WASHINGTON-- The U.S. international broadcasting landscape will look different following
the resignation of a key leader,
budget cuts and recommendations by its main governing board to consolidate
administrative services and reduce language services. The streamlining comes at a time when
some observers worry that U.S. global media must meet increased competition
from expanded operations of Radio China International, Voice of Russia and
Iran’s Press TV, to mention a few. Advocates seek a slow but steady
overhaul of administrative operations to reduce the impact of cuts to the five
U.S. government-funded civilian networks, which claim to reach 187 million people
The U.S. Broadcasting Board of
Governors, which sets policies and provides oversight of government funded operations
that broadcast overseas, released a five-year plan in November to restructure
its administrative operations. Those recommendations were the result of a
year-long strategic review process.
“The board is ready to strengthen U.S.
international broadcasting by freeing up resources locked up in inefficient and
duplicative administrative structures,” the board said in a January press
BBG aims to “consolidate, integrate and streamline” three privately incorporated
but taxpayer-funded “grantee” networks it oversees: Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty, (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting
Network (MBN). Two other networks, the
Voice of America (VOA) and Radio TV Martí to Cuba, are federal agencies. VOA is
the largest BBG network and the only one with a global rather than regional
There’s also been discussion by BBG to de-federalize
VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting/Radio TV Martí. However, International
Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo recently said this possibility “is no
longer on the table.”
The BBG also oversees the International
Broadcasting Bureau, which provides program transmission services and
engineering support for all BBG broadcast organizations.
The three private entities — RFE/RL,
— have combined budgets of $240 million and approximately 2,000 full-time
employees and contractors. The proposed consolidation calls for them to share a
unified administrative and legal framework that could yield estimated savings
of $30 million to $40 million over five years, according to Deloitte. The
consultant examined the plausibility of the plan on behalf of BBG. Deloitte recommended the board approve
the merger of the grantees.
In its proposed FY2013 budget sent to
Capitol Hill in March, BBG asked for $720 million, a 4.2 percent decrease in
current spending levels. The request includes program, transmission and
staffing reductions at the VOA, Radio TV Martí, RFE/RL, RFA and MBN.
A total of three broadcast language
services are proposed for elimination at RFE/RL, including Circassian, Avar and
Chechen. The VOA would discontinue broadcasting in Greek and will service Cantonese
speakers with online content. The request calls for another $21 million in cuts
in administrative and technical support costs across the agency and grantee
The BBG proposes eliminating 244
positions. Some already are vacant and will not be filled in the interim,
according to a BBG spokesperson, and buy-outs, early outs and other means could
reduce impact on employees, it feels (see sidebar).
The budget request also
contains $9 million in increases for “elevated” social media and building out
the agency’s digital infrastructure, according to the BBG. It also asks for
$11.6 million in Internet anti-censorship funding.
Meanwhile, the BBG lost its board chairman
in January when Walter Isaacson resigned. Board
member Michael Lynton was named interim presiding governor. Brian
Coniff, president of MBN, had been named earlier to lead the consolidation
efforts of the three non-federal networks.
The BBG also recently proposed naming a
chief executive officer, who would report to the board and oversee the day-to-day
operations of the five networks.
board already merged the administrative staffs of IBB and BBG last year. Senior
administrative and management functions — including strategy, development,
distribution, marketing, legal, communications, social media innovation,
financial management, and research and evaluation — were consolidated into a
network management operation, according to a BBG announcement.
‘It is not easy’
Some see the BBG’s consolidation plan as
a starting point to eliminate overlap in the administrative and management
cones of the three grantee networks. “Active
measures are underway to achieve operational efficiencies, increase impact and
enhance cooperation and integration across the U.S. international broadcasting
networks,” a BBG spokesman said.
“The feeling is that they can do the
same work with fewer people,” said one analyst. “However, marketing and
research within each of those groups varies a great deal and face different
geographic challenges. Whether the new streamlined administration can work as
effectively is not clear.”
The streamlining of executive
management and administrative infrastructure, which Deloitte says could begin this
year, will require congressional and presidential action. The BBG is working on
legislative material to formalize the strategic changes. Deloitte suggests in
its report it was unclear how Congress would react to the changes.
structure after planned changes.
“We are in the midst of consultation
with members of Congress on the changes,” the BBG spokesperson said.
One analyst predicted support from the
White House on the reconfiguration plans. Vice President Joe Biden is viewed as
a longtime supporter of U.S. international broadcasting efforts.
“My assumption is that [the vice president] handles
questions of broadcasting, with input from others of course, including
Secretary of State Clinton,” the analyst said. “Biden’s had his hands in the
broadcasting bureaucracy for a long time, understands its utility and how it
works to a much greater level than most; so I am guessing he takes leadership
on these questions at the White House.”
