BBG Watch Commentary
According to Voice of America Director Ms.Amanda Bennett’s figures, less than 0.0001% Mandarin speakers, 0.0004% English speakers, 0.002% Spanish speakers, 0.006% Russian speakers, and 0.03% Persian speakers watched VOA’s live online streaming of Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speech last week at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH. We took Ms. Bennett’s figures for the reported reach and views of live online streaming of Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech by VOA English and VOA foreign language services and compared them to estimated adult population figures in age groups 15-64 years in various countries and among speakers of English and Spanish. The Voice of America’s impact, based on of such figures as the ones provided by Ms. Bennett, is practically non-existent and audience engagement is minuscule.
Amanda Bennett has been VOA director since March 2016. VOA’s annual budget is $224 million. She reports to Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing who has been in his position since September 2015. BBG’s budget (including VOA’s) is $777 million.
Critics of VOA’s and BBG’s’s poor digital performance, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, say that the federal agency is “practically defunct.”
Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said recently that the agency is still broken under Mr. Lansing’s new leadership and “losing the info war to ISIS and Putin.” Rep. Royce and the committee’s Ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) have introduced bipartisan legislation, H.R. 2323, to reform the agency. BBG CEO John Lansing and BBG Chair Jeff Shell are on the record opposing its key provisions to abolish the BBG Board and to restructure the agency.
Instead of improving management and performance, the agency seems to be sliding into chaos under its new leadership which continues to depend on the entrenched BBG bureaucracy. Earlier this month, Chairman of BBG’s bipartisan board, Jeff Shell, was trying to go to Russia to do private business for the company he works for, Universal Filmed Entertainment. He was reportedly planning to mix private business in Vladimir Putin’s Russia with U.S. government business and meet with Russian officials whom BBG invited to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) party in Moscow. Instead of coming to the party, they expelled Mr. Shell from Russia but allowed Mr. Lansing and his senior advisor Jeff Trimble, who had arranged the ill-advised trip, to enter. Mr. Lansing, who has no prior U.S. government, public diplomacy or foreign policy experience (neither does Mr. Shell) issued a misleading press release in which he omitted and obscured key material facts about his own role in preparing the visit and its subsequent fiasco, the mixed purpose of Mr. Shell’s visit, his expulsion from Russia, and conflict of interest questions. Even the State Department was more honest because its spokesman at least hinted at Mr. Shell questionable and disturbing mixing of private and government business and opening himself and the federal agency he leads to conflict of interest questions.
Ms. Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist but also has no prior U.S. government service experience. She still has a very limited understanding how VOA works. VOA journalists blame her for issuing contradictory directives to staff about the VOA Charter, which have resulted in a number of one-sided reports and complaints about biased coverage from Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s supporters.
In one of her latest notes to staff Ms. Bennett reported that “VOA Persian live stream has reached more than 82,000 people” during Donald Trump’s acceptance speech. Reach does not equal actual views. The number of views was reported by the VOA director to be much smaller in each language, as expected. Ms. Bennett reported that VOA Persian views were only 16,000, but she still appeared to be impressed by these figures.
The adult population of Iran in age group 15-64 years is 55,233,638 (2011 Est.)
But even taking the higher reach figure, VOA Persian live stream has reached only 0.1% of the adult population in Iran. In other countries, the reach and views are even smaller.
For VOA English we used the estimated number of speakers for whom English is either their first or second language. That number is estimated to be about two billion.
Ms. Bennett reported that “VOA English Live has reached almost 600,000 people.”
VOA English Live reached 0.03% of all English speakers.
According to Ms. Bennett, “VOA Russian live broadcast has reached almost 30,000 people.”. Estimated population of the Russian Federation in age group 15-64 years is 99,594,130.
VOA Russian live broadcast has reached 0.03%. The Russian government does not block VOA in the internet or social media in Russia.
Ms. Bennett reported that “VOA Mandarin Live broadcast on Facebook has reached more than 6,300 people.”
Estimated population of China in age group 15-64 years is 983,280,460.
VOA Mandarin Live broadcast on Facebook has reached 0.0006% in China, assuming all those listening were in China, which would not be a correct assumption since the Chinese government blocks VOA websites and Facebook page.
