BBG's Internet Only Strategy Loses Audience and Fails in Russia
All Americans, including members of Congress, should watch this disturbing but highly informative video. It shows a group of remarkable journalists from the Voice of America Mandarin and Cantonese radio, TV, and Internet services directing pointed questions to VOA Director Dan Austin and making persuasive arguments against the BBG decision to end all on-the-air radio news broadcasting in their languages to China.
Journalists from Voice of America Question Decision to Stop VOA Mandarin and Cantonese Radio Broadcasts to China
FreeMediaOnline.orgPart Three: BBG’s Internet Only Strategy Loses Audience and Fails in Russia — Read Part One: No Apology for Failure — Read Part Two: Special Report: Sound of Hope Plans to Increase Shortwave Radio to China while Voice of America Retreats
Inside-the-Beltway parochialism and arrogance toward the needs of their audience have continued to define the management style of BBG and VOA executives. The agency’s rank-and-file employees — including among others the staff of the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) — know it all too well. In government-wide employee surveys, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has been consistently rated as one of the worst-managed among all federal agencies. Yet the same BBG executives keep their jobs year after year. They now advise new BBG members, selected by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate, on how to best manage U.S. international broadcasting. Deprived of good outside expert advice in a very complex and specialized field of international broadcasting and public diplomacy, the new BBG members rely on the same group of BBG managers. Inside sources have told Free Media Online that even the new Republican members of the BBG went along with the staff’s recommendations to cut VOA radio broadcasts to China.
What members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers should know and be concerned about is that the very same BBG executives who have failed to protect the Voice of America websites, not once but twice from being hacked and shut down for hours and days, are now proposing to eliminate completely all on-the-air VOA radio broadcasts to China and to reduce Radio Free Asia shortwave radio programs as well. Nearly three years ago, at the height of Mr. Putin’s attack on independent media, they had ignored warnings from members of Congress and human rights activists and terminated all on-the-air VOA radio broadcasts to Russia. It happened just 12 days before the Russian military staged an attack on the territory of the Republic of Georgia. The same officials had also proposed earlier to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet. Fortunately in this case, the Congress stepped in to save these critical programs after hearing from Tibetan human rights activists and observing sit-in protests by Buddhist monks on Capital Hill.
The results of the BBG radio pullback in Russia have been disastrous on many levels, including establishing a bad anti-human rights precedent, diminished audience reach, and diminished impact. In October 2007, VOA’s weekly reach in Russia was 1.7 percent, both through radio and TV, but mostly through radio. RFE/RL’s weekly reach stood at that time 0.9 percent. What did BBG bureaucrats do? They got together with some of the former members of the BBG, confused enough of the other former members, and denied radio program delivery to a U.S. broadcaster who had a larger radio audience in Russia.
Even after Russian troops entered the territory of the Republic of Georgia 12 days later, BBG executives kept rejecting urgent requests from VOA journalists to allow them to resume radio broadcasts to Russia and the war zone in Georgia. In fact, they also planned to end VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia, but the war put these plans on a temporary hold.
Their reaction then, as it has been as now after the Iranian cyber attack, is very telling about what these bureaucrats care more about: their audience or their bureaucratic games. Only after Free Media Online and other free media advocates had exposed their manipulations in Russia, one former Republican BBG member Blanquita Cullum eventually managed to persuade enough of her colleagues to allow the VOA Russian Service to resume a limited 30-minute radio news broadcast Monday through Friday. This drastically shortened VOA broadcast to Russia still generates far much larger audience than the Internet. RFE/RL managed to hold on to its audience in Russia through radio despite Mr. Putin’s relentless attacks on independent and foreign media.
But overall, U.S. international broadcasting audience reach in Russia has declined significantly after July 2008. This happened not because of Mr. Putin, who had already done his damage and did not have to do more, but because of what a group of entrenched BBG executives decided to do to make the Voice of America less effective in Russia. Now they want to do the same thing to the Voice of America in China.
Members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers may be wondering why a group of bureaucrats within the BBG and some of its members would want to make U.S. international broadcasting as a whole less robust in countries like Russia and China and less threatening to the local regimes. The answer is not easily apparent, but it is well known to those who have worked at the BBG and know the organization from within.
Surrogate broadcasters, who had generally performed much better than the Voice of America during the Cold War, in some cases are not doing as well now in the Middle East and elsewhere, where the Cold War surrogate broadcasting model was not appropriate to begin with or is no longer appropriate. They are, however, still needed in some countries and do extremely well in some of them. But instead of supporting both surrogate and VOA broadcasting — since each has a slightly different mission — through efficient management, or even better by reforming the entire bureaucracy and combining some of these services to save taxpayers’ money — these clever bureaucrats found an easy way to protect the jobs of their friends, associates, and private contractors. Making the Voice of America less effective as a radio broadcaster protects the future of some of the surrogate radios, even if it make no fiscal sense and the overall audience reach and impact are sacrificed in the process.
