U.S. reduces radio news broadcasts to Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, China and other nations without free media

BBG Watch Exclusive News and Commentary

Radio Liberty to Belarus

Radio Liberty to Belarus

The United States is cutting or reducing radio news broadcasts to Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Iran and other nations without free media due to decreased funding for U.S. international broadcasting as a result of sequestration and, as some critics claim, also because of waste and mismanagement at the federal agency in charge of these broadcasts. Critics argue that many of these radio broadcasting cuts could be avoided if  officials who proposed them were better managers. Critics also say that reductions in radio broadcasts to Iran, Belarus, China and Afghanistan are particularly dangerous and misguided. They are calling it “unilateral disarmament,” “destruction of a national security asset,” and “public diplomacy disaster.”

The Voice of America (VOA) announced that cross-border VOA radio transmissions to Afghanistan, China, Iran and several other nations are being cut or reduced to achieve budget savings. Radio Liberty  reduced radio transmissions to Belarus, frequently described as “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

Both Radio Liberty and VOA are part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency run by a bipartisan, part-time board, which is often ignored by the staff despite recent efforts by some BBG members to reassert control over the bureaucracy. Program reductions are determined by the executives of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which is the agency’s administrative and technical arm.

Personnel costs account for about 80 percent of the BBG’s budget. Thanks to the insistence of BBG members–not IBB executives– no one got furloughed. According to some of our sources, the only way the IBB staff said the agency could get to the $37 million in savings was by cutting radio transmissions. But their choices for cuts were neither perfect nor wise.

IBB consumes the largest portion of BBG’s $720 million annual budget (FY 2013 Congressional Request) even though it does not produce any programs. Its bureaucratic power, budgets and numbers of positions have grown tremendously in recent years, while programs and programming positions have been cut. Even though IBB claims that these cuts are done in consultation with VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB – Radio/TV Marti), the broadcasting entities are often forced to accept them because IBB executives are in control of the agency and the transmission budget.

VOA Broadcasting Cuts

VOA Broadcasting Cuts

No one denies that radio listenership on shortwave (SW) has been declining in recent years, being replaced by the Internet, satellite TV, mobile devices and social media platforms where they are allowed and can be afforded. Cross-border medium wave (AM) transmissions are easier to receive at home and on car radios if signal strength is adequate.

New platforms, however, face problems in countries like China and Iran that block most Western news websites, including those of VOA and RFE/RL. Iran also interferes with VOA satellite television signals. As IBB strategists demand radio programming cuts, they also force broadcasting entities to refocus from serious journalism to less controversial programming that authoritarian leaders like President Putin in Russia would be willing to tolerate. None of these schemes have produced any significant increases in audiences since at least 2008, but the same IBB officials remain firmly in control of the agency.

For some audiences in countries ruled by repressive governments, radio remains the only safe and reliable method of receiving uncensored news in local languages. This is particularly true for economically disadvantaged groups and for human rights activists whose Internet access is monitored or restricted. These radio audiences often cannot be reliably measured in countries where people fear government reprisals, which allows IBB officials to claim that they don’t exist or are so small that they are insignificant.

Belarus is ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko who has suppressed the opposition and free media. Radio Liberty is one of the few remaining outside sources of uncensored news in the country. Its radio programs are delivered on shortwave (SW), medium wave (AM), and satellite. The Radio Liberty Belarusian Service also maintains a multimedia news website.

Radio Liberty's shortwave broadcasts to Belarus before March 31, 2013.

Radio Liberty's medium wave and shortwave broadcasts to Belarus before March 31, 2013.

Radio Liberty's shortwave Broadcasts to Belarus after March 31, 2013.

Radio Liberty's shortwave Broadcasts to Belarus after March 31, 2013.

There has been no official announcement  from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or the Broadcasting Board of Governors about the reductions in radio broadcasts to Belarus. But a report posted on Radio Liberty’s Belarusian website refers to four hours of daily radio broadcasting as of March 31, instead of the previous eight hours.

The report does not specifically acknowledge the cuts or explain them, but they have been noticed by website visitors from Belarus.

“The transmission time is cut in half! What does that mean?, one reader asked.

