Congress to Broadcasting Agency: Is Anyone Listening to Us? by Helle Dale

U.S. international broadcasting strategy again landed under congressional scrutiny in Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, a Heritage Foundation scholar Helle Dale reported.

“Representative Brad Sherman (D–CA) wanted to know why the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) ignored the congressional mandate to keep broadcasting to Pakistan in several local languages. In spite of a specific $1.5 million appropriation for broadcasting to Pakistan, everything has been cut except programming in Urdu. “You would not dream of broadcasting to Los Angeles in only one language,” said Sherman.”

BBG Watch Commentary

Those who follow developments in U.S. international broadcasting know that most of these decisions are not made by members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), of which there are currently only five, but mainly by the executive staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and its director Richard Lobo.

With the Interim Presiding Governors Michael Lynton failing to attend BBG meetings since January, the remaining BBG members have been working hard on plans to reform the IBB bureaucracy by making it accountable to the board, the Congress and American taxpayers. They have been distracted, however, by a major management crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which initially had produced no response from the IBB senior staff and was allowed to get out of control until these BBG members intervened.

Helle Dale is right that the IBB bureaucracy is essentially ignoring Congress. The IBB bureaucracy is also trying hard to ignore and undermine BBG members: Victor Ashe, Susan McCue, Michael Meehan and Tara Sonenshine (Secretary Kerry’s representative). According to our sources, these presidential appointees are extremely frustrated with being kept in the dark, misinformed or ignored by IBB bureaucrats.

Whether the board will be able to bring in its own executive who would clean house and reform at least the federal part of the agency remains to be seen. For now, Ashe, McCue, Meehan and Sonenshine seem to be making some progress at RFE/RL thanks to Kevin Klose whom they had put in charge in January. This is a good model, for in our view surrogate broadcasters should retain as much independence as possible and report directly to the board rather than through a bureaucratic layer as they do now with disastrous effects for themselves and for U.S. international broadcasting (USIB). The key to reforming USIB is de-bureaucratization and de-centralization. The IBB senior staff is pushing for more centralization and more bureaucracy.

Thanks to the intervention of BBG members and their decision to hire Kevin Klose, two senior RFE/RL managers have already left and more personnel and programming changes are expected. It will be interesting to see whether BBG members can accomplish similar reforms at the IBB.

Several sources told us that Director Lobo and his team of senior executives are making it difficult to initiate the process of hiring a highly respected former Congressional staffer and U.S. international broadcasting expert who might become the agency’s CEO.

Director Lobo could have been in effect the agency’s CEO had he been willing to do this job. He is a presidential appointee and BBG members wanted him to show leadership. But he turned out to be an ineffective leader who kept the discredited management team, one of the very worst in the federal government. This made BBG members desperate for finding another executive who could reform the agency and report directly to them, sources told BBG Watch.

A composite map of the world at night produced by NASA shows the vast areas of the globe—mainly Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—where there is no power grid to light up cities at night. Many of those areas, where reliance on Internet or television is impossible, are precisely the beneficiaries of U.S. international broadcasting. Let us not lose sight of that fact.

“A composite map of the world at night produced by NASA shows the vast areas of the globe—mainly Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—where there is no power grid to light up cities at night. Many of those areas, where reliance on Internet or television is impossible, are precisely the beneficiaries of U.S. international broadcasting. Let us not lose sight of that fact,” Helle Dale wrote. She is the Heritage Foundations Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy studies.

READ: “Congress to Broadcasting Agency: Is Anyone Listening to Us?“, Helle Dale, The Foundry, April 18, 2013.

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