From 10.3% to 2.5% to O.2% in Just One Year — Voice of America Audience in Russia Obliterated by a Decision of U.S. Government Officials
FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, March 10, 2009, San Francisco — According to an independent study commissioned by a government agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasts, the total annual audience reach in Russia for the Voice of America (VOA) Russian-language radio, TV, and Internet dropped from 10.3 percent in 2007 to 2.5% in 2008. It is believed to be the greatest audience loss in the history of international broadcasting in a one year period for a major media outlet which maintains its market presence.
But even the low figure of 2.5% does not reflect the whole severity of the decline since it represents VOA audience for the whole of 2008 and not VOA’s current reach in Russia. FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, estimates that the annual reach for VOA in Russia is now well below 1 percent.
According to FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency in charge of VOA, is to blame for causing a 98% loss of audience in just one year. Lipien said that BBG’s actions have caused hundreds of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars to be wasted at a time when audiences in Russia are faced with increased media censorship and need access to objective news and opinions from the United States.
With the elimination by the BBG of on-air VOA radio and TV for Russia in the second half of last year, FreeMediaOnline.org estimates the total audience since August/September 2008 to be not much higher than 0.2 percent. InterMedia — the firm which conducted the survey — reported 0.2% as past year’s reach of VOA Russian Service website. InterMedia also reported that only a very small percentage of former VOA Russian radio listeners and TV viewers are visiting VOA website.
From the InterMedia market media report: “International Broadcasting in Russia,” December 2008:
VOA Russian [Service] stopped airing radio and TV programs by September 2008 (video and audio segments are still aired by a small number of local stations); Internet is Golos Ameriki’s [VOA Russian Service] principal focus for reaching audiences in Russia. This caused a drop in total annual reach for Golos Ameriki from 10.3 percent in 2007 to 2.5 percent in 2008. Past-year reach for VOA’s golosameriki.us Internet site was 0.2 percent.[Emphasis added by FreeMediaOnline.org.] Other international broadcasters were able to maintain their reach, with Radio Svoboda [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)] reaching 1.0 percent of Russians weekly and 3.2 percent annually; BBC reaching 0.8 percent weekly and 3.3 percent annually; and DW [the German broadcaster] reaching 0.7 percent weekly and 2.0 annually. As with Golos Ameriki, [VOA Russian Service] only a very small portion of this reach can currently be attributed to the websites.
In late July 2008, just twelve days before the Russian army invaded parts of Georgia in a territorial dispute, the BBG took all VOA Russian-language radio programs off the air and later canceled VOA Russian-language TV programs. These decisions were made without any public announcements and implemented despite protests from members of Congress, VOA journalists, and human rights organizations.
The subsequent tremendous drop in audience size (98% in just one year — an unprecedented loss of audience for an existing media service in the history of international broadcasting) can be attributed almost entirely to decisions made by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a small group of presidentially-appointed officials representing both major political parties and their executive staff who manage U.S.-funded broadcasts for overseas audiences. Critics of the BBG’s actions argue that these decisions have deprived VOA journalists of their ability to counter censorship in Russia by making it impossible for VOA to use multiple program delivery platforms and media products at a critical time.
VOA and other Western international broadcasters have experienced a steady loss of audience reach in Russia over a number of years as a result of the Kremlin’s restrictive media policies. But according to Ted Lipien, president of FreeMediaOnline.org, the sudden multifold drop in 2008 was a direct result of actions taken by U.S. government officials and cannot be attributed to any new restrictions by the Russian authorities. Also confirming that the BBG is to blame for the sudden loss of VOA audience in Russia was an observation in the InterMedia report that “other international broadcasters were able to maintain their reach” last year.
Former BBG chairman, James K. Glassman — known for his neoconservative views, support for privatization of U.S. international broadcasting assets, and great enthusiasm for the use of Internet — personally rejected urgent requests from VOA journalists who pleaded with him last August to allow them to resume radio broadcasts to Russia and the war zone in Georgia.
BBG officials justified their actions by claiming that VOA would be in a better position to overcome Russian government media censorship if it concentrated its programming efforts exclusively on the Internet. FreeMediaOnline.org and others repeatedly warned the BBG that this strategy was extremely naive and would reward Mr. Putin’s censorship of independent media. The same critics predicted a drastic drop in audience size for VOA if the BBG implemented its plan. They also pointed out that the BBG plan called for spending money on needless projects benefiting private Internet contractors while the Russian Service would be deprived of substantive Internet content previously generated from radio and TV programs. Read FreeMediaOnline.org report “Model Interactive Website Touted As Replacement for Voice of America Radio to Russia Attracts No Comments from Users”
This is how in an internal memo “VOA Russian Options Paper,” written in 2008, government bureaucrats inspired by the BBG’s marketing strategies, boasted about their ability to substantially increase VOA audience size in Russia using only the Internet:
Based on the situation in Georgia and the separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, VOA has investigated options to reach audiences in Russia and neighboring countries. While options exists for reaching audiences through traditional broadcast methods — AM/FM, shortwave, and television — data indicate the growing market for reaching our target audience is in new media.
