Shortwave is not a hot topic, BBG strategists are

BBG Watch Commentary reflecting contributions from several individuals.
Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) strategists have engaged in a bit of propaganda in trying to frame the legitimate debate on their competency and their strategy by focusing the discussion on the issue of shortwave broadcasts and portraying all their critics as shortwave radio dinosaurs. BBG Shortwave: Sorting The Fact From The Fiction

Sorry to say but most of the criticism of BBG strategists and their ideas have little to do with shortwave broadcasting. When looking at these opening statements from the BBG blog post, only parts of them are true:

The BBG Strategy Blog takes a look shortwave, one of the hottest topics in U.S. international broadcasting [NOT TRUE]:

Once the only tool, shortwave is now just one of many in the distribution toolbox. [TRUE but no one disputes that] But when, where, and how much the BBG should use SW has become a hot topic… [NOT TRUE]

Shortwave. It’s among the most hotly debated topics inside and outside the BBG. [NOT TRUE] Once the single go-to method of distribution, the medium is now just one of many tools employed by BBG broadcasters.[TRUE, but no one disputes that]

Sorry to disappoint BBG strategists, but shortwave is NOT a hot topic.

The hottest topic right now is their plan to eliminate Voice of America radio broadcasts to Tibet and to close down the VOA Cantonese Service: shortwave radio, satellite television, and Internet. Last year, it was their plan to kill all VOA Mandarin radio and television, as well as VOA Cantonese radio, television and Internet. That BBG plan was killed in unanimous bipartisan votes in Congress.

Think of the impact of the latest proposal to deprive Tibetan Buddhist monks and others of VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts, which NPR reports are being listened to secretly, while Tibetans are self-immolating to shock the conscience of the world and the Chinese government is increasing arrests and repression. The idea to end these broadcasts came from BBG strategists.

The hot topic is not shortwave per se, although it is part of it; it is the judgement and the understanding of the mission on the part of BBG strategists. Add to this their continued insistence on eliminating broadcasting services while keeping their own jobs and expanding their bureaucratic operations and outside contracting.

Isn’t there an inherent conflict of interest in their program cutting proposals?

Another hot topic is the continued elimination of the Voice of America brand-name.

Yet another hot topic is their understanding of whom U.S.-funded international broadcasts and new media programs should serve and to what purpose.

Should these programs target mass audiences or try to serve those who are most in need of hard-hitting uncensored news?

What compromises should the BBG make vis-a-vis repressive regimes to achieve a mass audience through local distribution of its programs?

Should BBG broadcasters accept requests from BBG strategists and consultants not to call the Russian attack on Georgia “an invasion” and to make their programs “less hostile” to various regimes because audience research clearly shows — or so they claim — that audiences don’t like such strong on-air criticism?

And what about highly questionable BBG research among intimidated populations in countries like China? On the basis of this research, which shows numbers well below even the margin of error, BBG strategists draw strategic conclusions. U.S. taxpayers will pay Gallup $50,000,000 in research costs. Can imprisoned populations be surveyed and provide honest answers?

These are some of the hot topics rather than shortwave.

Contrary to what the BBG article is trying to convey, critics of BBG strategists don’t think shortwave is the ultimate answer for U.S. international broadcasting.

The real debate is not about shortwave at all. It is about broadcasting, both radio and television, and about serving disenfranchised and repressed groups-audiences, many living in great poverty.

The debate is also about U.S. national security interests and the ability of the BBG to respond to crises and inevitable cyber attacks and Internet censorship. Such a response cannot be done without some secure shortwave capability. That’s where shortwave comes in. But the U.S. government cannot respond to major crises abroad, address people in war zones and to communicate with the most oppressed and the poorest groups without having broadcasting in the first place.

So the debate is primarily about strategy, mission and preserving broadcasting. Only secondarily, it is about preserving some shortwave capability where it is needed or may be needed.

Radio/TV broadcasting backed up with some shortwave capability is a strategic weapon against countries like China and Russia. So is the Voice of America radio and television brand-name. You don’t just give up such an asset for nothing. You don’t betray your loyal audiences. If a radio broadcasting service is closed down, you can’t just resurrect it overnight. Killing broadcasting by USG sends a strong strategic signal of US indifference and weakness.

Ultimately, the multi-platform, multi-media delivery is what the BBG needs if it wants to have an effective strategic weapon against undemocratic regimes. You can’t go for a mass audience in such countries because you can’t get it without seriously compromising your message.