What happened to VOA audience reach in Russia as a result of the BBG decisions that are now being proposed for China? It declined by over 80 percent, just as Free Media Online had warned in 2008.
The dramatic drop in audience reach and effectiveness can be seen and calculated using the BBG’s own sponsored research. While the BBG audience data from countries ruled by authoritarian regimes is not reliable, for the purposes of this analysis only, it shows an unmistakable trend. Here is how percentage drops are calculated from the BBG data. VOA’s audience reach in Russia in October 2007 was 1.7%. According to the BBG’s latest available data, VOA’s weekly reach in Russia for both radio and Internet is only 0.3%. Subtract 0.3 from 1.7 and you get 1.4 drop. Then you want to find out 1.4 is what percent of 1.7, so divide: 1.4 / 1.7 = 0.82. As a result of the BBG’s decision to cut VOA radio to Russia, VOA’s weekly reach declined by roughly 82%.
Members of Congress should take note that instead of paying the salaries of American citizens and residents — all highly experienced journalists, specializing in human rights reporting — BBG officials eliminated their jobs and used some of the savings to pay advertising agencies in Russia to promote use of VOA websites. As we can see from the BBG’s own data, this approach did not work. It’s likely that some of these agencies are controlled by the Russian security agencies, just as some of the research companies that the BBG is using in countries like Russia and China are probably closely monitored and manipulated by the secret police. I would venture a guess that they can produce any audience research results for the BBG that their security services would request.
Figures obtained from international broadcasting surveys done in countries like Russia and China should not be taken at face value. The actual radio reach in these countries is most likely higher than the BBG data suggests — although not nearly as high as it was in Poland during the Cold War — but there is no reason to doubt that the drop in audience reach, as suggested by the BBG data, is real. The unprecedented drop in audience reach in Russia cannot be denied, even if the numbers of radio listeners are higher than what the BBG is reporting.
We have also pointed out that if the BBG had completely ignored our protests and not restored a limited VOA radio broadcast to Russia, the percentage drop in audience reach would have been even more devastating. VOA’s weekly Internet reach in Russia is only 0.1%. Subtract 0.1 from 1.7 and you get 1.6 drop. Divide 1.6 /1.7 = 0.94. If the BBG executives had it their way and there was no outside pressure that forced them to make a limited concession, VOA would have experienced a 94% decline in audience reach in Russia.
The same executives have now managed to convince new BBG members to make the same mistake in China.
Americans for U.S. International Broadcasting, a group of current and former VOA and BBG employees and free media advocates, have started a petition drive to convince Congress to reject the BBG’s and the Obama Administration’s proposals for eliminating shortwave radio broadcasts to China.
Excerpts from other sections of “U.S. International Broadcasting in Crisis“
- The article cites political reasons (autocratic rule, censorship, hacking and blocking of the Internet, no free press to defend rights of citizens) and market research data (750 million without Internet access, extensive use of shortwave by China National Radio, ability to reach 230 million migrant population) used by Sound of Hope Radio to justify its decision on expanding shortwave radio while VOA and BBC are moving in the opposite direction.
- “We believe that members of Congress and the American public are being grossly mislead by BBG officials who time after time have shown their inability to understand market research in closed societies and the desperation of people living under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Their decision to cut VOA radio broadcasts to Russia has resulted in over 80% drop in audience reach and they have shown their inability to expand Internet audience just as they could not protect VOA websites from a successful Iranian cyber attack last week. Members of Congress and American taxpayers should demand from BBG officials to explain why they want to eliminate radio broadcasts by the Voice of America, which has more listeners in China than Radio Free Asia and BBC; why they want to ignore 750 million Chinese; and what they plan to do during any future Tiananmen event in China when the regime in Beijing will completely block or censor the Internet at the most convenient time for them and the most inconvenient time for the U.S. government and pro-democracy supporters in China,” said Free Media Online president Ted Lipien. He was a former BBG manager and until 2006 former acting associate director of the Voice of America.
- In their confused messages to members of Congress, BBG officials often contradict themselves. While arguning in favor of eliminating VOA radio to China, they point out that only [sic] 22 out of 8635 respondents reported having ever listened to VOA, while 7 had ever listened to RFA or BBC. Well, 22 is three times more than 7. Does his proves that the Congress should by all means eliminate the radio broadcast, which according to even BBG-sponsored research, has an audience that is three times larger? We don’t think so.
- BBG executives don’t have the slightest idea how many people in nations ruled by undemocratic regimes listen to U.S. news broadcasts on shortwave. Even their own researchers point out that “these audience figures are based on surveys conducted in politically repressive environments that are generally hostile to international broadcasting. Because individuals in these countries are discouraged or even prohibited by their governments from listening to U.S. international broadcasts, actual audience numbers may be higher.”
