More from VOA director about BBG’s plans for program cuts
Here are some more quotes from VOA director David Ensor from his meeting with staff of the Central News Division, as reported to us by some of the participants.
A RIF (Reduction in Force) will happen.
“There are going to be some RIFS. I don’t think it is constructive to put a number out when the numbers have to go through about five different other groups, now it goes to the Board in a few days time, then it has to go to (OMB Director) Jack Lew, then it goes to subcommittees on the Hill.”
“There are going to have to be reductions, the substance of VOA I think is going to go on and be stronger. I think there are a lot of really cool things we can do here.”
“I’m going to fight like hell” to minimize cuts, Ensor said.
On the BBG’s plan to end VOA Chinese broadcasts, which members of Congress are working to block, Ensor suggested that he is in favor of expanding satellite television transmissions which were to be eliminated under the BBG plan.
“I would like to have a proposal in a matter of weeks on an expansion in the number of hours of satellite television, I would like to see some ideas, let’s come up with a smart idea because I think we need to move some of the money we are spending on Mandarin shortwave. It was previously to be cut but may now be restored, we need to try to get permission, and we’re going to have to get it to move some of that into satellite television.”
“By the way, all these changes, any change we make, we are so over-regulated by Congress and committees and the BBG, there are so many layers over the top of this it is a bit distressing. But what I think, given the situation in the country, what I think may work and what I think we must try, is to come up with our own plans for how to move forward and address the goals that Congress and the American people want us to address. So, there are key countries for example, it is not a secret that China, Iran and North Korea and Pakistan are particularly important countries for us, and it is part of my job and all of our jobs to try to figure out how to better reach those audiences, well OK instead of being on the defensive and reacting to things all the time, let’s come up with some proposals. So for example in Mandarin I want a new television program or programs. I want to double our work, I want to take that money out of shortwave radio. And then I want to go to the Hill and sell it to them. They could say no, but I am betting they will say yes. If we have a positive plan, something we think the money will work better to reach more Chinese. That is a bet I am hoping that we can all make together, butthere is a certain amount of risk involved.”
“I promise to make that point on the Hill, and wherever else, in the media, I can go. So I will try to be a defender of the work we do here, the money we need to do this, but realistically we still have to talk about cuts.”
“In national security we’re [VOA] a cheap date.”
“My suspicion is it is not going to be as bad as we were forced to make it look. I just don’t think the president is going to want to do it. For the price of one airplane we supply the U.S. will an enormously valuable asset.”
“I was asked by the Board and was asked do you agree with this idea (restructuring) are you willing to work toward this goal, and I said yes I am, and I do.”
“I actually think this period of change toward consolidation is going to be harder for the others than it is for us because we are VOA already and in effect what is going to happen is they are going to become so too, inevitably. We are VOA, we are the big organization, with 30 percent of the budget we produce 70 percent of the audience. We are already in television effectively.”
February will be a key month as the BBG is forced to make “a whole series of decisions” about consolidation.
“The BBG currently told the RFA (Radio Free Asia), RFE (Radio Free Europe)and MBN [Middle East Broadcast Network, which runs the U.S. government’s al-Hurra television] to combine into one.”
For the time being, Ensor said, VOA will remain a federal organization.
“They have not worked that out. The first step that the BBG has set in motion is for a process under which the 3 grantees become one grantee and for the moment OCB and VOA look for ways to work more closely with the others, but we remain federal and they remain non-government.”
Steve Redisch, VOA’s Executive Editor who was acting director before Ensor arrived to take up his political appointment, said the massive restructuring would not eliminate “brands” such as Alhurra television for the Middle East, Radio Sawa which broadcasts to the Mideast, or TV Ashna, a relatively new VOA TV operation for Afghanistan.
“What has happened since 1942,” Ensor said, “is Congress created a Rube Goldberg creation if you will, a kind of hydra-headed international broadcasting, which I doubt the taxpayer can any longer afford to have.”
Asked by one employee if the restructuring would address the public perception that BBG operations remain highly duplicative, Ensor said some cuts proposed are in language services “where two outfits are pretty strong and doing similar things.” However, he said he has not agreed with those on the BBG advocating “eliminating duplication on the basis of “function.”
Ensor also suggested that the restructuring will be easier for the VOA than for other broadcasters under the BBG, with which VOA he said will have to be working more closely.
“Many of them find themselves as Pepsi to our Coke,” Ensor said. “Guess what? We can’t afford both anymore.I think we will have an easier time doing that they may because they have been so busy defining themselves as the “un-VOA.”
“One other note on consolidation, I don’t want to hand the VOA to the next director, weaker than it is now.I want to have it stronger, so though I want to be a good corporate citizen if you will within the process and want to work with the BBG try to reach these goals, if it seems to me and the leadership of VOA that if they are asking us to do something that would be really bad for VOA we’re going to fight it.”
Ensor also addressed what has been a steady elimination of VOA worldwide broadcasting in the English language, which employees and many former VOA officials have said has hurt American interests over the past decade.
“Can I tell you there is going to be some massive re-building of it? No there isn’t, it has gone too far down to be built into some huge force at VOA.”
VOA language services will continue local news service. Stopping it would be a death sentence, Ensor said. BBG Watch agrees.
“If you ask VOA to get out of the local news business, it’s a death sentence, and we won’t for one moment do it. We have been doing local news since 1942 along with a mix of national, international and American news, we will continue to do so — that is a winning formula.”
But he also said that additional language services at VOA, as well as Radio Free Asia will be eliminated or severely cut back. “Believe me, there is blood on the floor after this discussion of the last few weeks, and it’s not only ours.”
Pushing for satellite TV
“We need to have mobile apps that get our Internet sites on to those phones. Goat herders in Afghanistan have cellphones and will go hungry rather than give up their monthly contracts, so that is really a big deal.
Another big deal is satellite television. We need to get better at video and get better at television. We need to start moving some of the funds that we have spent on shortwave radio, honorably and well, for all these years, start moving some of that money to things likes satellite television and mobile applications to remain relevant, remain engaged with the international public that we are here to try and reach.”
“One thing I am sure of is that the BBG does not believe, and they are probably not wrong, that the U.S. can any longer afford to have five different flavors out there, to have us and RFE kind of competing with each other and not always liking each other very much and overlapping somewhat. It was kind of fun having that competition but we can no longer afford it, we don’t have enough money so in order to be effective we need to consolidate. There will be savings. You know how many general counsels do you need if you have one entity, etc.”
Ensor, a former CNN, ABC and NPR correspondent, said that within the first five weeks of being VOA director he had already threatened to quit once.
“I really am going to try and consolidate us with the others in every way we can, end “duplication” and go forward and leave [U.S. international broadcasting] it in a better shape than it is today. But I have to be able to quit in anger.”
Responding to one employee who asked how long he expects to remain in his position, Ensor said he hopes to remain for at least two years.
“I have already had to threaten to quit once. I think in this kind of a job, I am a political appointee, you have to be ready to walk. In order to stand for the things that you believe are essential for the organization. An organization like this needs a boss who is willing to walk on principle in order to get the things that the organization needs to go forward. And I am willing to. I hope not to for some time to come. I hope to stay with you for a couple of years or more but I have to be able to do that. I am not a civil servant, I am a political appointee, and I am going to try and stand for this organization with a certain backbone. I am also going to try and stand for the things the BBG has asked us to try and do. I really am going to try and consolidate us with the others in every way we can, end “duplication” and go forward to make international broadcasting, leave it in a better shape than it is today but I have to be able to quit in anger. It is part of what goes with this kind of a job I think, so I can’t tell you I’m hoping to stay for a couple of years or more.”