was in 2007 and also the same as it was in 1989 despite a 40% increase in world’s population and the addition of satellite TV and Internet delivery, which could have given VOA access to large new audiences but did not under the current strategic plan.
And while Washington panels such as the one described by The Federalist are being organized by IBB executives for no real purpose other than self-promotion, essential administrative support for VOA and grantee programmers has been reduced.
The BBG strategic plan lost sight of the news content and the independence of the grantees and of the Voice of America. Its authors have no regard for Congressional legislation setting respective missions of VOA and the surrogates, concentrating instead on making the “IBB” the center of all international media outreach with an emphasis only on technology, delivery and numbers and not content. The irony is that these IBB strategic planners cannot deliver numbers no matter what technology or delivery method they use because their plan has resulted in destroying news content and branding that audiences which really matter need and want. Research is only as good as the people who use it to make choices and decisions.
The Federalist addresses some of these key issues in his latest commentary.
International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunctional and Defunct in the Federal Government -Information War Lost: Not Everything We Need To Know
by The Federalist
“…useless information supposed to drive my imagination…”
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
-Mick Jagger/Keith Richards
Delayed by the Federal shutdown, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) resurrected its presentation with representatives of the Gallup organization, “Global Hotspots: Media Use in Mali and Somalia,” conducted Thursday, November 14, 2013.
The event was billed as “a research briefing on media use in Mali and Somalia.”
The featured speakers included Bruce Sherman who encumbers the title, “Director, Office of Strategy and Development, BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors).” Mr. Sherman is often associated with the agency’s “strategic plan,” something we view as neither “strategic” nor a “plan,” highlighted as it is by a five-year window, a known tactic used by the Soviets in decades past to delay accountability for failure, compounding existing failures and in this case potentially costing the American taxpayer MILLIONS of dollars ever year in an agency that has become dysfunctional and defunct in mission effectiveness.
An agency press release in advance of the event describes,
“The BBG and Gallup will discuss new findings about media consumption habits in these global hotspots. These findings will reveal two nations with remarkably vibrant media environments and diverse media consumption practices.
Individuals in both countries are avid consumers of the news. The majority of Somalis (65.6%) access news at least once per day. More than one in four Somalis (27.9%) share news daily or most days. In Mali, adults in Bamako are frequent news users as well – 92.5% say they receive news from television, radio, the Internet or newspapers at least once a week, and 78.4% report they receive news from any of these sources at least once a day.
The event will include a presentation of the key findings from the studies on media consumption habits, as well as a methodological overview and a review of historical media trends in Mali and Somalia.”
Within hours of the event, the agency issued a follow-up press release on Thursday, November 14, 2013 (“BBG, Gallup Issue Findings on Media Use in the Sahel”).
Unlike previous press releases, the agency actually produced links to materials used in support of the event, including data displayed from what appears to be a PowerPoint presentation.
We looked at the slides from the presentation along with the materials provided in the press release. You can also view this information via the links embedded in the agency’s press release provided below.
We are not going to go point by point through the slides. The first 29 provide geo-political observations relating to the region. Instead, we turn to things that are more germane to the broadcasting environment in Mali and Somalia.
Page/Slide 30: Past-Week TV Audiences of Select Channels: It appears that agency assets do not have a presence here
Page/Slide 31: Past-Week Radio Audiences: Here, BBG assets come last or fourth far behind the regional broadcaster “ORTM.”
Page/Slide 32: Most Important News Source: Once again “ORTM” leads all media options. BBG assets do not show up on this slide.
Page/Slide 42: Media Platforms: Daily Use For News: This slide shows that radio is the runaway leader, over twice the percentage over TV (67% versus 31%).
Page/Slide 46: Past Week Audiences: National: Here, Voice of America (VOA) TV has about half the audience compared to the leader (“Horn Cable”), 15% to the leader’s 31%. At the same time, the slide shows VOA does much better with radio at 49%, second to the leader (“Broadcaster 1”) at 66%.
Page/Slide 47: Past Week Audiences By Region: VOA-TV is in the middle of the pack on television. On radio, VOA leads with 77%, followed closely by “Broadcaster 1” coming in at 76%.
Page/Slide 48: Most Important News Source: Here, VOA trails “Broadcaster 1” at 24.1% to 27.9%
Page/Slide 52: Most Important Internet Sites for News: Facebook and Google hammer alternative sites with 76.3% and 53.3% respectively. VOA comes in at 10.6%
Mali and Somalia have a boatload of serious problems.
Somalia is the primary Horn of Africa country strategically astride the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. The country is known for piracy directed against international sea-going trade and commerce. Ships, cargo and crews have been routinely preyed upon and held for ransom. International maritime powers including the United States have deployed warships to the area to interdict Somali pirates.
In addition, the Somali government recently closed two radio stations (Radio Shabelle and Sky FM) which occupied space in a government-owned building. According to the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), the stations had done reports on corruption within the Somali government. A government spokesperson said shutting down the stations had nothing to do with media freedom and was in connection with non-payment of rent (as reported by Reuters on October 27, 2013 on the Reuters website).
Mali is a landlocked country in western Africa. It contends with active insurgent and terrorist groups. Recently, two French journalists were killed. Both the insurgents and terrorists are alternately believed to be responsible for the killings. One report claims the journalists were shot, another claims that their throats had been slit.
More dangers may be lurking in Mali. Libya, itself in a state of disarray, has not been able to secure weapons arsenals and depots of the former Qaddafi regime. As a result, there are unconfirmed reports (“Missiles in Syria may help arm al Qaeda,” by Rowan Scarborough, The Washington Times, November 7, 2013) that shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles may be in the hands of Mali insurgents, as well as jihadists fighting in Syria. Keep in mind that one of the favorite weapons and/or targets of terrorist organizations are commercial airliners, in addition to military aircraft.