James K. Glassman, former chairman of the BBG and founding
executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, said the BBG will likely
not get too many chances to attempt a restructuring.
“No matter the timing, it is
important to build support on the Hill and in the executive branch before
embarking on a major consolidation.The BBG
has, for many years, been considering a way to rationalize its structure. It is
not easy. I absolutely believe that reorganization is in order, but it needs to
address some thorny issues, such as the possibility of de-federalization of
VOA,” Glassman said.
suggested the “snail-like pace” of an election year could slow progress and
therefore delay any substantial changes this year.
“The challenge for the BBG,” according
to former VOA Deputy Director Alan Heil, “will be to get attention focused on
the vital role ofU.S. international
broadcasting in enhancing national security by conveying accurate, credible
cutting edge news and by engaging a universe of audiences via new media.
“Time is of the essence,” he added,
“considering the huge growth of other international services in China, Russia,
Iran and Al Jazeera in Qatar.”
Efforts to reach several members of the
House Foreign Affairs Committee for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
The move to integrate administrative
duties into a single organization for the privately incorporated grantee
networks, while maintaining the familiar brands during times of budget
restraints, is hailed by some observers as positive news.
Daya Thussa, a professor of
International Communication at the University of Westminster in London, said
the idea of streamlining the privately incorporated networks would make them
more efficient and therefore perhaps more effective.
“However, it is important to emphasize
that the impact and popularity of the three networks varies considerably, with
Radio Free Asia, in my view, the least effective of the three,” Thussa said. “Programming
is crucial for the success of any broadcaster if its potential audience is in
foreign lands, where questions of cultural and political sensitivity can be
BBG Workforce Unhappy With Cuts
The BBG has acknowledged workforce issues at all
five news organizations it oversees. Proposed cuts for FY2013 that could
eliminate 244 positions will likely not ease the discord, said some observers.
They fear tensions and divisiveness between employees, contractors and
management will be heightened as a result.
The American Federation of Governmental Employees Local 1812, which
represents rank-and-file BBG employees, is concerned the agency is trying to
privatize operations for those who perform the broadcast duties.
“When a federal employee leaves [BBG] has more often than not replaced
them with a so-called contractor. We believe that the agency has acted
illegally in bringing in these contractors,” said Tim Shamble, president of
AFGE Local 1812.
The cuts would affect approximately 200 BBG employees represented by
AFGE Local 1812, Shamble said.
“We are appalled. The OMB budget reduction was reportedly only 4.2
percent of the BBG’s total budget but it appears that the BBG targeted
primarily the VOA and the OCB for reductions. The federal broadcasters, those
that produce the product of the agency, are the ones targeted to lose their
jobs,” said Shamble.
In response, BBG Spokeswoman Letitia
King said, “We regularly review our use of contractors and employees, and we
are confident that in this area the BBG is acting squarely within federal laws
and regulations.For many years,
contractors have played a vital role in enabling us to carry out our mission. Just
like other government agencies, the BBG has broad authority to engage
contractors to perform a variety of services as long as the assignments
performed are not inherently governmental functions.”
A look over the last five years shows
that the number of BBG employees has been relatively stable; where VOA has
increased by about 50 staff, IBB has declined by more than 200 staff,
reflecting closures of overseas facilities and administrative reductions,
according to King. She added: “We respect the contributions of full-time
employees and contractors alike in helping the BBG achieve its mission to
provide reliable news and information to audiences oversees. We work in
partnership with union and non-union members on issues of mutual concern.”
Approximately 35 to 40 percent of the federal workforce at BBG are
independent contractors, said Richard Lobo, director of the International
Broadcasting Bureau, which is a division of the BBG.
—Randy J. Stine
The changes are not limited only to administration,
according to the BBG. VOA Director David Ensor has spoken of developing a new
global news network out of its 55 remaining language services that would
incorporate the newsgathering capabilities and produced content of all five
services — and even cross-promote programming — further blurring the lines
between them, observers said.
In fact, RFE/RL and VOA set up a “news
share site” last August, enabling enhanced cooperation on news stories in real
time, according to a BBG spokesman.
However, according to the Deloitte analysis,
“An unequivocal requirement for a merged organization is that the brands,
mission and language services remain the same. Language services would continue
to set their own editorial agendas based on their market requirements.”
“In a streamlined organization, each
BBG-funded broadcast network will fully leverage shared Washington-based and
overseas resources. The FY2013 budget eliminates many redundancies in BBG
broadcasts. BBG’s new strategic vision consolidates broadcasts in areas where
multiple networks serve the same market, so that limited resources can achieve
maximum impact,” according to the BBG budget request.