FreeMediaOnline.org sent a critique of the Internet-only strategy to the BBG, but a former BBG member, Edward E. Kaufman, who is now a Democratic Senator from Delaware, reportedly blocked an effort by another Board member to hold a vote on resuming VOA radio broadcasts to Russia. Kaufman, another Board member Jeff Hirschberg, and the BBG executive director Jeffrey Trimble are believed to have initiated the move to deprive VOA of radio and TV presence in Russia in order to benefit Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Jeff Hirschberg and Jeffrey Trimble, who was formerly acting president of RFE/RL, have personal links with RFE/RL managers in Moscow and Prague, while Senator Kaufman may have supported the move because RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware. His former boss, Vice President Biden, was also known to be a strong supporter of the private broadcaster during and after the Cold War. Trimble and most BBG members ignored warnings that by establishing a large presence in Russia after the Cold War, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has exposed its reporters, who are Russian citizens, to intimidation and blackmail by the Russian secret police. This was not seen as a problem immediately after the end of the Cold War but after Mr. Putin’s rise to power (he is a former KGB officer) is viewed as a serious threat to RFE/RL’s journalistic independence. Read FreeMediaOnline.org report Radio Liberty Russian managers put a positive spin on Putin’s comments about the murder of a pro-democracy journalist
VOA’s audience reach in Russia had been previously reduced over time due to the Russian secret police interference with the affiliate stations using VOA programs but never suffered a similar one-time loss, not even from major increases of jamming of shortwave radio signals during the Cold War. FreeMediaOnline.org had warned that eliminating VOA radio and TV in Russia would be harmful to media freedom and would send a wrong signal to the Kremlin and human rights activists.
While all major Western international broadcasters have been increasing their Internet presence, none followed the BBG’s course on relying exclusively on the Internet in Russia and dropping both radio and TV. Ted Lipien said that a proper response to the growing media censorship in Russia should have been an expansion of the number of delivery platforms rather than their reduction to a single one. Before leaving public service, he was an acting associate director of the Voice of America. To compensate for restrictions and reductions in VOA output, FreeMediaOnline.org has launched a volunteer-run GovoritAmerica.us website, which compiles Russian-language news and analysis about the United States and U.S.-Russian relations.
Journalists working in the VOA Russian Service also don’t see BBG’s actions as designed to help them but rather as being part of the same strategy that resulted in the dismantling and eventual total elimination of VOA Arabic-language programs as well VOA broadcasts in other languages. After they had created Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television, BBG members made sure that VOA no longer had any Arabic-language programs. Some VOA Russian Service journalists suspect that the BBG executive staff purposely mislead the Board about the benefits of the Internet-only option in order to justify later a complete elimination of VOA broadcasts to Russia citing low audience ratings, which they knew would result from their actions.
One of many nonprofit foreign policy organizations, which believes the BBG has seriously mismanaged U.S. international broadcasting, is the highly-respected Public Diplomacy Council. The organization, which 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 BBG 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. Read FreeMediaOnline.org report: Public Diplomacy Experts Urge Obama to Stop the Broadcasting Board of Governors from Silencing the Voice of America
Many VOA journalists, NGO media freedom activists, and former U.S. diplomats believe that the BBG, dominated by an alliance of Republican neoconservatives and Democrats who joined forces in formulating and supporting ill-conceived outreach programs vis-a-vis the Muslim world such as Alhurra and Radio Sawa, is determined to continue expanding privatization of U.S. broadcasting resources. The latest push, which affected Russia and Ukraine and threatened Georgia, came between July and December, in the waning months of the Bush Administration, and may have been purposely orchestrated and timed to present the Obama Administration with a fait accompli.
Not satisfied with killing VOA radio in Russia, on December 31, 2008, the BBG terminated VOA radio programs to Ukraine. This action was taken just hours before Russia stopped the flow of natural gas supplies through Ukraine when that country was on the verge of a major economic and political crisis. The Ukrainian crisis has since then gotten much worse and now seriously threatens democratic gains and pro-Western foreign policy of the government in Kiev.
