BBG Watch Commentary

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Voice of America Information War Lost: Storytelling

By The Federalist

The most recent meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was held on October 30, 2014.

Observations and Comments

On its face, the opening meetings of the BBG are tedious and laborious affairs. If they are intended to inspire the workforce, they fall face forward right onto the pavement.

At the same time, there are some things that come out of these proceedings that are noteworthy, though not always for the right reasons. Among them:

In the public comment portion of the meeting Alan Heil, a former Voice of America (VOA) official, made some rather remarkable statements.

Mr. Heil claimed as a “myth” the agency being described as “dysfunctional.” He proceeded to point out that the Voice of America has a weekly audience of 164-million.

Here is a different view:

Considering the numbers Mr. Heil offered we are looking at a purported audience estimate at 164-million, divided among 40 or so VOA language services. That waters down the overall impact of these audiences noticeably. Even more so, when you consider the global population estimate is at 7-BILLION people, the effect of the overall VOA output is diluted even more substantially.

Mr. Heil went on to praise certain VOA programs. These programs may be outstanding in their own right, but without a substantial audience, the resonance and impact of these programs is minimal.

Ms. Ann Noonan of the Committee on U. S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – offered a statement which is perhaps closer to reality, in part citing the recent egregiously bizarre stunt by VOA officials to have employee “volunteers” inoculated with experimental and unproven Ebola vaccine and to have them “report or blog about the experience.” This episode apparently escaped notice on the part of Mr. Heil when he dismissed the agency’s status as dysfunctional and defunct.

Certain agency officials appear to believe a stunt to garner publicity is more important than reporting on the actual story itself, which VOA reporters do on the Ebola story despite bad management and lack of support.

Dysfunctional, Defunct and Grim

As the open meeting continued, we took note of the setting, the Cohen Building auditorium: dark and for the most part empty. Sources said the auditorium filled up later for a presentation that followed the board’s open meeting. But for the viewer of the initial setting, the scene was almost funereal, as if attending a wake. In this case, it may be more substantive than symbolic. There weren’t many happy faces in the audience mostly made up of senior agency officials.

Chairman Jeffrey Shell announced during the open meeting that the board would be forming a committee to study “VOA in the 21st Century.”

This might have been a necessary and appropriate action in the 20th Century. But here we are, about to start the 15th year of the 21st Century. In so many words, once again we find this agency behind the curve – well behind the curve – while the rest of the world is racing by exponentially, particularly those foreign governments with the resources to overwhelm the pedestrian and haphazard effort at international broadcasting/media offered by the BBG.

Apparently, the Board is in no hurry to catch up.

Please note: At the time we looked at the YouTube video of the meeting, there were about 55 views of the Board’s open meeting. On YouTube, that equates with invisible.

The open meeting of the board was followed by a panel discussion to discuss “storytelling” in the digital age and maintaining “brand loyalty.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, this agency does neither well. By way of example, in an agency which claims to have adopted a “digital first” priority, it was hours behind websites of mainstream news organizations, both foreign and domestic, reporting the recent explosion of a resupply rocket mission to the orbiting space station.

In the 21st Century (which the BBG is “studying”), when something isn’t reported within minutes of breaking news: listeners, readers and viewers go elsewhere and go there fast, depending on the importance the story has to an intended audience.

Returning to the theme of the panel discussion:

“Storytelling” not only has to be good. As we noted earlier, it has to be seen, heard or read. To outward appearances, just about everything the agency does has a result just the opposite. And it must be so, because the audience numbers, as claimed by Mr. Heil, are anemic on a global scale. As pointed out elsewhere, in 1989, VOA had an estimated weekly audience of 130 million, composed almost entirely at that time of radio listeners overseas. This audience was gained without the Internet. With the Internet and many new program delivery channels, VOA’s audience grew only by approximately 34 million in the last 25 years, according to BBG’s estimates. The world population grew from 5.2 billion in 1989 to 7.1 billion in 2013.

No audience = no brand loyalty

Global populations are now accustomed to timely access to news and program content. If potential audiences have to search around to find the remnants of the VOA broadcasting effort, at the end of the day, they are going to be forced to look elsewhere. The alternatives may be superior, inferior or heavily biased –

But it’s better than nothing. And that is where the agency is at: on the cusp of being all about nothing.