“For twenty years I wake up in the morning I go to bed at night with Radio Liberty, and now what?,” the same reader added.

“While we are all aware of the sequestration and its impact on the BBG budget, the lack of any official explanation from RFE/RL and the BBG about program cuts to Belarus is puzzling, considering that Belarus has a particularly odious regime that imprisons opposition leaders and suppresses free media,” one U.S. international broadcasting expert told BBG Watch. “The country is a museum to neo-Stalinism,” the expert added.

Listeners to Radio Liberty’s Belarusian broadcasts seem puzzled as well.

“Listening to the broadcast will be really uncomfortable,” wrote one reader. “It would have been better to have it from 9 pm to midnight. It is unfortunate that the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty is so significantly reducing broadcasting time.”

Another website visitor observed that Radio Liberty shortwave broadcasts are being reduced from year to year. “It is the only source of information about events in our country,” the reader added.

While there has been no official explanation for American taxpayers or audiences oversees, one agency official sent out an internal memo:

“We are doing this to achieve required savings under sequestration. The reductions will save about $5.3 million over the next six months. (It is not clear whether this figure covers all or just some BBG broadcasting entities, which in addition to RFE/RL also include the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.)

We’ve done everything we can to avoid furloughs under sequestration, but to do so, costs other than salaries have to be reduced. This will include some cross-border broadcasts on platforms where they have the least impact – either because audiences are small, or because people prefer to access our programs on other, more popular media, including FM radio, television, and the Internet.

Agency management made these decisions based on extensive internal consultations with broadcasters as well as by using current research data on media consumption and referring to the BBG’s strategic plan. They reflect our congressional mandate to rationalize distribution where possible—to spend our limited program delivery resources in the wisest manner. Examples include trimming shortwave for some middle-of-the-night programming when listenership is at its lowest, and reducing the number of simultaneous frequencies carrying the same programming. In countries where we have access to media that our audiences prefer – via agency-operated local FMs, thriving affiliate networks or significant satellite TV reach, cross-border service will be curtailed. In places where we are dropping shortwave entirely, audio content will be available via the Internet and/or on direct broadcasts via satellite and digital platforms that in key markets reach far more people. We therefore anticipate that these reductions will have minimal impact on audience numbers.

Many frequencies and language services will not be affected by the broadcast reductions. We will retain shortwave and medium wave broadcasts where they draw substantial audiences, and to closed countries where other signal delivery is difficult or impossible.”

Despite having a dictatorship, Belarus was not spared the cuts. From February of 2000 until March 31, 2013, the BBG’s International broadcasting Bureau (IBB) broadcast the daily eight hours of the RFE/RL’s Belarusian-language program on the medium wave (AM) 612 kHz frequency from a leased transmitter in Lithuania. The broadcast time on this medium wave will now be reduced to four hours daily.

Over 150 million people reside within the broadcasting radius in the European part of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. All car radios and over 90% of the portable and table-top receivers are equipped with the medium wave (AM) band. Very few car radios have the shortwave (SW) band.

The high-power medium wave (AM) transmitting equipment in Lithuania also could be used to compensate for the lost network of the VOA and RFE/RL’s local FM and AM affiliated stations in Russia, but IBB officials have repeatedly rejected such proposals.

BBG FY 2013 Budget Request

Broadcasting Board of Governors FY 2013 Budget Request

Many BBG broadcasters and outside critics blame repeated cuts in broadcasts for overseas audiences lacking free media on mismanagement and waste at the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which controls the largest portion of the BBG budget, 36.5% or $262.8 million. Broadcasters like RFE/RL or Voice of America are completely dependent on IBB bureaucrats for their radio and television transmissions. IBB officials are also in charge of the agency as most BBG members work only part time.

With their power and control over an enormous amount of money, they are able to force broadcasting entities to absorb budget cuts while protecting their own jobs and perks. As an example, top IBB executives gave themselves bonuses of up to $8,000 each in FY 2012 while proposing to cut broadcasts to China and Tibet. Congress stopped these truly incomprehensible broadcasting cuts and outraged members of the bipartisan BBG board voted to halt future bonuses. BBG members Susan McCue, Michael Meehan, and Victor Ashe have been particularly active in checking on the work of IBB executive staffers and demanding accountability, but the board is often kept in the dark or mislead by incomplete data and lack of intellectually honest analysis.

