BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Watch has learned that a group of fired Radio Liberty journalists and those who resigned in protest have sent a memorandum to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), in which they ask questions about the future of the American taxpayer-funded station in Russia and offer their analysis.
The memorandum was forwarded to the BBG by the independent and nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), which together with many Russian human rights and political opposition leaders has called on the BBG to return these journalists to Radio Liberty and to restore their programs. At a panel discussion on Russia held Thursday in Washington by the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) Strategy and Budget Committee, Freedom House President David Kramer sharply criticized Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President and CEO Steven Korn for his actions at Radio Liberty in Russia. According to sources, Kramer said that Korn had done to Radio Liberty what Putin never could have done. He also told Korn, according to sources, that his comments about the dismissed Radio Liberty journalists were insulting.
There is no other group of BBG employees who have recently suffered more and have shown greater courage, determination and loyalty to the organization and its mission than the fired Radio Liberty journalists and their colleagues who resigned in solidarity with them. Their brutal firing, including two fully qualified employees with disabilities, has produced a moral outrage in Russia. Guards were used to prevent them from entering the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau and they were not allowed to say good bye to their radio and online audience of many years. RFE/RL executives spread false rumors that these highly skilled multimedia professionals were not capable of doing digital media, while firing the entire Internet team and replacing them with associates of the new director, most of whom lacked multimedia experience.
Unlike members of the new team, many of the fired Radio Liberty journalists are widely known and highly respected in Russia. Also unlike most members of the new team, they regularly contribute to major media outlets and serve as expert commentators.
They have produced a video with an appeal to Americans, including members of Congress, to save Radio Liberty in Russia.
We were told that their memorandum for the BBG was a joint effort of journalists who now form the group Radio Liberty in Exile and manage the SvobodaNew.com website. They were the ones who brought audiences to Radio Liberty radio programs and especially its old website. Since their forced departure and the changes to the website instituted by the new Russian Service director Masha Gessen, de-emphasizing news and news analysis in favor of soft features with sexy topics and photos, the online audience has declined by more than half in just two months. She had also lost website visitors for her previous employer. According to BBG sources, Korn offered Gessen $200,000 per year, which includes a salary of $145,000 and $55,000 in housing allowance. That’s a lot of money for losing the audience.
Key questions regarding RFERL mission and new editorial policy (See PDF)
1. Why is the editorial policy of Maha Gessen different, and indeed contradictory, to the mission of RFERL as outlined on its web-site and which is the same for all its services?
This question has several aspects.
Masha Gessen publicly announced: ‘I consider it a mistake that RL has focused its efforts in previous years on broadcasting news and current affairs’. Gessen’s declared aim to destroy news and current affairs contradicts the mission of RL to promote democratic values: http://www.rferl.org/info/mission/169.html
‘RFE/RL’s mission is to promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.’
Masha Gessen has destroyed the structure of the original RL website. There is no more news, there is a sharp decrease in current affairs and analysis of human rights, politics and civil society.
The front page of the re-fashioned site is dedicated to soft topics and entertainment. The news wire (mandatory for all RFERL services) is confusing and filled with small comments about the day’s events. The comments are NOT from experts (i.e. this is NOT like HuffPo, more like casual Facebook comments by regular staff whose opinion the general public are not interested in)
Video has sharply decreased. The editorial policy and relaunch of the site have led to apolitical content marginalizing and forcing out current affairs, politics, human rights and burning social issues (for example: the most popular piece on the re-fashioned site was an interview with Andrey Piontkovskiy, a member of the Coordination Council of the Russian opposition. The interview gained 23 000 readers, an average result for the original site. This interview did not even make the front page of the current site as it contains no place for current affairs interviews)
The re-fashioned site has virtually no content about domestic and foreign US policy. Informing the Russian public about US politics is a key element in building Russian civil society and improving Russia-US relations. The re-fashioned site has no special section for content produced in the US.
Regarding broadcasting: no effort was made to find alternative methods for on-air broadcasting, despite the loss of MW having been apparent for a while. However internet radio on RL was already developed, and was the most obvious future for RL. The majority of RL listeners ‘tuned in’ to programs on-line, still others listen on SW when MW disappears (as we saw in St Petersburg after MW was lost). Since the arrival of Masha Gessen the amount of current affairs, human rights and political content in broadcasting has radically decreased. Repeats and archive materials dominate (a result of the mass firing of staff in the Moscow bureau who produced content in line with RL’s mission). RL now produces 34 hours of original content a week (as opposed to the original 76). News and current affairs has been shrunk to 3 hours on week days, 1 hour on weekends (the orginal amount was 12 hours on weekdays, 8 hours on weekends)
Over 12 hours per week of popular talk-shows have been shut down. These shows were also broadcast on video, and provided written content for the site including interviews with politicians, journalists, sociologists and cultural figures.
The new approach has seen the audience of RL decrease by two thirds. The reputation of RL among the original audience has been diminished. No new audience has been found.
2. How do you evaluate the sharp fall in the on-line RL audience?
Since the arrival of Masha Gessen the RL site audience has decreased three-fold. The lag behind the Echo Moskvy site, which Russian analysts compare to RL, has also increased three-fold. This could be explained by ‘transition problems’. However the transition period in 2009 resulted in a sharp increase in the audience.
