BBG Watch Commentary
A Twitter poll, launched on March 21, 2019 by Radio Farda personality, political satirist, actor and TV and radio host Kambiz Hosseini (RFE/RL Radio Farda photo on his Facebook page), seems to confirm that Iran audience claims from the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) for the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’ (RFE/RL) Radio Farda are vastly exaggerated and based on flawed research.
VOA and Radio Farda are managed by USAGM, which claims that both have a significant audience in Iran, but these USAGM boasts have been questioned by a former agency’s audience research expert, Kim Elliott, Ph.D. In a recent article on the USC Center for Public Diplomacy blog and in a small circulation subscription journal published offline by NASWA (North American Shortwave Association), Elliott challenged the research methodology being used by USAGM and concluded that the agency’s audience claims in Iran and in other countries cannot be believed. “I made known my concerns to my management chain, but the audience research results for Iran were not changed,” Dr. Elliott wrote.
His conclusions appear to have been confirmed by a recent large sample Twitter poll. When Kambiz Hosseini asked in his Twitter @kambizhosseini poll with the maximum allowable four options: “How did you start the Iranian New Year and which special Iranian New Year program did you watch?,” the responses from nearly 9,000 participants showed that USAGM media outlets, VOA Persian and Radio Farda, were far behind BBC and an independent London-based satellite channel Manoto TV. Kambiz Hosseini has over 304,000 Twitter followers.
His current radio program, Paradox, airs on Radio Farda. His critically acclaimed political satire show, Parazit, aired on Voice of America from 2009 to 2012. It was discontinued during the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to the Iranian regime. While still with VOA, Hosseini made an appearance on “The Daily Show” in 2011. Jon Stewart said that Parazit is “like our show, but with real guts.”
با کدام شبکه سال نو را تحویل کردید؟ منظورم این است که کدام ویژه برنامه نوروزی را دیدید؟ متاسفانه نظرسنجی توییتر بیشتر از ۴ گزینه ندارد.
— Kambiz Hosseini (@kambizhosseini) March 21, 2019
The results of the Kambiz Hossein’s Twitter poll showed that Radio Farda had 4% viewers, VOA had 2%, BBC 28%, Manoto 66%.
Manoto TV is a Persian-language satellite television channel based in London.
The False-Positive Trap
In his offline NASWA article, Dr. Kim Elliott referred to was he calls the false-positive “feature” of current USAGM audience research. He also refers to it as the “false-positive trap.
Elliott wrote that USAGM’s claim of having “market-leading audience share within Iran” is not believable.
If true, Elliott observed, it would mean that VOA Persian and Radio Farda have a larger audience in Iran than BBC Persian an even the popular Manoto TV. He pointed out that “by anecdotal discussion and reaction from the Tehran regime, BBC is mentioned more often than U.S. international broadcasting outlets.”
Dr. Elliott wrote that before he retired from the VOA audience research unit in 2017, he tried to warn the management about drawing false conclusions from a survey in Iran based on telephone calls from a nearby country, which showed “a large increase in audience for VOA Persian and even indicated that VOA’s audience surpassed that of BBC in the country.”
In his offline NASWA article, Elliott explained what he did next, how his warnings were ignored, and why, in his view, USAGM management’s claims about audience sizes for VOA and RFE/RL in countries like Iran, Russia or China cannot be believed.
Fascinated, I dug in to the data set. The bulk of the increase was attributable to two VOA Persian TV programs: Early Report and Late Report.
Well, of course there are programs on Iranian domestic television with very similar names to that. I went to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting website, looked at the schedule grid, then enlisted a Persian-speaking friend to verity this. Also, the purported viewers of VOA’s Early Report and Late Reports “did not belong with the others,” i.e. their characteristics did not match those at the international broadcasting audience in Iran. Many of them don’t have satellite dishes, and internet access to VOA is thoroughly blocked.
I made known my concerns to my management chain, but the audience research results for Iran were not changed. Apparently management sees false positives from program names that resemble program names from domestic broadcasting as a feature rather than a bug. This “feature” brings higher audience numbers, which are touted by management.
Is audience increase by dint of false positives being exploited elsewhere? A prominent addition to USAGM’s output to Russia is Current Time, an online video news service that is a joint project of REE/EL and VOA. Current Time is Russian Настоящее Время – or Nastoyashche Vremya in Latin alphabet. Gosh, do you think there might be a television program called Vremya in Russia? See Kim’s projects: https://twitter.com/kaedotcom and http://swradiogram.net.
ALSO READ: THE USAGM AUDIENCE INCREASE: LESS STARTLING THAN MEETS THE EYE. By Kim Andrew Elliott, CPD Blog, March 27, 2019.
From 1985 until his retirement in 2017, Kim Andrew Elliott was an audience research analyst and broadcaster at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. From 1995 to 2002, he was producer and host of “Communications World,” a popular weekly Voice of America program about electronic media and international broadcasting. Later he produced VOA Radiogram (2012-2107), an experiment in transmitting text and images via existing shortwave broadcast transmitters. He has a Ph.D. (1979) in communication from the University of Minnesota. Before he came to the Voice of America in 1985, Dr. Elliott was on the faculties of communication at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Dr. Elliott’s papers and articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, Foreign Service Journal, New York Times, Houston Chronicle, The Age (Melbourne), Journalism Quarterly, Gazette, Radio World, Monitoring Times, the Wiley Encyclopedia of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and other publications.
Former Analyst Challenges USAGM Audience Measurement Methods, Claims of Sharp Increases. By Dan Robinson, BBG – USAGM Watch, March 27, 2019.
Many Iranians in Iran and abroad have accused VOA and Radio Farda of repeating propaganda of the Iranian regime. This charge and similar criticism were confirmed in an independent study conducted by American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) in 2017 at the request of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). This was the previous name of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
The AFCP study concluded that “This dynamic, on the whole, perpetuated to audiences the appearance of pro-regime propaganda, rather than objective reporting, on the part of both the VOA and Farda.”
The current USAGM CEO is John F. Lansing. He was appointed to his position in 2015 and remains as one of several Obama administration holdover officials in charge of the agency.
The VOA Director is Amanda Bennett. She was appointed to her position also during the Obama administration in early 2016.
The American Foreign Policy Council’s “U.S. Persian Media Study” concluded in 2017 that both VOA and Radio Farda were deficient in reporting on a broad range U.S. views on Iran but did well:
“More broadly, however, coverage of the JCPOA [Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran] on both the Voice of America and Radio Farda was found to consistently lack broader context. Little to no effort was made, either by hosts or journalists, to explain the limitations of the agreement itself, or the detrimental side effects generated by it, or the implications of the deal for U.S. policy in the broader region. Similarly, in the media reports reviewed, only minimal effort was made to explain the reasoning and rationale behind the Trump administration’s different, and far more negative, view of the agreement. Simply put, Iranians were told in detail that the Obama White House supported the agreement, and why. They have not been afforded the same explanations of current administration policy.”
“Coverage of Iranian foreign policy on both the VOA and Farda was found to be rather problematic, owing to a pervasive lack of context. In the media segments reviewed by the panelists, there were repeated instances of the use of official regime statements as the baseline for stories in a manner that left the Iranian assertions unchallenged. Moreover, instances of problematic Iranian regional behavior (e.g., Iran’s extensive—and deeply harmful—activities in the Syrian theater in support of the Assad regime) were addressed sparsely, if at all.”