New media in this age of social
networking will remain an area of growth for the BBG, observers said, despite
concerns from some about global connectivity rates.
“The Obama administration has been more
successful in investing in social media, though how effective these are in
parts of the globe where broadband connectivity is low remains to be seen,” Thussa
Still, radio has the largest reach
among media used by the BBG. U.S. government-funded radio signals (shortwave,
FM and AM) reach an estimated 106 million people per week, according to
estimates from BBG, while its television services reach an estimated 97 million
viewers. (Users who listen to radio and view TV to the same or more than one
U.S.-funded network count only once.)
Despite those statistics, radio has had
a number of cuts to shortwave operations in recent years while seeing growth in
medium-wave and FM signals in foreign countries. That trend continues in the
FY2013 budget request as transmission reallocations include shortwave and
medium-wave reductions for VOA English.
Taking all transmission and language
service reductions into account, the budget request proposes to discontinue the
use of shortwave and medium-wave except for those targeting Cuba, China, North
Korea, Burma, Iran, Tibet, Uyghur, FATA (Afghan-Pakistan border region),
Pakistan, Afghanistan, Belarusian, Russian to the Caucasus, Russian, Turkmen,
Khmer, and Africa, according to the BBG budget request.
Shortwave and medium wave radio
broadcast reductions are proposed for 18 countries, 10 of which are places
where BBG has more than one broadcaster reaching the marketplace and have other
delivery avenues available. Those include FM affiliates, satellite radio, TV,
mobile and online channels in place or planned, according to a BBG spokesman.
“While Facebook, Twitter, texting and
smartphone delivery have gathered headlines,” one observer said, “I expect
there to be some growth in local FM service broadcasting downlinked material
from Washington, D.C. I think the further drawdown of shortwave was
Shawn Powers, associate director of the Center
for International Media Education at Georgia State University, believes
the consolidation will allow the innovation and success of any one of the
networks to more
easily drive success or innovation in the others, through “modeling” or
enhanced competition for resources within the new structure. Part of the BBG’s
overall consolidation plan is to establish a global news network at its
headquarters in Washington that will combine the best, in-depth reporting of
all five networks under the BBG’s aegis.
“Murdoch’s News Corp perfected the strategy of consolidation
over the past 20 years and has shown how, from a business and operational
perspective, it makes sense,” Powers said. “Execution of this plan will require
good, transparent leadership.”
Meanwhile, BBG also is proposing and Congress is considering
a change in a decades-old law prohibiting domestic dissemination of VOA and Radio
TV Martí broadcasts. A clause in the Smith-Mundt Act prohibits that now. Heil
believes the legislation is outdated.
“It is long overdue. If a Somalian
community in Minneapolis wants to have access to the VOA Somali service it
should be able to use it,” Heil said.
Most VOA material is already available
online, Heil said.
Smith-Mundt was passed in 1948 shortly after World War II as
a means to prevent any sitting administration from using U.S. government media
to influence the American public and promote a specific political agenda, Heil
Powers said the fact that domestic
dissemination is likely coming soon is an indication of how quickly the
institutional culture of American overseas broadcasting is shifting.
“The organization seems to be moving forward with the
assumption that restrictions on domestic dissemination will be removed in the
near term, perhaps within the next 24 months if not sooner. Historically, this
issue has been tremendously sensitive, and so the gusto with which this is
moving forward, assuming that tapping into American audiences, as well as
foreign audiences, is okay, is surprising,” Powers said.
Observers say leadership for the five broadcast entities during
the BBG’s restructuring will be critical; losing a key leader
like Isaacson in a time of transition is not ideal. But some speculated that
the change will have limited impact and not slow implementation of the new
Isaacson, former CEO and chairman of
CNN, said he was taking on another big writing project and was unable to give the
BBG the time it needs and deserves.
“The board presumably will move ahead
on implementing the parts of the strategic plan that the administration and
Congress finally approve,” Heil said, “regardless of how quickly a new
chairperson is designated.”
However, Alex Belida, a former
correspondent and news executive who worked in U.S. international broadcasting
for 40 years, wrote recently on the blog www.MountainRunner.us:
“The departure of Walter Isaacson represents a serious journalistic loss at a
time when the [BBG] is considering a reorganization. To the best of my memory,
he was the only board member who spoke
consistently about the importance of good journalism.”
The new chairman of the BBG “must be
committed to true consolidation,” writes Kim Andrew Elliott, a long time U.S.
international broadcasting analyst, blogger and employee of the U.S.
International Broadcasting Bureau, a subsidiary of the BBG. “Only when [U.S.
international broadcasting] ceases to be a dysfunctional confederacy of feudal
entities can it begin to rise to its goal of becoming the world’s leading
international news agency.”
-- Radio World