The number of Spanish speakers in the world for whom Spanish is the first language is estimated to be 470 million.
Ms. Bennett reported that “VOA Spanish Facebook Live broadcast has reached more than 110,000 people.”
VOA Spanish Facebook Live broadcast has reached 0.02%.
In terms of actual Voice of America live views of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech in various languages, the percentages of speakers who watched it through VOA are even smaller:
VIEWS OF VOICE OF AMERICA LIVE ONLINE STREAMING OF DONALD TRUMP’S SPEECH
As Percentage of Language Speakers And/Or Adult Population in Target Countries
VOA Persian Views: 0.03%
VOA English Views: 0.0004%
VOA Russian Views: 0.006%
VOA Mandarin Views: 0.0001%
VOA Spanish Views: 0.02%
REACH OF VOICE OF AMERICA LIVE ONLINE STREAMING OF DONALD TRUMP’S SPEECH
As Percentage of Language Speakers And/Or Adult Population in Target Countries
VOA Persian Views: 0.1%
VOA English Views: 0.03%
VOA Russian Views: 0.03%
VOA Mandarin Views: 0.0006%
VOA Spanish Views: 0.002%
The audience engagement figures provided by Voice of America director Amanda Bennett are minuscule by comparison to similar figures for the BBC, Russia’s RT, The New York Times, or The Washington Post. But even these VOA figures cannot be taken at face value, because VOA is known to be placing Facebook ads at U.S. taxpayers’ expense to boost its “Likes” and “Shares.” Experts say that such boosts are mostly meaningless when it comes to genuine audience engagement. A Facebook post boosted with an ad can get a large number of “Likes,” but very few people will actually open a link and read the story or watch the video. In her note to staff, Ms. Bennett does not list “Reactions” (presumably “Likes/Recommends”), “Comments” and “Shares” separately. VOA news reports get very few comments on VOA websites and not many more on social media pages.
The BBG and VOA management also claims a weekly audience estimate for the Voice of America of 187.7 million in FY 2015. Critics point out, however, that as is the case with many BBG statements and press releases, these audience claims are highly deceptive. In the case of VOA, they include placement programs to countries that already have free media, such as Mexico, as well as highly censored programs to allow them to be placed on stations in countries that practice government or cultural censorship. Even though these pre-censored programs violate the VOA Charter, they are included the overall VOA audience estimate. Social media views, “Likes,” and “Shares” clearly show that VOA has no significant online audience and audience engagement in some of the most critical countries in terms of U.S. strategic interests, such as Russia and China.
Here is the text of the note which Voice of America director Amanda Bennett distributed to VOA staffers:
July 22 at 7:46am
So thanks to Matthew Baise and a talented VOA crew we were able to offer something no one else could: Donald Trump’s acceptance speech simultaneously translated live into Persian, Russia, Chinese, and Spanish.
Each one of these translations has thousands and in some cases more than 10 thousand views.
We will be doing the same thing in Philadelphia with Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech.
We used these two speeches as a dry run for this powerful ability. After a few more tests, we will be able to have important guests, from top political figures, business executives, even sports stars and musicians speak directly to some of the most closed societies on earth in their own languages
It’s just one of the ways we can tap our critical advantage: expertise in language and audiences all over the world.
* * * * * * * *
VOA English Live has reached almost 600,000 people, with more than 8,200 views, and more than 2,600 Reactions, Comments & Shares.
VOA Persian live stream has reached more than 82,000 people, with more than 16,000 views, and more than 3,000 Reactions, Comments & Shares.
VOA Russian live broadcast has reached almost 30,000 people, with more than 6,300 views, and 652 Reactions, Comments & Likes.
VOA Mandarin Live broadcast on Facebook has reached more than 6,300 people, with 1,100 views, 136 Reactions, Comment & Shares.
VOA Spanish Facebook Live broadcast has reached more than 110,000 people, with more than 10,500 views, and almost 3,000 Reach, Comments & Shares.
* * * * * *
You can also see them here (they were also streamed on each language’s Home page)