Neither Mali nor Somalia would seem to be high on one’s garden variety tourist destination unless someone gets a vicarious thrill out of putting one’s life in danger.
We live in a globalized world. That makes every part of the globe important.
That being said, it still remains that some places are much more important than others. Even with the dangers lurking in places like Mali and Somalia, there are larger dangers afoot in other parts of the world.
For the IBB, the results of this research are mixed. The agency fares better in Somalia than it does in Mali.
Ironically for the IBB, radio is a runaway leading communications medium in Somalia. We say ironically because it is well known inside the Cohen Building that the IBB wants to kill radio, particularly shortwave radio, anywhere and everywhere it can.
And here is something else that makes IBB executives grind their teeth at night:
These countries are war zones.
There isn’t a cell phone we know of that you can hand crank when your battery runs low…and there just happens to be problems with the country’s electrical grid infrastructure. So there you are, out country, and that cloud of dust around the bend in the road could be a bus, or it could be a column of rebel troops heading your way about to make for a very bad day for you.
In addition, you can be assured that when Somali authorities take local radio stations off the air and cut cell phone and Internet service (as they tend to here and elsewhere) the importance of shortwave radio broadcasts rise exponentially. The problem will be that the agency could find itself out in the cold if it doesn’t have these assets ready to go when an already unstable political environment takes a dim view of a local radio station and its program content, including VOA content placed on that station.
Shortwave radio is strategic communications. IBB antipathy toward this medium is a clear demonstration of its lack of strategic vision. The IBB world view tries to make the agency’s strategic communications mission competitive with commercial media. In the vast majority of cases, this is not going to happen (and attempting to make it so has contributed mightily to the agency’s lack of mission effectiveness). It is part of the massive failure of the IBB: no understanding that the primary purpose of the agency is to be a reliable strategic source of news and information.
But for the IBB, the world is a DC suburb, immersed in technological gadgetry.
Is the rest of the world quite like that?
Well, not really.
Polling That Matters or Doesn’t
The agency is spending an enormous amount of taxpayer money on its contract with the Gallup polling organization: $10-million per year for five years for a $50-million grand total, although not all of the allocated amount may be spent.
We have said it before: spending a lot of money on research regarding areas of the world that may be secondary or tertiary levels of US interests concedes that the US Government is no longer an international broadcasting superpower. The IBB has become incapable of taking on the big boys: China, Russia, Iran and “Middle East voices” that are often not benign in their message toward the United States. If you are one of the big boys, you have to feel very, very good. They know, as we do, that this survey is a diversion away from what the real issue is for US Government international broadcasting: the lack of resonance in program content with impact in parts of the world that have strategic prominence and less than free media.
What the American people need from US Government international broadcasting is an effective counterweight to the hostile or competitive messages from China, Russia, Iran and the Middle East.
Because these nations pose the greatest challenge (and in some instances the greatest threat) to US national interests.
Presently, the Chinese are developing missile technology to destroy US aircraft carriers. As a projection of US naval surface warfare dominance, the aircraft carrier is our most potent surface weapon. An effective weapon against US aircraft carriers severely interdicts our ability to project deterrence and otherwise restrain hostile geopolitical ambitions by other nations.
The Chinese are also developing a new “smart” torpedo. This may pose a threat to both surface and subsurface US naval warships and submarines.
Similarly, the Russians are back in the business of their deep patrol regimen with long-range aircraft in concert with their surface and sub-surface naval patrols and exercises.
Last but not least, there is the issue with the Iranian nuclear program which is an integral part of the Iranian government’s strategic objective to establish hegemony in the Middle East – Israel and Arab neighbors alike.
The name of the game in places like Mali and Somalia is to get the most bang for a limited amount of bucks, not to make it a centerpiece of the agency’s operations.
And in the meantime:
The BBG should be asking some very hard questions of the IBB concerning programming to the primary strategic areas in the world. If big money is to be spent on research by the Gallup organization, it should be to determine:
What does our audience look like in countries that matter most to the United States?
How effective is our message to the people in these countries?
How do they view the United States and its policies toward their countries?
Who, either foreign or domestic, has a broadcast/media message with more resonance than US Government international broadcasting?
What assets has the IBB eliminated in reaching these audiences?
What other and new assets can be used?
And, the BBG needs to see the actual questions asked in the research and how the IBB games the numbers to project certain outcomes. We all know that the IBB likes to say, “No one listens to shortwave radio anymore.” That is false. What the IBB is really saying is, “We don’t want to do shortwave radio anymore.” And, as pointed out regularly by BBG Watch editors, IBB alternative global media penetration (the Internet) is largely a bust.
What about digital radio, satellite radio, satellite TV, Internet radio, YouTube, social media — where is the agency in using these assets? The numbers of Facebook “Likes” for often late and outdated VOA news reports — many of them from Reuters rather than original VOA content — are mostly in single digits, while Al Jazeera, BBC, and Russia Today get hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands. The strategic plan is not working. The strategic team has no idea what to do, so they organize research panels that have not provided them or anybody else with answers that anybody can use. Even if there some hints in the data being presented, the current executive team would not be able to use them.
Certain IBB and VOA officials pontificate what a great job the agency is doing.
Talk is cheap and other nations with more effective message outreach know it. Just look at Al Jazeera and Russia Today.
With IBB and VOA officials, it really amounts to a lot of bluster and no substance.
Other international broadcasters know this as much as we do:
US Government international broadcasting has gone stone cold in some of the world’s most critical global hotspots…media and otherwise.