Critics have been warning for years that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is outsourcing vital journalistic and public diplomacy functions to private entities and contractors who — as a direct result of BBG’s marketing policies — are unable and unwilling to reflect American opinions and values and lack basic journalistic skills. (BBG-created private broadcaster Alhurra Television for the Middle East aired comments by Holocaust deniers and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty gave extensive airtime to extremist Russian politicians known for their racist views.) A study by researchers for the University of Southern California, who conducted a review of Alhurra broadcasts, concluded that “The quality of Alhurra’s journalism is substandard on several levels.“
Critics also accuse the BBG of ignoring such problems with these private broadcasters and of deliberately trying to dismantle the Voice of America, which operates under strict U.S. government fiscal controls and enjoys journalistic independence under a Congressional Charter. The Charter requires VOA to adhere to high journalistic standards and to accurately and objectively represent a broad spectrum of American views. According to critics, BBG officials prefer to steer money to private broadcasters, such as Alhurra and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, because these stations can be more easily controlled. They can also be used to benefit their friends and supporters with high-paying positions and private contracts.
According to these critics, the BBG executive staff knew from previous market research that VOA’s annual reach on the Internet for its Russian-language programs in Russia was well below one percent. (Weekly reach for VOA Russian website is far lower: 0.03%.) Despite of this data, BBG officials made widely exaggerated predictions and ignored obvious warnings that the Russian security services are fully capable of blocking and manipulating the Internet. RFE/RL was not ordered by the BBG to drop its shortwave radio broadcasts and managed to hold on to its radio audience, as did the BBC and Deutsche Welle Russian-language services — another proof that the sudden 98% drop in VOA’s reach in Russia was orchestrated by the BBG and its executive staff.
Ted Lipien of FreeMediaOnline.org said that the actions of BBG officials that have obliterated VOA audience in Russia not only harm media freedom but represent a monumental waste of U.S. taxpayers’ money. “In just one year, these BBG officials and their staff have completely wasted 98% of a VOA broadcasting service budget, making a free gift of hundreds of thousands of U.S. tax dollars to Mr. Putin and other enemies of democracy and free media in Russia,” Lipien said. Even if the BBG managed to increase VOA Russian-language website’s reach by 100% each year for the next few years, — a highly unlikely prospect — it would take about a decade to go from 0.2 percent to the 2007/2008 level registered before the BBG’s single program delivery platform strategy was put into place.
As many critics have feared, there is also evidence that the BBG’s marketing policies may have started a process of promoting censorship and self-censorship at the Voice of America, which would be a violation of the VOA Charter and U.S. law. In an apparent attempt to increase ratings similar to what seemed to have encouraged airing of statements by Holocaust deniers on Alhurra and giving airtime to racist politicians on RFE/RL broadcasts, VOA Russian Service journalists were reportedly confronted with the BBG-commissioned market research analysis and told to avoid topics that are “confrontational” to the Russian audience. They were also reportedly “berated” for their “hostile” and “in your face” blogging and urged not to express their opinions in blogs.
“They want VOA’s Russian Service toothless,” was the conclusion of one VOA journalist who remains defiant but is afraid that the BBG will succeed in destroying VOA Russian-language programs as they did earlier with VOA Arabic broadcasts and many other VOA vernacular and English services. “That is the only way to characterize their demands,” this VOA Russian Service journalist wrote, “because most of our materials will not be liked by [the] Kremlin and its agents (how do we know that [market research] monitors are not Kremlin’s loyal servers?). Welcome to the new era at VOA’ Russian Service!”
The VOA journalist did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. VOA employees have no confidence in the BBG’s ability to manage international broadcasting. In a recent government-wide survey, they rated their employer as one of the very worst among U.S. government agencies. Read FreeMediaOnline.org report Broadcasting Board of Governors Rated Worst Than Ever By Its Employees and As One of The Worst Federal Agencies
More comments from a VOA Russian Service journalist:
I am reading the program review materials [annual evaluation of a VOA program] now and can’t help laughing at some things. For instance, it states that “given the unfavorable media climate in Russia today, characterized by increasingly strict government control, VOA Russian has embarked on a project to develop a multi-media, interactive web site that will allow the Service to circumvent the problem of government pressures which have led to the loss of most of its affiliates.”
Translation: VOA and IBB [IBB — the International Broadcasting Bureau] is a technical arm of the BBG] closed Russian radio and TV programs and put all eggs in one basket at a time when Kremlin is following China’s steps to establish full control of Internet.
All VOA’s independent evaluators “related concerns about ongoing difficulties associates with the functionality of video files (on our site). One suggested that incompatibility between site formats and available local technologies ( in Russia and other former Soviet states) might exacerbate this problem.”
Translation: VOA management is clueless about media infrastructure in countries other then the U.S. and wastes money, resources and talent without achieving the goals of U.S. international broadcasting.