BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Weishi TV for China
VOA Weishi TV for China

In yet another example of management meltdown, lack of communication and confusion at the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA), senior executives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency and VOA senior managers stealthily cut 14 repeat hours of satellite TV news programming weekly to China in the middle of the Hong Kong-China crisis. Senior executives also moved other repeats of VOA Chinese TV broadcasts to less desirable time slots without alerting the audience or even their own China Branch rank-and-file staff.

This is the second time in recent months that VOA senior management together with senior officials of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) made significant program cuts and changes to VOA programming to Asia without alerting their audiences and VOA journalists. See: “VOA radio listener in Asia to BBG: bankruptcy without even a proper good bye,” BBG Watch, July 20, 2014.

IBB officials insist that the lack of notification is entirely the fault of VOA senior executives and managers, but the IBB management team failed to make sure that proper notification procedures were implemented even after previous broadcasting cuts went into effect without audiences and staff being alerted, resulting in embarrassment for both VOA and its oversight BBG Board.

14 hours weekly repeats of VOA TV “Weishi” program in Mandarin to China (out of 72 hours of weekly repeats previously) were replaced at the end of September with Radio Free Asia (RFA) audio-only news content in Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan and Uyghur on the satellite TV channel without any prior notice to the audience or the VOA China Branch rank-and-file broadcasters.

A VOA journalist reported on the lack of consultation with the staff and the lack of notification to the audience. The reporter sent in his comments anonymously, fearing retaliation from the management:

“On Monday, September 29, the loyal viewers of Voice of America (VOA) ‘Weishi,’ the VOA Mandarin TV program, were surprised to see their TV screen turned into a blue graphic during some hours when the original program previously aired was repeated. In the place of the professionally produced VOA TV broadcast, audiences received radio signals from Radio Free Asia (RFA).”

While satellite TV viewers in China may now get RFA radio news on a satellite TV channel, which is a good thing during the Hong Kong crisis and which audiences were not able to get before on that particular TV channel, replacing the already established and professionally produced VOA Chinese TV repeat programming in the middle of the protests instead of expanding VOA Chinese TV or at least updating repeat programming with live news, seems highly questionable. The BBG/IBB/VOA management could have just inserted RFA programs into time slots occupied by English-language TV and radio while also seeking other delivery platforms for RFA, but they also chose to displace VOA Mandarin TV even after it became clear that the protests in Hong Kong were escalating. The VOA senior management failed to let the audience and the staff know about these changes in advance.

What the agency would do in similar situations in previous years under different management teams would be to increase the overall number of live hours of VOA Chinese radio or TV, insert live news into repeat radio or TV programs and increase rather than decrease repeat programming to reach audiences in vernacular languages at different hours. In a crisis situation or during a news emergency in a target country, the agency would have also attempted to find new program delivery platforms for Radio Free Asia. This could have been done by leasing a separate TV satellite channel rather than displacing established VOA TV programs in Chinese in the middle of the Hong Kong protests without any notice to the VOA TV audience in China.

In addition to VOA TV repeat programs in Mandarin, RFA news programs also replaced 28 hours weekly of acquired English TV programming, 7 hours weekly of VOA English Music programming and 3 hours weekly of VOA English programming. This was a logical and a desirable move in a crisis situation, since English speakers in China can also get English TV news from other Western sources. But even in this case, English-speaking VOA TV audiences in China and throughout Asia should have been alerted to this change weeks in advance.

IBB officials said that having RFA’s radio on TV in four languages spoken in China is “a powerful addition to the channel’s lineup and will likely have more impact than the more entertainment driven content that was replaced.”

We agree with them on this point only, especially since VOA does not have professionally-produced English-language TV news programming targeting Asia. But IBB officials did not comment on replacing repeats of a well-established and professionally produced VOA TV news program in Mandarin for China with nothing but Radio Free Asia audio, other than pointing out that VOA had previously 72 hours of repeats and 14 hours of original weekly TV Mandarin programming to China.

According to IBB officials, VOA Chinese Branch managers were requested a week in advance to update on-air promotional announcements and web schedules to notify our audiences of the changes in the satellite schedule. Even a one-week alert would have been highly disrespectful for the loyal VOA TV audience in China, especially during the news emergency in Hong Kong. But in this case, not even a one day alert to the Chinese audience was issued by VOA.

It also appears that VOA Chinese Branch managers themselves were not properly consulted about these changes. Voice of America these days appears to be in the state of permanent crisis and confusion — an organization with the lowest employee morale in the entire Federal government. The current VOA executive team and the former IBB management team are blamed for the crisis.

