Guest Commentary

by Dan Robinson

In addition to a longstanding reputation as one of the worst places to work in federal government, struggling for years with last or near last place morale, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and Voice of America (VOA) have also been embarrassed by a number of technical breakdowns.

Who can forget the famous digital meltdown that occurred in December of 2015?  That’s when the agency’s MediaGrid storage system collapsed, for which a top executive at the time was forced to issue an apology.

This was around the same time that embedded bureaucrats were basically bribing employees to participate in annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) overseen by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), because the agency was so reliably retaining its next to last rating among medium-size agencies.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, USAGM and its various media outlets and employees had to adjust to teleworking from home.  The agency made a big deal of this.  At one point, a private consultant was paid to produce a YouTube video trumpeting the valiant efforts of staff (many of whom make six figure salaries) to adjust to working from home.

Americans who don’t listen to VOA on the radio – and that’s pretty much everyone these days – might not have heard the result, which was that many newscasts sounded as if they were being produced in someone’s closet at home.

Quality did not appear to be Job One.  It was hard to tell the extent to which agency managers gave much of a damn about this, since examples of horrendous newscast QC continued for so long.

An amusing side note on this:  at one point the agency actually punished one newscaster who went beyond the call of duty and attempted to exceed VOA standards for newscasts.  This person, whose voice can now be heard today on CBS and other major radio networks, left VOA, forcing it to struggle for some time to find replacement newscasters.

So, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to fade into the past, most staff have been back to work (though telework has become pretty much a baked in part of federal employment) and one would think that newscasts are back to studio presentation levels of excellence.

If you did expect this, you would be wrong.  Recently, one outside observer who keeps close track of VOA news content, noticed that one VOA newscast was, shall we say, less than acceptable.

It sounded as if it was literally being phoned in from a 1960s Western Electric 500 dial phone, with the observer asking that “after two and a half years of remote news casting, this is the best they can do?”

It’s a good question.  And that was not the first time that VOA’s audience – whatever it is out there and however many people are in it according to agency claims – was treated to sub-standard technical performance.

Yes, during the pandemic, VOA newscasts were challenged (to use a charitable term) in terms of quality.  One wonders whether and to what extent thorough reviews were taking place of how VOA sounded online and on-the-air.  But problems were and still are not limited to newscasts.

On a discussion group devoted to international broadcasting, participants listening to one of VOA’s main frequencies aimed at Africa noted the following:

“After a complete lack of audio, [there was] fill music again at 2018 UTC.  At 2045 UTC, 

fill music [was] on and off, with a few seconds of the loud scratchy noise still being heard continuously on VOA English internet streams. When fill music [returned] at 2046 [it was] at very low audio level, sometimes inaudible. At 2053 [there was] silence, then one second of the scratchy noise, then back to silence then back to barely inaudible fill music.”

Throughout all of this, as the group participant added, “there hasn’t been a single announcement of (or apology for) technical difficulties. . . [and] nothing tweeted by VOA News.”

When VOA [was] on the air for Africa from its Botswana transmitter, there was a [brief] “This is the Voice of…,” then the transmission was abruptly gone, even though it [was] scheduled to be on [for another hour]”

Meanwhile, the VOA listener continued:

An English newscast [was] audible on internet streams at 2101, sounding as if [the] announcer. . .[was] talking (and breathing) into a conventional landline telephone handset instead of using a microphone. His occasional halts and pauses suggest less than optimal conditions. After the newscast, the English internet stream [was] back to scratchy noise, though at slightly lower audio level.”

Newscasts (it’s unclear whether this was a full staff member, or part-time contractor) continued with this poor quality between 0300 and 1100 UTC (eight hours) before turning over to another presenter.

It’s all memorialized online for those interested.  But this was apparently not limited to a single day, as VOA audience members noted the same awful quality several days later on.

VOA listeners also referred to what they called the “unreliable” VOA English frequencies web page.  Another mentioned “fill music [that appeared] to be about 20 minutes long, then [repeating].”

Yet another:  

“Seems to be a theme today: I found what was supposed to be VOA in Korean via the Philippines on 9800 kHz around 1330 UTC but encountered only distorted audio instead. Checked again after 1400 to find continuous fill music but also spurs [a term describing transmitter problems] approximately every 55 kHz on either side of the station.”

Another VOA audience member overseas identified “problems” on/from other VOA frequencies and transmitters including those in Kuwait and Thailand.  Others noticed “distorted audio” from various points in VOA’s network, “dead air” and sometimes “unreadable (noisy)” live streams.

We’ll note that VOA’s transmitter sites at Tinian and Saipan suffered severe damage from Category 5 Super Typhoon Yutu in 2018. But that was in 2018, and doesn’t explain all the examples of problems heard by those around the world who count themselves as consumers of VOA content.

As this commentary was written, yet another example of poor QC by VOA emerged. A listener was tuned to VOA from Greenville and the “Music Time in Africa” program.  But this listener was “disturbed to find that the broadcast was an unannounced repeat from [2022]” complete with “discussion of the World Cup as if it were to happen in a few months.”

Meanwhile, over on the Larry London show (London has been a contractor for VOA for many years) the same listener “noticed that the Saturday program was a repeat of the Wednesday program.”

The listener went on:

“It makes me wonder what VOA English is doing.  It sounds like a complete mess with little regard for any kind of meaningful coordination.  Whether it’s shortwave relays, local FM affiliates or internet streaming, is this apparent mishmash attached to no particular schedule (which incidentally you can’t find anywhere on the VOA website) what the USAGM thinks is a good image for its international media effort?  And in its primary language?

The listener concluded:  “VOA English should be the centerpiece of the USAGM organization.  Right now it sounds to this stateside listener like an afterthought.

And not a very thoughtful one at that.”

The well-known expression Good (or Close) Enough For Government Work originally meant that something met some standards, but over the years came to describe performance or quality that is minimally or below acceptable standards.

To the ears of many in VOA’s on air and online audiences, the Voice of America frequently just does not meet acceptable standards.  It’s embarrassing for taxpayers who foot the bill for media under USAGM to the tune of $880 million with funds added by Congress and more than $200 million for VOA. And with the agency request for 2024, USAGM in coming years may be well over the $900 million mark, on the way to a billion dollar agency.

But we think it’s safe to say that no six-figure executives at 330 Independence Avenue – and there are many of them — lost much sleep or their jobs because of the sub-par products and performance described above.  And it’s a safe bet for these executives that no member of Congress rubber stamping the agency’s budget year after year was aware of any of this.