"U.S. International Broadcasting — Is Anybody Listening?
U.S. INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING: —IS ANYBODY LISTENING?— KEEPING THE U.S. CONNECTED
One of […] issues is the growing concern over the ability of
U.S. broadcasters to reach their desired audiences. Sometimes this
is due to crowded media markets, such as in the Middle East,
where our voice is one among many. Other times, our voice is silenced or suppressed, including in China, Iran, and Russia, which
use intimidation to prevent local affiliates from carrying U.S. programming or use sophisticated technologies to shut down satellites, jam radio transmissions or block Internet sites. Each of these issues requires its own response, but without a new Board in place providing appropriate direction and guidance, these difficulties will only grow more pronounced. This report seeks to expand upon
these issues for consideration by Congress and by the Board.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
• The Broadcasting Board of Governors sets the policies and provides
necessary oversight of U.S. broadcasting operations. The
average vacancy rate for a seat on Board is more than 460
days (one seat has been vacant for more than 4 years). The
Senate needs to confirm the current slate of nominees for the
Broadcasting Board of Governors to provide needed leadership
and guidance. Going forward, Presidents should move with dispatch
to fill vacancies and should prioritize nominees with substantial
international broadcasting experience. In the medium
term, Congress must decide whether it is time to consider another
management structure if Board staffing difficulties persist.
• Alhurra—the U.S. 24-hour Arabic television news channel—is
expensive, and with the exception of Iraq, little watched elsewhere
in this vital region. Alhurra’s budget of some $90 million
surpasses the combined budgets of Radio Free Asia ($37 million),
Radio/TV Marti ($30 million) and VOA’s Persian News
Network Television ($17 million). Given the crowded media environment of the Middle East, either greater resources must be devoted to marketing and promotion or additional programming changes must be enacted in pursuit of increasing the channel’s market share. Should these efforts fail to improve the overall viewership levels, policy makers will have to decide
if continuing Alhurra’s operations is worth the costs.
• The Chinese Government has issued only two work visas for
Voice of America Beijing-based correspondents since 2009 and,
for over a year, has blocked VOA from opening a bureau in
Shanghai. By contrast, China’s state-run media organization—
Xinhua News—has some 75 correspondents based in the
United States. Since 2007, the U.S. Government has issued
some 2,900 press visas to Chinese journalists and media personnel.
• Journalists in Russia are routinely abducted, tortured, and
murdered with virtual impunity. The number of Russian radio
stations carrying Radio Free Europe’s Russian service broadcasting
has declined precipitously from over 30 stations in
2001 to currently 5; VOA’s dropped from 85 in 2003 to just one
by 2009 as the Russian Government successfully silenced most
BBG broadcasts by simply refusing to renew Russian radio station
licenses unless U.S. programming was dropped. The State
Department should raise this issue at the highest levels in its
meetings and should monitor closely rising attempts to block
BBG Internet sites.
• In Asia, according to the human rights NGO Freedom House,
the six countries served by Radio Free Asia are experiencing
steadily dwindling levels of press freedom, with none currently
ranked higher than 132 out of 195 countries. RFA, set up in
1994 with the hope that the post-cold-war tide of democracy
and liberalization would soon sweep Asia, was authorized only
on a temporary basis. Congress should permanently authorize
Radio Free Asia to recognize the unfortunate reality of press
freedom in Asia, and put RFA on a legislative par with Radio
Free Europe, Cuba Broadcasting, and Middle East Broadcasting.
• The BBG’s Arabic-language Radio Sawa has an hourly format
of 45 minutes of music with 15 minutes of news. As a result,
Sawa was deemed heretical by many ‘‘news-only’’ advocates
within the BBG when it appeared in 2002, yet Sawa quickly
became popular with the ‘‘under 30’’ youth-bulge deemed critical
in that region, virtually none of whom had listened to
VOA’s Arabic radio programming. Over time though, as its format
has been copied by local stations, Sawa’s listenership has
declined by 25 percent. Greater funding for marketing or a
change in formats may be needed.
• While Radio Free Asia is tasked with reaching a population of
over 1 billion people, its marketing budget for fiscal year 2009
was less than $2,000. The Middle East Broadcasting Network,
which oversees Al Hurra TV and Radio Sawa, has seen its
marketing budget fluctuate wildly from a few thousand dollars
in 2005 and 2006 to $100,000 in 2007, back to $5,000 in 2008
to over $1 million in 2009. Such inconsistencies wreak havoc
with any long-term attempts to capture market share and
must be addressed.
• The Government of Iran continues to attempt to jam both
VOA’s Persian News Network TV (which uses multiple satellite
systems to prevent a total shutdown) and Radio Free Europe’s Persian-language ‘‘Radio Farda.’’ In February 2010, the Iranian Government arrested seven journalists who had merely
held job interviews with Farda. Efforts to ensure that our
programming gets through should remain a high priority.
• Critics note that some BBG entities have allowed individuals
opposed to U.S. policy to air their views without any rebuttal
or balanced context. While allowing such vitriol to go
uncontested is clearly poor journalism, such occurrences have
been the rare exception, not the norm. Nonetheless, in order
for the BBG to be credible to its audience and draw in not just
those who already agree with U.S. policy, its networks must be
permitted to present both sides of an argument.
• Congress should revisit the Smith-Mundt legislation, which
was passed originally in 1948 and later amended, which bans
U.S. Government broadcasting within the U.S. for fear the government would unduly influence its own citizens. Today, however,
Russia and China and other entities currently broadcast
in English in the United States. Additionally, recent Arabic speaking
immigrants to the United States are able to watch Al
Jazeera but prevented by Smith-Mundt from viewing Al Hurra.
These realities, coupled with the rise of the Internet, which enables
computer users in the U.S. to receive video and audio
streams of BBG broadcasts and readily access BBG Web sites,
demonstrate that aspects of the legislation are both anachronistic
and potentially harmful.
• As part of its FY 2011 budget submission, the BBG has proposed
closing its last U.S.-based short wave broadcasting facility,
located in Greenville, North Carolina. The Board estimates
a $3.2 million dollar savings as a result of this closure. While
there is no question that audience for short-wave is decreasing
in some countries, policymakers need to decide if shuttering
the only remaining SW facility on American soil makes strategic
sense. Additionally, while the U.S. has been jettisoning
its shortwave frequencies, cutting some 60 stations in the last
10 years, China has been doing the exact opposite, almost doubling
its number to 284 in the same period.