According to one source, the Mandarin Service chief was reportedly on vacation and did not return until September 29. Other China Branch managers were confused about the schedule, mainly on the issue of the exact number of hours being cut. It appears that the IBB and VOA management had previously cut other repeats of VOA TV programming to China from the satellite channel without letting the VOA China Branch staff know about it. VOA China Branch journalists were caught by surprise and many learned about the reduction of TV repeat programs after the fact. The new schedule was not published and no promos were made to alert the audience to the latest change.

One would assume that because of the dramatic events in Hong Kong, VOA Director David Ensor and VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch would be meeting regularly with the China Branch staff. But it appears that no senior VOA executive made any attempt to explain to the VOA Mandarin Service staff why repeats of their popular TV news program were being cut as the situation in Hong Kong was becoming more critical day by day.

VOA and IBB executives appear not to know how to respond to a news emergency, how to consult with the staff and outside experts, how to communicate decisions to the staff, and how to adjust to a rapidly changing situation due to mass pro-democracy demonstrations or a foreign invasion, as in Ukraine. As during the previous cuts of radio transmissions to Asia, VOA broadcasters learnt this time about transmission cuts to their TV programs from their audiences, not from their senior management. Voice of America has long been in this management meltdown mode.

It also appears that the decision on cuts in VOA Chinese TV repeats was made in late August between IBB, VOA and RFA executives, well before the crisis in Hong Kong escalated. There was apparently no serious attempt to reevaluate this decision in view of the changing situation in Hong Kong, just as there was no serious attempt to consult with the staff and inform the audience.

The first rule of surge broadcasting to a country with press censorship in a news emergency is not cutting programs, but adding new programs and repeats, as well as finding additional, multiple program delivery platforms. The management failed to take this path and to make quick decisions resource allocations and adjustments not only in the case of China, but also in the case of Ukraine and in the case of media outreach to the Kurdish speakers fleeing ISIS in northern Iraq.

There is still business as usual among VOA and some veteran IBB executives who are disconnected not only from news developments and audiences they are paid to serve, but also disconnected from their own journalists and broadcasters. While finding a new platform for Radio Free Asia broadcasts was a good idea and replacing English-language programming with RFA audio programs in Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan and Uyghur on the satellite TV channel was also a good idea, displacing VOA Mandarin TV was a highly misguided move, especially after the situation in Hong Kong became more critical. The new IBB management team made some good decisions but failed on others.

The VOA senior management team failed utterly. Radio Free Asia management did what was good for RFA and its radio listeners, but the whole situation should have been handled differently by the new interim IBB management team. They may want to do the right thing, but they lack sufficient experience and do not yet know how to seek input from those who do have such experience before decisions are made. VOA senior managers were essentially AWOL, as they have been for many years.

Putting both VOA and RFA on the same satellite channel may also turn out to be a strategic mistake if the Chinese government officials decide to jam it. If they do jam it, both VOA and RFA programs will be lost. In general, it would have been much better if RFA management could make program delivery decisions on its own, and VOA, once it has a competent and engaged management, could do likewise. Even under the best circumstances, it would be too much to expect IBB officials to be connected with and knowing intimately every foreign audience. As the bipartisan H.R. 4490 reform bill proposes, the IBB should be essentially abolished and a CEO should take over running VOA and the agency, while the surrogate outlets like RFA pursue their separate missions as the Congress intended them to do.

In the case of China, IBB should have found another TV channel for RFA, although we do not know whether they could have done it on such a short notice. On the other hand, they were already planning VOA TV to China reductions for at least three months, if not much longer. IBB executives can’t claim that they have no money for an additional TV channel to Asia since their bureaucratic staff has increased by 37 percent in the last seven years while they had successfully eliminated many broadcasts and tried to eliminate VOA radio and TV to China as well. The VOA management ranks have also expanded while programs were being cut.

In conclusion, after failing to alert the audience to the previous termination of VOA shortwave broadcasts in English and other languages to Asia, the VOA management team has done it again, this time with TV to China at a particularly sensitive time due to massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. While IBB officials insist that they had asked the VOA management to notify their staff and the audience of the planned changes, no consultations or notifications were made by VOA. While we applaud IBB for giving RFA a new program delivery platform, the overall decision itself was at least partially faulty because it was not part of a larger strategic plan. No adjustments were made as political circumstances have changed.

One does not reduce program delivery options in a critical language in the middle of a crisis. This is yet another proof that the agency’s current management is incapable of running U.S. international media outreach. The new CEO Andy Lack will have a lot to do once he takes up his post, which we hope will be sooner rather than later.

ALSO READ: Hong Kong in Crisis, Voice of America Reduces TV to China, BBG Watch, Oct. 6, 2014