And if the agency makes technology choices that are beyond the reach of intended audiences or not consistently reliable, the program content is dead-on-arrival, not reaching the intended audience destination. Sophisticated technologies do not always equate with mission success.

And while we are on the subject of “storytelling,”

One of our sources directed our attention to a VOA blog called “All About America.” In our view, the title attached to this blog should be,

“All About (Hating) America”

This blog has some of the worst, most atrocious “storytelling” to be had anywhere. As we see it, it reflects an intended bias to portray the United States, historical events and figures and/or current events with an Americana theme in the most notoriously negative light.

We took particular note of a piece which labeled Christopher Columbus as a monster and the Columbus Day holiday as honoring a monster. “Does Columbus Day Honor a Monster?

Another example was of certain kinds of American breakfast cereals that foreigners allegedly “hate” (sugar coated cereals). “17 ‘All American’ Foods that Foreigners Find Gross.”

What these “stories” (and they really don’t deserve being categorized as such) is the lack of balance, historical context or a full description of the subject matter, whether it be The Age of Exploration or myriad choices among American breakfast cereals.

One of the things this agency does very well is to kowtow to a view that lowers the United States in the eyes of global publics.

Further, there appears to be a sentiment inside the VOA that intends to deliberately erode the qualities of the American Experience.

What has the American Experience delivered?

Let’s do an abbreviated review:

The Founding Fathers
The Declaration of Independence
The Bill of Rights
The U.S. Constitution
The American Civil War (to preserve the Union)
The Emancipation Proclamation (to end slavery)
The Gettysburg Address
The Great Depression
The New Deal
The First World War
The Second World War – where the graves of thousands of US and Allied service personnel in France, Belgium and elsewhere attest to the sacrifice of the honored dead to rid populations of tyranny, oppression and atrocities against humanity.
The Marshall Plan and steadfast resolve in the Cold War
The Peace Corps
Landmark civil rights legislation
Apollo missions to the moon and expanding the scope of space exploration
Billions upon billions of dollars in foreign aid and other assistance

The list goes on and on.

Members of Congress please note:

“All About (Hating) America” is atrocious and disgusting and that is on top of being factually inaccurate and unbalanced, lacking historical context, incomplete and reflecting a clear anti-American bias. It has no place on a website maintained by an agency of the United States Government and funded by the American taxpayer.

The Voice of America senior management responsible for this blog needs a serious remedial lesson in American history. And if that doesn’t work, should be relegated to a function that has nothing to do with the agency’s media content.

Mr. Heil believes that it is a myth to call Voice of America dysfunctional. Perhaps he would be well served to take a look at this blog.

The truth of the matter is the agency is worse than dysfunctional and defunct. To all appearances, the agency has developed an institutional psychosis in which more effort is put into exhibitionistic behavior rather than the mission of the agency. All the examples are there: bingo parties, arts and crafts nights, ice cream socials and more.

In short, the aberrant is this agency’s “normal.” And not one iota of this nonsense contributes to improving the agency’s mission performance or raising employee morale in what is hands down the worst agency in the Federal Government in its category.

This is what is waiting for Mr. Andrew Lack when he assumes the duties of the agency’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Mr. Lack will be confronted with a Fellini-like atmosphere where anything but the agency’s mission seems to garner attention inside the Cohen Building.

Some people would like very much to believe that Mr. Lack has some formula to turn things around with this agency.

Mr. Lack’s credentials are impressive. That is not the issue.

What is very much the issue is an agency that demonstrates it has no interest in reform or rehabilitation and has gone out of its way to disconnect itself from reality.

The examples we cite here are merely the tip of an iceberg-like problem that doesn’t even begin to delve into the machinations of the career bureaucrats most of whom reside in a self-serving (not mission-serving) International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

This agency has the potential to be unlike anything Mr. Lack has experienced before – and that is not a good thing.

This is the story that needs telling: the implosion of a Federal agency.

As often as is necessary.

The Federalist
November 2014

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