BBG Watch Commentary
Sexually suggestive videos and racy photos — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is changing its image, but the strategy of showing women’s breasts does not seem to be attracting new visitors to its websites. One of the latest stories, “Racy Photo Shoot Lands Russian Telecom Retailer In Trouble,” as of Friday evening had only four “Tweets” and seven Facebook “Likes” after a whole day of showing a photo of “a young woman dressed in a speckled bra and skimpy wrap in front of what appears to be a cash desk ostentatiously cupping her breasts,” to quote from the article on the RFE/RL English-language website, as if showing the large image was not enough.
RFE/RL’s Russian-language website has lost more than 60 percent of its daily visitors after dozens of experienced journalists were fired last September or resigned in protest. The new Russian Service director Masha Gessen changed the site to de-emphasize news. Her new staff increased the number of feature stories and photos of cute dogs, as well as some photos of semi-naked women. But instead of rushing to see the new site, visitors are leaving it in droves. RFE/RL has always been known until now for serious journalism, and the brand change is not working. It simply can’t compete with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of websites which are much better at attracting visitors with provocative photos and content.
RFE/RL staffers, still employed, who may object to tabloid journalism are afraid to say anything because the orders are coming from President and CEO Steven Korn and his Vice President for Content Julia Ragona. A young woman reporter at the RFE/RL office in Kazakhstan Nazira Darimbet who questioned Korn about the firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and and later objected to sexually suggestive videos being posted on the RFE/RL website saw her employment contract not renewed shortly thereafter. Ragona, who participated in the firing of Radio Liberty staff in Moscow, does not appear to have ever practiced serious news reporting (web searches have not produced any examples), despite being in charge of RFE/RL content, but has a background in marketing. Korn, Ragona and Gessen dismissed criticism from Russian human rights activists, democratic political leaders, and media research experts, including Lyudmila Alexeeva, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Dr. Lev Gudkov.
The new marketing strategy, however, is not working, because this is not what this important pro-media freedom and pro-democracy institution, which is being funded by U.S. taxpayers, is all about.
Many of the former RFE/RL journalists are horrified by these videos and photos. “I don’t understand why RFE/RL produced these obscene videos using American taxpayers’ money,” wrote Saida Kalkulova who was fired last June from the Radio Liberty Kazakh Service which was then ordered to post videos, one of which has the camera zooming, sometimes several times in a row, on intimate parts of seminude bodies of beautiful girls and includes what appears to be an imitation of a sexual act. (The videos were removed from the RFE/RL website after they produced an outrage among site visitors in Kazakhstan, a largely Muslim nation.)
Longtime U.S. international broadcasting experts had these comments:
“WHY did RFE/RL choose this story and post the racy photos? National Enquirer time for RFE/RL. A tragedy.”
“Clearly, RFE/RL is no longer in the business of serious news and information.”
“Whatever possessed Korn to do the things he did, the end result is now they have no audience and are trying to engage in sensationalism to gather some kind of reaction.”
“A public diplomacy disaster for the U.S. in Russia and in Muslim countries.”