Public Diplomacy Experts Urge Obama to Stop the Broadcasting Board of Governors from Silencing the Voice of America

Share: and Free Media Online Blog  November 19, 2008, San Francisco — The Public Diplomacy Council, a nonprofit organization that includes former diplomats, academics, and other foreign policy experts, has called on President-elect Obama and Congress to take urgent action in reforming publicly-funded U.S. international broadcasting. The Council blames the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG),  whose members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate to manage U.S. international broadcasting, for ignoring strategically important target areas such as Russia, the Balkans, India, and the Western Hemisphere.

The Council noted that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “has taken special aim at the Voice of America” by abolishing the VOA Arabic Service and reducing its broadcasts in English to the Middle East and other regions.  The Council also criticized the BBG’s decision to terminate all VOA radio broadcasts in Russian shortly before Russia’s military attack on Georgia last summer. reported that one of the BBG members who had voted for cutting VOA radio to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine was Ted Kaufman, a former chief of staff to Senator Joe Biden.

The Public Diplomacy Council’s recommended steps for a new administration include:

  • An immediate restoration of all radio services reduced at the Voice of America in FY 08.  On July 26, 2008, twelve days before Russia invaded Georgia, the BBG silenced VOA Russian radio, and then ignored subsequent appeals to restore it.  On September 30, the Board abolished VOA radio services in Serbian, Bosnian, and Macedonian and in the Hindi service to India, provisionally retaining Ukrainian and Georgian.  This action directly contravened Congressional passage last December of an FY 08 appropriation prohibiting all cuts.  The impact: loss of nine million listeners on the eve of a landmark U.S. presidential election.
  •   A fundamental restructuring.  The Broadcasting Board of Governors should be replaced by a new nonpartisan oversight commission that would assume more of an advisory role, leaving daily management in the hands of a commission-appointed professional CEO, the VOA director, and the presidents of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcast Networks (Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV), and Radio-TV Marti to Cuba.  Through direct and public reporting on a regular basis, the commission should be accountable to the legislative and executive branches of the federal government for operations of all these networks, including program content.
  • A long range commitment to consolidation and integration of the networks.  The CEO of international broadcasting should immediately formulate a new strategic plan, 2010-2014, that would include a series of target dates for the consolidation of all five broadcast entities into a single international network.  The goal: cost savings aimed at making U.S. global broadcasting unmatched on the airwaves and in cyberspace.

In implementing the latest round of radio program cuts last summer, the BBG staff led by its executive director Jeff Trimble and most BBG members, both Republicans and Democrats, ignored specific directives from Congress to refrain from reducing VOA radio broadcasts to Russia and other media-at-risk countries. In response to widespread criticism that followed, including articles on the website, the BBG suspended its earlier decision to terminate VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine, but the BBG staff continued to resist calls to restore VOA radio broadcasts to Russia. Only recently did the BBG  relent by allowing VOA Russian service to start producing a half-hour radio program for the web five days a week. The program is also rebroadcast on an AM transmitter in Moscow, which is still available despite the Russian government’s crackdown on private FM stations which were rebroadcasting VOA Western radio programs.

The BBG staff’s policy of marginalizing VOA radio programming to Russia is still reflected in how the now restored but still significantly shortened radio program can be accessed on the Internet. There is no direct audio link to it on the VOA Russian Service Home Page. Web users can only find the radio program by navigating through the site.  Also, until earlier this week, the link was not being updated and continued to provide audio from a program aired well before the U.S. presidential elections.

In addition to reports on Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse in line with the BBG’s emphasis on increasing audience reach through entertainment programming, the newly restored VOA radio program “Panorama” does offer on some days more in-depth news analysis and a greater range of American opinions in a single broadcast than video clips and short articles which the BBG staff wanted the VOA Russian web site to feature. More recently, the VOA Russian Service has increased the number of longer reports and interviews on political topics, although the overall program content is still not what it was before the BBG-imposed cuts last summer. VOA did not restore its previous hour-long radio call-in program that dealt with political issues in Russia and was popular with independent journalists and human rights activists.