Radio/TV broadcasts, but particularly radio, insure that we stay on the message. This also means content for a far better, news-oriented online presence. Otherwise, the whole BBG should just produce English lessons with high school bathroom humor. They may be creative and funny and pass the censors in China. It’s fine to have them if you also have something else. The same with program delivery: you can’t rely on just one platform.

Then, we can get into the argument whether Voice of America should only produce online entertainment while the surrogates produce real radio news.

This is what BBG strategists are pushing for some of the most strategically important VOA services while they want to eliminate completely many others. This is against the law and intent of Congress. The Voice of America cannot be just a voice of Hollywood. The law clearly states that VOA must represent all of America and the whole spectrum of American opinions.

If BBG strategists want the surrogate broadcasters to represent the United States, they should ask the Congress for permission and perhaps be told that the surrogate broadcasters should change their names to Voice of America.

Their article is intellectually dishonest because by trying to limit the debate to shortwave only it hides the fact that BBG strategists want to eliminate the Voice of America radio and television brand-name in China, Russia and in many other countries around the world.

This “strategy” distorts America’s image and is against the law which established the VOA Charter. The article also hides the tremendous waste of U.S. taxpayers’ money through the plan designed to divert government resources from producing programs to hiring more bureaucrats and contractors.

This is how the debate needs to be framed. Reducing it to just shortwave is a trick designed to make BBG critics look like dinosaurs.

Well, it’s not going to work. People are not so stupid not to be able to see through a bit of propaganda that is just a bit too clever to be credible.

Shortwave is not a hot topic.

The hot topic are BBG strategists themselves. They are the strategic dinosaurs.

And let us not forget this little fact. In the Office of Personnel Management government-wide surveys, BBG employee rate the management team, which includes BBG strategists, as the worst managers among all federal agencies in terms of leadership and management knowledge.

Is there anything else than this little fact that would better explain the recommendation these strategists made to BBG members to end VOA shortwave radio broadcasts to Tibet and to fire seven VOA Tibetan journalists as Tibetans in Tibet are setting themselves on fire?

Research does show that VOA Tibetan television program has a slightly bigger reach than radio. But that is in Nepal where private satellite dishes are not banned and the Internet is not censored as it is in Tibet and China.

So what were these strategists thinking? There is a hot topic.

Should the United States silence the Voice of America Tibetan radio as proposed by the BBG strategists? The BBG chief strategist says: “Where our brands resonate with audiences, we want to preserve them. Where they don’t, we have the flexibility to invent new ones.” The Dalai Lama said that Voice of America Tibetan radio is “vital medicine” for Tibetans, and the Tibetan people consider it as one of the most valuable and priceless gifts from the people and government of the United States to them.

The real hot topic and choice are these two distinct visions.

By the way, the BBG blog post is dated April 12, 2012, and yet the comments on the post are closed. We wonder why. May be the recent wave of repression in Tibet in China and the outrage in America and around the world have made BBG strategists slightly insecure. On the other hand, they have never been known for lacking confidence in their abilities and judgement.

2 Comments

  1. anonymous says:

    Needed: a near complete house cleaning on the BBG/IBB floor.

  2. Quo Vadis says:

    BBG strategists have carved out a disastrous future for U.S. international broadcasting. Ignoring shortwave radio capabilities,
    they have also chosen, in their shortsightedness, to ignore the possibilities of digital shortwave in contrast to many other nations
    including China, Russia, and Australia. Ultimately, this is a power grab. Under the guise of reorganization and a Reduction-in-Force,
    their actual plan is to transfer the functions of the federal government broadcasting entities under VOA and Radio/TV Marti to the grantee organizations. This would give them carte blanche in hiring and firing contractors with no oversight from the Congress. Many believe that their ultimate purpose is to de-federalize VOA and Radio/TV Marti without official congressional approval.

    For an honest overview of shortwave in China, listen to an interview with Asia radio expert, Keith Perron, stationed in Taiwan, who
    spoke by remote to a convention of SWL (shortwave listeners, DXers) in Plymouth PA in March 2011 as part of the Shortwave
    Shindig. His remarks re: the BBG decision to cut shortwave broadcasts to China last year are perceptive and pungent and
    pertinent to the present discussions about the utilization of shortwave by the Agency.

    Keith Perron interview: http://vimeo.com/20948612

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