BBC Expands Both Internet and Radio Coverage in Russia As Voice of America Retreats
FreeMediaOnline.org and Free Media Online Blog October 9, 2008, San Francisco — A little over two months after the Voice of America (VOA), the official U.S. international broadcaster, had eliminated its radio programs to Russia to focus resources on its Russian-language website, the BBC Russian Service has announced an ambitious plan aimed at enhancing its Internet presence and expanding radio programming, taking both actions at the same time. In July, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body which manages the Voice of America, had forced VOA Russian Service journalists to abandon all radio broadcasts, both on-air and even online. It also mandated cuts in regularly scheduled VOA television programs and told VOA broadcasters to pursue a no-radio, Internet-only strategy for reaching audiences in Russia.
Facing a similar set of challenges in the Russian media market brought on by the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent journalists, the BBC World Service took a different approach and has now announced a new multiplatform and multimedia strategy for Russia, which includes the expansion of both Internet and radio programming, as well as increasing the production of video for use on the Web. According to a BBC press release, resources will be redirected to enhance a 24/7 news coverage on its Russian-language website. At the same time, the BBC World Service announced that the flagship morning weekday news and current affairs Russian-language radio program, Utro na BBC, will be increased by half an hour, to three-and-a-half hours each day. The afternoon weekday drive time news and current affairs radio program, Vecher na BBC, will be increased, by one hour, to four hours each day.
As the political appointees at the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors contemplated ending VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, independent experts warned them that expanding Internet programming not only does not require the elimination of radio and TV production but heavily depends on both to provide content needed to attract more Web users. Ignoring such advice, the BBG took VOA Russian-language radio programs off the air just 12 days before Russian troops invaded Georgia and so far has rejected pleas from Congressmen, journalists and NGOs to resume them. The VOA Russian Service broadcasters in Washington, who until recently were producing several hours of radio and television programming daily, are now underemployed but still prevented by the BBG from producing regularly scheduled radio programs even for those who would like to listen to them online.
FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, reported that bureaucratic politics are playing a major role in the U.S. broadcasting board’s decisions on Russia and may explain why VOA is forced to pursue a no-radio, Internet-only strategy when most experts agree that the multiplatform and multimedia approach adopted by the BBC is far more prudent and more effective. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, several BBG members as well as the BBG executive director Jeff Trimble prefer to steer money to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a semi-private radio station, which is also managed and funded by the BBG and broadcasts from Prague and Moscow.
These Washington officials are believed to want to secure RFE/RL’s position as the only radio voice in Russia funded by the American taxpayers. Their actions appear designed to achieve this goal even though, unlike VOA, RFE/RL does not specialize in explaining U.S. foreign policy and American culture, and its ability to operate independently within close reach of Mr. Putin’s secret police has come under question. FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien has called on the BBG to offer RFE/RL journalists in Russia greater protection from the Russian security services and to allow Voice of America to resume its role as the Washington-based broadcaster offering authoritative U.S. news and analysis to on-air and online radio listeners in Russia.
FreeMediaOnline.org sources report that a BBG member, Ted Kaufman, a former chief of staff to Senator Joe Biden, has a special interest in RFE/RL since the station is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. Biden’s Senate staff was said to have advised the BBG officials on how to take VOA Russian radio off the air despite strong opposition to this move among many members of Congress. The BBG also wanted to eliminate VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine. It was forced to suspend its decision only after strong pressure from Congress, Georgian-American and Ukrainian-American groups. To avoid such protests, the BBG staff took steps to terminate VOA Russian radio broadcasts without making any public announcements. They did not know at the time that Russian troops would soon enter Georgia, but even afterwards they continued to resist resuming programs to Russia.
Conservative radio talk show host Blanquita Cullum, a Republican BBG member, has consistently opposed these radio cuts, but she has been outvoted each time by her Democratic and Republican colleagues. BBG’s most recent chairman, James K. Glassman, a Republican appointed by President Bush, had allied himself with Ted Kaufman and another Democratic BBG member, Jeff Hirschberg, who was a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. Kaufman, Hirschberg, and Glassman, who is now the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, have been the strongest opponents of resuming VOA radio broadcasts to Russia.
BBC reinforces its Russian online output
BBC World Service has announced changes which will further reinforce its Russian-language output.
The main thrust of the reprioritised investment is placed on strengthening the website, bbcrussian.com, which has become the key method for delivery of all BBC content in Russian.
The website is having a significant impact in Russia where it is easier to access than the BBC radio services, and where demand for online news is growing and becoming increasingly sophisticated.
In August 2008, at the height of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, the number of unique users of the website increased dramatically to nearly three million, and many of these new users have remained with the site in September.
The audience is also accessing other platforms online: in August 2008, traffic to online audio content doubled while demand for video jumped six-fold to nearly 2,300,000 views.
Use of news from BBC Russian via wireless handheld devices also more than doubled.
Use of forums and interactive traffic has also grown and during the recent conflict was at record levels.
Head of BBC Russian, Sarah Gibson, explains that the BBC wanted to improve its Russian-language offer to serve audiences whose media consumption habits are changing rapidly.
She says: “Our aim is to deliver a fresher, more relevant service for our audiences in Russia and the wider post-Soviet market – a trusted, high quality website with the kinds of features the audience expects, and news and current affairs programmes at key times of day, available online as well as through more traditional radio platforms.
“It’s clear that audiences like our multiplatform offer more and more, and our challenge now is to improve this offer and to give audiences more formats that they enjoy and engage with.
“That is why we are focusing resources where they will have most impact.”
Resources are being focused to enable the BBC to improve its rolling 24/7 news offer on bbcrussian.com.
The BBC will also increase the number of high-quality video reports, underpinned with original journalism from Russia. These, too, will be updated 24/7.
The BBC is also strengthening resources for bbcrussian.com during the morning peak periods and is increasing the resources for interactivity round the clock.
Reprioritisation also means boosting the Learn English section of bbcrussian.com – a tool which helps millions of Russian-speakers to master English in a simple and engaging manner.
The BBC Russian radio also changes, with re-focusing of resources on peak listening times and with more investment in flagship news and current affairs programmes.
Key daily radio programmes on short and medium wave will be expanded to make up a simpler schedule tailored for peak morning and evening drive-time audiences.
The flagship morning weekday news and current affairs programme, Utro na BBC, will be increased by half an hour, to three-and-a-half hours each day.
The afternoon weekday drive time news and current affairs sequence, Vecher na BBC – which includes the hour-long BBSeva hosted by Seva Novgorodsev – will be increased, by one hour, to four hours each day.
New weekend editions of Vecher na BBC will be launched, on both Saturday and Sunday, to take the place of current short updates.
There will be changes elsewhere in the radio schedule to fund these improvements.
The production of some short news bulletins, which were designed for Russian FM partners, will cease as the BBC no longer has these agreements.
Longer format feature programming will cease; their themes and issues will be incorporated into mainstream news and current affairs content.
The reprioritisation also enables the BBC to develop extra newsgathering resources in Russia, resulting in increased reporting and analysis of Russian affairs.
The BBC will also increase the current affairs reporting of British cultural and social affairs, as well as reporting on the former Soviet Union, for all programmes and platforms.
Sarah Gibson sums up: “We believe that a fuller multimedia news offer will strengthen the impact of BBC Russian and that, as a result of these changes, BBC Russian will become the most trusted and influential international news provider in Russia, serving audiences in the global Russian-speaking community, across borders and platforms.”
BBC World Service Publicity