IBB executives travel abroad, pay no attention as RFE/RL crisis deepens and audiences decline

BBG Watch Commentary

Price of BBG and IBB Travel

Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva and former President Mikhail Gorbachev apparently care more about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) than government officials who should be fully engaged in monitoring its operations on behalf of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency which oversees RFE/RL and other U.S. international broadcasters. We are talking here specifically about the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives who love foreign travel so much that they cannot be bothered to do anything about the ongoing destruction of Radio Liberty’s brand, reputation and audience in Russia and in other countries.

So while Russian human rights and democratic political leaders have been sending protest letters to the BBG, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress, complaining about the activities of RFE/RL President Steven Korn and his top deputies, IBB Director Richard Lobo, IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble and Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman were all traveling abroad at U.S. taxpayers’ expense rather than dealing with the crisis.

BBG Watch has learned that not one, but three top BBG/IBB and Voice of America officials, attended a recent international broadcasting conference in Berlin. In the past, usually only the VOA director would go to these conferences. But this time, VOA Director David Ensor was accompanied by IBB Director Richard Lobo and Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman.

IBB Director Richard Lobo

IBB Director Richard Lobo

BBG Watch has also learned that IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, who at one time held an executive position at RFE/RL and unlike the others speaks Russian, was recently in Georgia for a few weeks assisting with transition to a new government. His trip was apparently paid for the State Department. The others traveled on the BBG budget. No one had time to deal with the Radio Liberty crisis which is spinning out of control. Not that we’re suggesting that any of their potential solutions would have necessarily be good for the organization. Let’s keep in mind that it was they who had laid the foundation for many of the actions now being taken with disastrous results by RFE/RL President Steven Korn.

The Traveling Habit

BBG/IBB officials have made numerous trips abroad this year. Some of these trips cost U.S. taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in airfare alone. One manager went to Burma four times within one year. (More on this in a future posting.) Little wonder that programs and programming positions at the BBG have to be sacrificed year after year to pay for the traveling habit.

Jeffrey N. Trimble, International Broadcasting Bureau Deputy Director

Jeff Trimble

More money is also needed to compensate SES managers who retire from the BBG with generous federal pensions and are immediately rehired as highly-paid private independent contractors. These questionable practices have been approved in the past, just as Director Lobo approves generous performance bonuses for his executives who for the last several years have been rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint surveys as being some of the worst managers in the entire federal government, at or near the bottom of each survey.

You would think that in light of such performance, they should forego these bonuses, but they get them year after year and receive praise from Lobo who says that it is BBG employees who don’t understand the meaning of the word “leadership.” More consultants are hired to educate BBG employees how to work better with the management. Foreign travel, more contractors and high bonuses equal more canceled programs and more RIFs, now and in the future. We also hear that yet another retiring executive may soon be back as a contractor. Congress places restrictions on such personnel practices, but BBG/IBB/VOA executives know how to get around them by asking Director Lobo for exceptions.

It should have occurred to Director Lobo by now, and certainly to BBG members, that having the same people in charge of this mismanaged federal agency for years on end may be a big part of the problem. But an even bigger problem are former associates of some BBG members who somehow manage to get them hired, usually after these managers, who unfamiliar with and unprepared for running U.S. international broadcasting, lose their former jobs. It’s a no-win situation.

More on RFE/RL

Before going to Europe on his latest trip, Lobo, who was appointed to his current position by President Obama, could have at least launched a full scale investigation as to why dozens of Radio Liberty journalists were fired without any warning, why security guards were used against them, why employees with disabilities were dismissed so that associates of a new director could be immediately hired to replace them, and why the reputation of the station in Russia has been ruined, its online audience reduced by more than half, and Radio Liberty made an enemy of the human rights and democratic movement?

BBG's chief strategist Bruce Sherman speaking at a joint BBG Gallup audience research panel

BBG's chief strategist Bruce Sherman at BBG Gallup audience research panel

As the Director of Strategy and Development who has been promising for years that his strategic plan will produce larger audiences, but failing to deliver on that promise, Sherman should be especially concerned that Radio Liberty’s audience in Russia is rapidly disappearing, this time not because of Putin, but as a result of actions by the RFE/RL President himself. Sherman, who as we hear is not a great admirer of Korn, is, however, hardly blameless in this latest debacle. He should have seen that his strategic plan would logically lead to personnel and programming decisions, which have produced extreme consequences because of extreme arrogance and incompetence. BBG members, with a few exceptions, are also not without blame for the crisis at RFE/RL.

But neither Lobo nor Sherman seem to be bothered with such problems, which they should have foreseen and prevented before they became unmanageable. Despite their SES salaries and a very generous travel allowance, they apparently expect BBG members to deal with any unpleasant consequences that in any other well-run organization would have been their responsibility and action items for them to take.

But then, BBG members themselves seem unable to control RFE/RL President or even to get him to respond to their requests for information. They are therefore not likely to demand performance and accountability from BBG/IBB executives, and these officials know very well it by now. Being engaged and doing their jobs could place restrictions on their time, expose them to risk and limit participation in all these exciting international conferences. It is safer to do nothing because part-time BBG members will soon either forget, miss the next meeting, become distracted by other crises or be soon replaced.

BBG Global Audience – 175 Million – in 2012 as in 2008 Despite Larger Budgets

Lobo, Trimble and Sherman should be concerned, however, how members of Congress and American taxpayers, who pay their salaries, will evaluate their performance, because under their leadership, the BBG’s global audience has remained stagnant for the past four years at about 175 million and the impact of U.S. international broadcasting around the world diminished in many key areas. If you think of it, the 175 million number actually represents a considerable decline in BBG’s audience share, because the world population has increased since 2008 by hundreds of millions, as did the number of Internet users.

We have been saying this for some time that there is something fundamentally wrong with their strategic plan, that places great emphasis on the Internet to the detriment of broadcasting, if they cannot expand BBG’s global audience despite the rapid growth of the Internet, plus $100 million in additional annual spending compared to 2008.

US Congress HELP - Radio Liberty in Exile Mikhail GorbachevNo doubt, the response from BBG/IBB executives will be that it is not their fault. They will no doubt once again propose to the BBG board further cuts in programs and programming positions to keep theirs, of course, for four more years, and to continue with the $50 million Gallup contract to keep measuring the shrinking audience to fewer and fewer programs at the same cost for research as before. We are told that as the U.S. federal government may limit the use of the Gallup Organization as a federal contractor because of allegations of fraudulent billings, Director Lobo plans to keep the BBG Gallup contract and ask for an exception to any restrictions, if necessary.

The irony is that these global audience estimates are highly questionable in any case and should not be the BBG’s entire focus, as they have been for many years. We have argued that this push on the part of BBG/IBB managers to “marry the mission to the market” and their use of similar new concepts that focus on the market but fail to focus on the mission of U.S. international broadcasting are now turning RFE/RL into tabloid media, complete with images of semi-nude women and stories worthy of Playboy and National Enquirer. This assault of the RFE/RL brand, encouraged and condoned by BBG/IBB executives, not only does not expand the audience; it drives it away.

But let’s not dwell on such unpleasant things. December is a great time to take care of some Christmas shopping in Europe, even if RFE/RL executives fire journalists for asking difficult questions, cause outrage by posting sexually suggestive videos in Kazakhstan, and see the Russian Service website lose more than 50 percent of its audience since September. You would think that Lobo, Trimble and Sherman would be bothered by this and would want to do something, but they seem far more interested in their foreign travels.

In a future posting, which is expected very soon, we will return to the subject of foreign travels by BBG/IBB executives while Rome burns.

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