“These three BBG members deserve special praise for trying to prevent the ship from sinking; without them the agency would have already died,” one expert told BBG Watch. “But even they are overwhelmed by problems being created by IBB bureaucracy and incompetent managers almost on a daily basis,” he added.

IBB executives have gotten the agency and BBG members in trouble again and again — China, Tibet, and now Belarus. They are cutting cross-border radio transmissions to Iran, which deserves a separate commentary. Despite their frequent claims of success in implementing the agency’s strategic plan, they have not increased global audience for BBG programs since 2008 while receiving larger and larger budgets almost every year. During that period, they have eliminated numerous broadcasts and programming positions while expanding their own bureaucracy.

Some critics suspect that IBB officials may have specially selected Iran, China, Afghanistan and Belarus for cuts to embarrass BBG members and get even with them for canceling their bonuses and insisting that IBB should not be allowed this time to furlough journalists and other employees.

In OPM employee surveys, IBB executives have been voted year after year as the worst managers in the federal government. While the sequestration-imposed cuts are painful, the IBB is truly a bureaucracy run amok that cannot be trusted to make rational decisions in the interest of U.S. national security and American taxpayers.

BBG members, who have recently become much more active and engaged, having been mislead and embarrassed by its IBB staff on a number of critical issues, should dismantle the bureau and give control over its resources to BBG’s broadcasting entities.

Needless to say, IBB officials are pushing for more consolidation, not decentralization. They claim that consolidation (read: expansion of central bureaucracy) will save U.S. taxpayers’ money and increase efficiency, but judging by their record so far, the opposite is true. Broadcasting entities who care about their audiences know much better how to serve them and are far more committed to serving them than Washington-based bureaucrats. They are also able to do it at a much lower cost. The money should go directly to them.

It is a political and technical mistake to reduce U.S. radio programming beamed to Belarus on any broadcasting platform from any cross-border facility on any frequency or to reduce content distributed via Internet and on social media platforms. BBG members should ask IBB executives to explain their latest political miscalculation. And if it turns out to be true that IBB is also planning to eliminate cross-border radio transmissions to Iran, China, and Afghanistan, IBB officials will have to do a lot of explaining.

U.S. international broadcasting definitely needs more money from Congress, as it is this country’s most cost effective and peaceful national security asset. But the Broadcasting Board of Governors must first do something about IBB’s out of control bureaucracy. The best solution would be to abolish IBB and transfer the money to the entities that actually produce the programs. We are sure that if programers were in control of program delivery, the United States would not be issuing embarrassing announcements about cutting uncensored “soft power” news to countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, and China.

 

Voice of America Press Release

VOA Reducing Radio Frequencies

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Voice of America is reducing some of its radio transmissions this weekend and ending shortwave broadcasts to regions where audiences have alternative ways of receiving VOA news and information programs.

The transmission reductions allow VOA to comply with budget cuts required by sequestration and to avoid furloughs of staff members.

When the new broadcast schedule goes into effect on March 31st, cross-border shortwave and medium wave broadcasts to Albania, Georgia, Iran and Latin America will be curtailed, along with English language broadcasts to the Middle East and Afghanistan.

VOA will continue to provide audiences in these regions with up-to-date news and information through a host of other platforms, including radio and TV affiliate stations, direct-to-home satellite, web streaming, mobile sites and social media.

The new broadcast schedule calls for reductions in some  shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasts in Cantonese, Dari/Pashto, English to Africa, Khmer, Kurdish, Mandarin, Portuguese, Urdu and Vietnamese. Direct radio broadcasts to all of these regions will continue.

The transmission reductions are expected to have minimal impact on audience numbers since primary modes of delivery will remain.  Shortwave and medium wave broadcasts will continue to regions where they draw substantial audiences, and to countries where other signal delivery is difficult or impossible.

For more information contact Kyle King at the VOA Public Relations office in Washington at (202) 203-4959, or write kking@voanews.com.  For more information about VOA visit our Public Relations website at www.insidevoa.com, or the main VOA news site at www.voanews.com.

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