BBG Watch Commentary

Ice Cream Social at VOA

Thanks to the power of social media, we have seen photos of Voice of America (VOA) executives, whose six-figure salaries and generous benefits are paid by U.S. taxpayers, relaxing at an ice-cream social during government office hours on September 9, 2014. While we do not know whether these executives took annual leave to eat ice-cream, the social event still had to cost U.S. taxpayers plenty of money and staff time while Voice of America was not making adequate arrangements for important news coverage and interviews, including an interview with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Hourly rate for SES I Level 01 U.S. federal government executive is $62. Hourly rate for GM-15 Step 1 manager in Washington is $59. With a few of executives and senior managers attending the Voice of America ice-cream social, it might have been enough to pay for a local contractor in Saudi Arabia to video-tape a VOA correspondent interviewing Secretary Kerry (as BBC and CNN did for their interviews) or for staffers and contractors working after business hours in Washington to do immediately create a full-fledged post on the official VOA Facebook page about the interview — none of which happened.

VOA did not even post full audio for several hours after the interview. There was almost nothing on the interview in VOA on-demand five-minute English radio newscasts even though VOA correspondent produced headline-making news from the secretary on Russia and ISIS and Russia and Ukraine. These were not included in VOA online five-minute radio newscasts monitored Thursday night by BBG Watch.

There was an eight-sentence summary of the interview in a VOA text report which was posted with some delay. Lacking images and video, VOA did a Q-and-A SKYPE video interview with the correspondent about his interview with Kerry, but did not include sound-bytes in the SKYPE video. Most major news organization would never even think of interviewing a correspondent about an interview he or she conducted unless it was something of absolutely major importance. Eventually, VOA posted an English transcript of the interview, but it received less than 10 Facebook “Shares,” Tweets and comments, compared to thousands that similar news posts get on BBC, CNN or Russia’s RT. There was no post about the Kerry interview on VOA’s official main Facebook page on September 11. The VOA Kurdish Service did not have an online report about the Kerry interview until the next day.

The Voice of America ice-cream social was planned by the upper management.

Was it money well spent?

BBG Watch has heard rumors that some VOA executives who came to the ice-cream social were stressed out by planning VOA coverage of Kerry’s travel to the Middle East. They reportedly wanted to blow off some steam to get ready for a super “Digital First” treatment of his trip and any interview he might give to VOA in Saudi Arabia. VOA managers were later bragging in an email sent out shortly before the interview that they will give it maximum exposure. They didn’t.

“The forces are gathering here [Voice of America headquarters in Washington, DC] to give the interview, and the secretary’s words, as much attention as possible.”

It did not happen.

The ice-cream social may have helped Voice of America executives to relax, which may be a good thing for any anger management issues among them, but ultimately it has not improved their work performance. “Digital First” became “Digital Last” for John Kerry at the Voice of America this week.

We’re not saying that eating too much ice-cream on government time was the primary cause of the problem, but ultimately VOA executives photographed eating ice-cream at the social event, presumably held on government time, could not arrange for a video interview with the Secretary of State. It turned out to be audio-only interview for VOA (not even a photo was made), while BBC, CNN and others had video-taped their interviews and provided full digital and social media treatment.

May be if VOA executives had spent the time making phone calls, sending emails and generally working instead of attending the social event and eating ice-cream — they might have arranged for taping the interview with the U.S. Secretary of State on video in Saudi Arabia by sending a technician or hiring a local contractor. They could have at least arranged for a still photo showing the VOA correspondent interviewing Kerry.

They were not even able to make sure that a correspondent report about the interview or significant sound-bites would be immediately included in on-demand VOA radio newscasts. It was otherwise an excellent interview that should have been done in video and should have been widely promoted on social media using video and images.

These executives are responsible for the agency with the lowest employee morale rating in the entire federal government, which in itself may be an additional source of stress for them, but it is an even greater stress for the employees and underpaid contractors. On the other hand, these executives may not be even aware that they themselves are the problem. Bingo games and ice-cream socials are not going to improve employee morale as long as they are around and the mismanagement continues.

A former Voice of America correspondent noted: “VOA managers, including director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch, both of whom worked for CNN and other network television, and those in Voice of America’s newsroom have been touting their so-called ‘Digital First’ strategy, of which this interview appears have been a major test.”

BBG Watch reported in January 2014 that while U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) worldwide news operation has become defunct and fails to report even news about Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements on Ukraine as well as about statements by key U.S. Senators, VOA executives are busy putting together a Bingo Game Night at their Federal building in Washington, DC.

The ultimate irony is that while one can find Facebook photos of overweight and grim looking Voice of America executives eating ice-cream at at the September 9 ice-cream social, there are no photos of Secretary Kerry being interviewed by VOA on September 11. These what we like to call “Digital Last” executives could not arrange for a post about the Kerry interview on September 11 on the official VOA English Facebook page. The main VOA Facebook page was also not being updated with other news on Septemeber 11 for many hours.

We say, no ice-cream for you next time. But it’s also time for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), its Chairman Jeff Shell, and the U.S. Congress to step in and carry out immediate management reforms at the VOA.

A former VOA correspondent gave this comment to BBG Watch:

One wonders how many examples and embarrassments have to emerge from the Cohen Building before true accountability (not just shuffling the deck chairs) occurs for the numerous foul-ups.” Until that happens, chalk this one up as just another example of “good enough for government work” at the VOA.”