- They tell members of Congress that keeping shortwave broadcasts to China imposes significant opportunity costs on U.S. strategic interests because the continued investment in SW depletes resources that could be invested more effective media platforms and technologies that are the choice of most Chinese citizens.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that the current team of BBG officials has not been able to take advantage of these opportunities because they don’t know how and because the potential for expanding their Internet audience is extremely small no matter how much taxpayers’ money they plan to spend on advertising in China and Russia, which is what they do. They could not increase their Internet reach it in Russia and they will not be able to do it in China. Their Internet audience in Russia is still and will continue to be at “trace” level, as it will be in China, no matter how much money they intend to spend. They just fail to point this out to members of Congress.
- According to BBG officials, the expected savings from the proposed radio cuts will be about $8 million (about $4.9 million in personnel costs and $3.2 million in transmission costs). The real beneficiaries will no longer be Chinese-speaking human rights journalists in the United States, who will be laid off, but private contractors, including advertising agencies in China The real damage will be the loss of the ability to demonstrate continued U.S. commitment to human rights and the loss of a platform for pro-democracy supporters in China, a platform that cannot be easily blocked or silenced.
- The argument that the Chinese government would want the U.S. to continue shortwave broadcasts because they are supposedly ineffective and a waste of money is completely false. BBG officials fail to understand the desperation of those who seek information and the psychology of authoritarian governments who live in fear of being deposed with the help of outside radio, TV, and Internet. If these arguments were true, the Chinese government would not bother to jam VOA and RFA shortwave broadcasts. Tibetan monks would not have protested on Capital Hill against cuts in shortwave broadcasts to Tibet, which had been proposed earlier by the same BBG bureaucrats who are now pushing for cuts in radio broadcasting to China and who outsourced the hosting of VOA websites to outside contractors.
- The Chinese government has demonstrated its ability to block the Internet at the time most convenient for them. It does not take a genius to figure out that it will be the most inconvenient and dangerous time for the United States and for pro-democracy supporters in China. The BBG executives, who could not protect VOA websites from a cyber attack by Iranian Islamists, want the United States to take this risk.
- Depriving the Voice of America of shortwave radio capability in China is especially misquided since VOA has a bigger brand recognition among the Chinese population, and in a crisis, they are far more likely to turn to VOA for news from the United States just as they now listen more frequently to VOA radio. There is no good reason why both VOA and RFA should not keep all of their program delivery options open and to share both Internet and shortwave delivery resources. There is no advantage to only one broadcaster using radio. There is certainly no advantage to denying radio program delivery to the one broadcaster who now has a larger radio audience.
February 28, 2011
Open Letter to Members of House Appropriations Committee
Dear Members of Congress:
This letter is to request your strong support to restore the budget for Voice of America Cantonese Service and Voice of America Mandarin Service in the FY 2012 Budget.
We object to the proposal by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which serves to manage Voice of America (VOA), to eliminate the entire VOA Cantonese Service, as well as eliminate the positions of more than half of the VOA Mandarin Service staff members.
This egregious effort to disappropriate funding from VOA will effectively eliminate the purpose of the Congressionally mandated Public Law 94-350 to the people in China who speak Cantonese and Mandarin to be provided with news broadcasts that promote freedom and democracy.
This target against Voice of America – right on the heels of PRC President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the United States – is nothing less than a concession that will dismantle America’s commitment to broadcast news from the United States. During the same time of this funding cutback, the PRC intends to spend more than a billion dollars to enhance their propaganda goals in the United States.
This campaign against Voice of America comes during the PRC’s media crackdown on stories against Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo. It comes during a time when PRC’s media has blocked news about uprisings in Egypt and Libya. It comes during a PRC crackdown against any stories shared about the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, and all prisoners of conscience in China.
We implore you to restore the FY 2012 Budget funding for the Voice of America’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services so Voice of America can continue to fulfill its mandate to provide a balanced and comprehensive view of significant American thought and institutions; and to clearly present the policies of the United States to the people of China.
Harry Wu, Laogai Research Foundation
Justin Yu, Chinese The Chinese Chamber of Commerce in New York
Ann Lau, Visual Artists Guild
Ann Noonan, Free Church for China
Bob Fu, China Aid
Anna Cheung, Alliance for Hong Kong Chinese in the US
Peggy Chane, Visual Artists Guild
Reggie Littlejohn, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers
Ganden Thurman, Tibet House
Jeremy Taylor, Free Burma Alliance
Ethan Gutmann. Recipient Tiananmem Spirit Award
Joe Brown, Pasadena NAACP
Jonathan Cao, Chinese Coalition for Citizens’ Rights
Juntao Wang, National Committee Democratic Party of China
Robert A. Senser, Human Rights for Workers
Jing Zhang, Women’s Rights in China
This report was first published by TedLipien.com, Truckee, CA, March 2, 2011.
In this series of analyses for Free Media Online (FreeMediaOnline.org) — U.S. International Broadcasting in Crisis— Ted Lipien, former Voice of America acting associate director, examines recent Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decisions, with a focus on the latest controversial plan to completely eliminate Voice of America on-the-air radio broadcasts to China.