BBG Watch Commentary

BBG FY 2013 Budget Request
Broadcasting Board of Governors FY 2013 Budget Request

The Washington bureaucrats in charge of U.S. international broadcasting (USIB) have not increased their audience in the Middle East or globally since 2008 despite getting larger budgets each year to accomplish their mission of informing the world about America and countering censorship in closed societies — a critical US national security objective.

Their weekly global audience was 175 million in 2008, as it is today, even though the world’s population, which now stands at over 7 billion, has grown by about 300 million during that time, with especially high rates of population growth in some of the countries of the Muslim world. Every day, the number of people in the world increases by about 200,000.

The number of people with access to the Internet has also grown tremendously in the last 5 years.

But audience numbers are not even the worst of the story. Even assuming that because of the tremendous growth of competition on the Internet, USIB cannot reach the same large audience it had several years ago, nothing can excuse IBB bureaucrats’ proposals to eliminate critical radio and television broadcasts to countries which are ruled by some of the most authoritarian and repressive regimes and/or are  strategically important  for the US–countries like Russia, China and Tibet.

Also inexcusable is the push from IBB bureaucrats, strategic planners and dubious audience research experts to force surrogate broadcasters and VOA to adopt “fluff journalism” and “local placement” that requires political self-censorship as a strategy to expand the audience. “Fluff journalism” has very little to do with USIB mission, but IBB bureaucrats have become desperate as they see their strategic plan failing in every respect.  By securing cooperation of inexperienced Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executives, they have already managed to destroy Radio Liberty’s effectiveness and reputation in Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the last two countries with mostly Muslim population.

Despite these spectacular failures, in the FY 2013 budget request, IBB’s share of the BBG budget was 36.5% or $262.8 million. The Voice of America (VOA), which alone generates a 134 million weekly audience, received only 26.3% of the BBG budget, and one of the surrogate broadcasters, Radio Free Asia (RFA), just 5% of the overall USIB budget.

Their next goal is to merge VOA and surrogate broadcasters as much as possible and place them all under their control by making a completely false claim that the differences between VOA and surrogate broadcasters are minimal and that  there is duplication that needs to be eliminated.

What happened?

Surrogate broadcasters and the Voice of America could not expand their audiences because they were literally forced to accept self-defeating strategies developed by BBG bureaucrats working for the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). The IBB bureaucracy has devised a plan to eliminate radio and television broadcasts at VOA and surrogate broadcasters by making false claims that U.S. international broadcasting could be competitive in many countries through the Internet.

But while digital expansion was badly needed, the IBB had no idea how to implement it in trying to reach closed societies. They lack local expertise and commitment to serving underprivileged and repressed societies, but they more than compensate for it by their desire to maintain and expand their power, control and budgets. So while they kept eliminating more and more direct radio and television broadcasts, they wasted the money on expanding their own bureaucracy without producing any lasting audience gains and making it difficult for surrogate broadcasters and VOA to do their jobs within their own specific areas of expertise.

Today the IBB has the largest budget within the Broadcasting Board of Governors agency even though IBB does not produce a single program with any kind of audience.

One of our occasional contributors, a BBG employee who uses the pen name of Jane Doe, has sent us her commentary on the new plans of IBB bureaucracy to try to excuse their failure of the last five years by expanding their central control over surrogate broadcasters and the Voice of America.

Jane DoeUS stands to lose ability to connect with citizens in closed societies if bureaucrats have their way

by Jane Doe

Many things are happening on the third floor of the Cohen building in Washington, DC, the headquarters of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting (USIB). Some were mentioned in the BBG open session on Friday— some not. A wise, thoughtful and knowledgeable friend observed to me:

“There is an attempt to neutralize surrogate broadcasters. (Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) It is led by the central BBG bureaucracy — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — which wants control of all broadcasting. The administration may want the same thing for slightly different reasons. Without the deep commitment and expert specialization of surrogate broadcasters, U.S. international broadcasting will lose much of its meaning and effectiveness.”

Not only is this true, the real tragedy is that the ball is already rolling.

The IBB is sacrificing every principle for which Congress created surrogate broadcasters. These Washington bureaucrats launched an assault on surrogate broadcasters in order to preserve their bureaucratic way of life. On the 3rd floor of the Cohen Building, they do not think about the families of the immolators being dragged into jail or the children separated from their parents.They are obsessed with devising ever more questionable means by which they can be the boss of all things broadcasting. They are not deeply analyzing every nuance of the lives of the people the surrogates serve. They are making sweeping “strategies” and planning “innovation” for the minions to implement.

The BBG external relations people don’t seem to understand the mission, not madness, of the USIB structure. Mass distribution of documents such as the BBG annual report lead with the IBB. How’s that working out? Reputation on the rise or on the decline?

That is because everyone on the 3rd floor of the Cohen building thinks everyone in international broadcasting works for the IBB. Not so.

No one has ever heard of the IBB–they shouldn’t–and they never will–because the IBB does not do the mission critical work. The broadcast entities do.

IBB is the support structure. IBB supports the broadcasters. At least it did when Congress created it. The IBB did this job splendidly until the tragic loss of George Moore, the last great IBB director who understood the mission of surrogate broadcasters and the Voice of America as well as the limits of his mandate. Under Moore, it WAS the support structure. Once the BBG gave all its delegable duties to the IBB Director AND all of their support staff – the IBB became a behemoth regime within the Broadcasting Board of Governors searching for territory to dominate.

Surrogate journalists do not work for IBB.

Surrogates work for people suffering in closed societies. Surrogate staff eat, drink and sleep for people they don’t even know but for whom they gladly give their waking hours to love.

The surrogate broadcasters are the only game in town for people in closed societies to get the local news their governments desperately want to keep from them. Even the other international broadcasters concede and support US surrogate work.

In closed societies communications form over decades around thought leaders by word of mouth. Learning to trust a credible far flung news source is a learned behavior. One that USIB entities have spent their existence cultivating. The surrogates and the repressive regimes who do everything they can to shut them down understand that no sustainable transition to a free society can be achieved without indigenous free press, free speech and free association (in many cases virtual).

The spin doctors and “strategists” at the BBG need to take a fresh look at how well their current strategy is working to serve the United States, their listeners and not just themselves. By neutering the surrogates and pushing everyone, including the Voice of America (VOA), underneath the banner of the BBG, they have successfully become the pariah of Washington.

By acquiescing to the short-sighted policies of the administration, the US stands to lose its long-fought for unique ability to connect with citizens in closed societies and it’s enviable ability to set discussion agendas for governments that are decidedly NOT the friends of the US.

As with the Radio Liberty debacle, Putin could not have done a better job silencing brave voices. The shame is that the US is doing the work for totalitarian regimes everywhere. Imagine how much money these regimes will save when they no longer need to censor or jam US surrogate broadcasters?

Yay team!”

I thought it worth sending on. We can’t let the third floor ruin USIB.