Here are the ratings for August 2012, the last full month of the original team, and the ratings for Gessen’s new team:
August 2012: 6 529 964 (traditionally the least busy month)
November 2012: – 3 867 192
Other indicators have fallen in a similar fashion.
3. The number of mentions of RL content in other media has fallen sharply over the last two months. Do you see a connection between the new editorial policy and the fall in the amount of mentions?
Masha Gessen has publicly announced she will not focus on exclusive content based on news and current affairs. RL was particularly strong on analysis, with top experts appearing on the radio and site, whose quotes were then mentioned in other media. Gessen instead has regular journalists, whose opinions are not valued, commenting on soft topics, and on topics where they are not specialists. Their opinions are not mentioned on other media.
4. How do you evaluate the reduction in multimedia content, especially the refusal to broadcast live video of civic direct actions and opposition protests?
Video, and live video of protests especially, was one of the most popular elements of RL.
5. Do you think the decision to create content for other on-line media effective? Does it contain dangers and does it contradict the mission of RL? How will RL divert funds to this distribution?
One of Masha Gessen’s ideas is to distribute RL content to other Russian sites. If the RL content is politically sharp the Kremlin will immediatly block other Russian media from publishing RL content. Meanwhile the RL site, which is free from censorship, has become marginal and audience is falling.
Essentially RL will be spending budget funds to develop private media, not attracting any audience or traffic in return. Is this legal?
6. On what grounds does Masha Gessen claim that ‘in the last 12 years the audience of RL was falling’
Research in different audience segements shows the audience was stable. The MW audience was being replenished with an on-line audience.
7. Masha Gessen published a piece on the Snob web-site talking about conflicts inside RFE between American management and the Moscow bureau. Why was this ‘inside’ information made public?
Gessen’s piece in Snob reported on the poor relationship between American management and the Moscow bureau which, she claims, meant management had to fire the Moscow journalists. Her account was (a) not accurate and (b) a besmirching of RL’s corporate image. It is unprecedented for a manager to write about their own company in such a way on another media site. Gessen likewise publicly attacked previous RFE editorial policy, misquoted statistics and made numerous factual mistakes.
8. Masha Gessen wrote in her Snob piece that ‘only long-distance lorry drivers listen to more than an hour of continual radio a day’ and that ‘no radio make 15 hours of original content per day’. Where does she have the information concerning the ‘no longer than an hour of continuous radio per day’ line? Was the experience of, among others, BBC Radio 4 taken into account? Is she aware of the prognoses for on-line radio throughout the world?
Masha Gessen has no background in radio or broadcasting. Her background is in magazines which are of course under threat from on-line. The situation for radio is more nuanced, and for RL the impact of on-line is clearly positive.
7. Why was there no trial period/piloting for the new site and broadcasting before the launch of the new concept?
A media corporation such as RL would normally create pilots and a trial period for any major changes in broadcasitng and on-line concepts. A trial period and pilots would allow to keep the old audience while staff adapt to new formats.
The new staff who have arrived with Masha Gessen have no experience working with multimedia. The previous team had been producing multi-media content for several years, they were praised and imitated by all RFERL services. After two months of work Gessen’s new team have created a tiny amount of text-based articles for the site. No multimedia content has been produced. The previous professionals who are still prepared to return should be allowed to.
(another potential question: Has Masha Gessen provided a detailed vision and strategy for the future of RL inside the company, and the steps necessary to get there? Could we see the power-point presentations etc.? Break-down of week-by-week steps?)
Question regarding the firing of staff
1. If Masha Gessen has nothing to do with the cut-backs then why didn’t she give moral objection to the firing of two disabled staff and a single mother? Why didn’t she invite them back?
Questions regarding the new office for the Russian Service of RL in Moscow
1. There is no publicly available (on-line) information about the tender for the contract to construct the new Moscow office of RL. What was the procedure for awarding the contract? Was there a tender with other companies involved in similar work in Moscow?
2. Regarding the procedure for choosing the providers of technical equipment and furniture. Was a competitive tender put in place? How were these providers chosen and what was the process for choosing them? What were the additional costs for purchasing the furniture: in particular the travel costs for choosing the provider? In which countries was the choice made?
3. According to the Mr Korn’s original plans the Moscow bureau of RL was meant to move to the new office in the middle of November, or at the end of the year at the latest. Now the move has been delayed until January-February, while the rent for the old office has been specially extended to the first quarter of 2013. Why was there a delay? What are the extra costs for renting two offices in Moscow between January and March?
Regarding the key matter of RFERL’s mission, here is a quote from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking on March 2, 2011 at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington.
“We are engaged in an information war. You know, during the Cold War we did a great job in getting America’s message out. After the Berlin Wall fell, we said: ‘Okay, fine, enough of that. We’ve done it. And unfortunately we are paying a big price for it.” “Our private media cannot fill that gap. In fact, our private media, particularly cultural programming, often works at counter-purposes to what we truly are as Americans and what our values are.” “So we are in an information war, and we are losing that war. I’ll be very blunt in my assessment. Al-Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multilanguage television network. The Russians have opened up an English language network. We’ve seen it in a few countries, and it is quite instructive. We are cutting back. The BBC is cutting back.”
“Most people still get their news from TV and radio. So even though we’re pushing online, we can’t forget TV and radio. And so I would look very much toward your cooperation to try to figure out how we get back in the game on this.”