BBG Governor Victor AsheAt the Broadcasting Board of Governors Strategy & Budget Committee open meeting held today (November 15, 2012) at the headquarters of Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C., BBG member Victor Ashe increased pressure on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Steven Korn to resign by pointing out that he has united the human rights and dissident movement in Russia against him and made himself an enemy of even former president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Ashe said that Mr. Korn has dealt in “a very callous manner” with 41 staffers he had terminated at the Radio Liberty news bureau in Moscow and has shown them no compassion and no sympathy. “This is not the way of a good manager,” Ashe said. Ashe also complained that Korn has not provided the Strategy & Budget Committee the information which committee members have sought from him.

Pointing out that he is expressing his own view, Ashe said, “we have management issues at RFE/RL that have created additional problems in terms of our listenership, and the audience that we would often have appealed to in the past in Russia now no longer sees Radio Free Europe(/Radio Liberty) not as a friend but indeed as a foe.” Observers who follow BBG meetings thought it was significant that the Strategy & Budget Committee chairman Michael Meehan did not disagree with anything Ashe said about Korn and Radio Liberty.

Bruce Sherman, director of the BBG Office Of Strategy and Development, reported during the meeting that BBG’s estimated global weekly audience declined in 2012 by 12 million from 187 million last year to 175 million. Declines occurred in Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Haiti and Russia. According to Sherman, Radio Liberty and Voice of America estimated weekly audience in Russia has declined in 2012 by about half a million and now stands at about 1.5 million.

Sherman blamed the decline on the Russian government’s clampdown on local rebroadcasting of VOA and Radio Liberty programs in Russia, although it appears that neither lost any new major affiliates there during the past year — as these losses, due to pressure from the Russian authorities, had occurred in previous years.

In trying to explain the audience loss in Russia in 2012, critics point out that the VOA Russian Service, previously accused of having a “pro-Putin” bias, further lost credibility when it posted online a fake interview with a Russian opposition leader, while Radio Liberty failed to follow up on promising leads to establish a new affiliation to compensate for losing its AM license in Moscow due to a new media law. Critics also blame audience losses on the BBG faulty strategic plan, poor leadership on the part of BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), dismal employee morale at VOA and IBB, as reflected in the OPM surveys, and a major turmoil at RFE/RL caused by Steven Korn.

Korn’s pick to run the Russian Service Masha Gessen failed to report for more than 24 hours on the Radio Liberty website on the Obama-Putin phone conversation earlier this week. After experienced journalists and web editors were fired, Gessen’s new team regularly misses important news stories, including the release of Mikhail Gorbachev’s new book.

BBG GOVERNOR VICTOR ASHE: “Mr. Chairman, just let me — and I’m voicing my own views here, clearly — but obviously Russia remains an area of great concern because we all know there is not legitimate media freedom in Russia. Putin’s Russia is a nicer version of Stalin’s Russia or Brezhnev’s Russia just under more gentle face, but the iron fist is still there. And we know that journalists, investigative reporters can run but they can’t hide because (opponents of the government) have been murdered in London, they’ve been murdered outside of the boundaries of the Russian Federation.

And let me just say, just to be painfully candid here. There is great distress and great angst throughout the community that follows these issues over what Radio Free Europe(/Radio Liberty) under the leadership of Steve Korn has done in terminating 41 people at the radio in Moscow. And it is a self-inflicted wound by the organization that previously has been almost idealized by dissidents and by others. And then we have managed to unite the dissident community. We have even brought former (president) Gorbachev in and have united them in opposition to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which I never thought would be possible, given the prior history that this organization had had.

And then the very callous manner in which Mr. Korn has dealt with the 41 people who were terminated and the audio of his comments back in Prague, where really no compassion was shown, no sympathy, it’s my way or the high way. That’s not the way of a good manager. A good manager, even when he has to make or she has to make tough decisions, certainly tries to show empathy to those who are on the losing side of the tough decisions, and that didn’t even come through.

And then today we know that the information that this committee has sought from Mr. Korn has been denied, at least delayed, and as they say in the civil rights movement, freedom delayed is freedom denied. And I would say in terms of our responsibilities, information delayed is information denied in terms of operations of this organization.

This is totally separate from Mr. Sherman. My remarks have nothing to do with him. I simply applaud what he’s done. But I should point out for the record that in my personal view, we have management issues at RFE/RL that have created additional problems in terms of our listenership and the audience that we would often have appealed to in the past in Russia now no longer sees Radio Free Europe(/Radio Liberty) not as a friend but indeed as a foe. And it’s a sad set of circumstances that we have arrived at.

BBG GOVERNOR MICHAEL MEEHAN: “If I could just to add to Governor Ashe’s remarks about the situation in Russia. I know from some of our deliberations that clearly we have challenges in Russia. They’re not letting us have radio signals. We know that the Voice of America still enjoys an affiliate relationship for the moment, for 30 minutes (daily F-M VOA Russian) or so. But this is another example where we have legacy companies in important strategic places for us and we’ve talked, Steve and David have talked, about ways to share resources there. And I’m encouraged by that. I know I’m looking forward to out meeting on the 13th and 14th (December) we will have the heads of the Russian operations of both companies in the room together with experts to discuss a very challenging media environment. But I would hope though that both presidents, both heads, of VOA and RFE/RL, be sure to use all the assets available to the U.S. government. Clearly we have the State Department that engages diplomatically on the Russian front and is useful to us in many places around the world in getting our signals in, and be sure that we do that and be very aggressive about it with the use of American help in places there. That was what I wanted to add to Governor Ashe’s remarks.”

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