Entertainment as a strategy of neutrality for Voice of America

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We came across this promotional blurb on the Inside VOA website about the Voice of America’s 70th anniversary:

Though it may seem difficult to believe, the Voice of America has been in operation for 70 years! We are proud of our accomplishments and eager to share with you not only our past, but also how far we have come and where we are headed. Throughout this anniversary year, we will be updating this special part of our site, adding to it and highlighting other areas, so you can gain a better understanding of our work. For example, we currently broadcast in 43 languages – can you name them? We have broadcast in many other languages over the years, and you may be surprised at what some of them are. Did you know you can receive VOA news through your mobile device in most parts of the world? To get details and learn more, join us! Below, see the message from our 28th director (know his name?), and on behalf of VOA’s nearly 1,200 employees, welcome!

A video message from Voice of America director David Ensor, also included on the same page, was equally bland. There were no references to what prompted the creation of America’s premier international broadcaster. Nothing about reporting during World War II, Cold War period broadcasting to the Soviet Block, and providing accurate and objective news to those still living under oppressive regimes.
It is a message designed to entertain and to engage a particular audience: those without much knowledge of history and not particularly interested in current events but who can be easily reached by new media and easily counted in audience surveys.
This message is certainly not for people interested in serious journalism, such as those with blocked Internet access to uncensored news in Tibet and China. In fact, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which runs VOA, plans to terminate all VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts.
But as far as the BBG strategists are concerned, silencing of VOA radio to Tibet will not be a big loss. Tibetan monks cannot be easily surveyed in Tibet about their radio listening habits. Those fearing reprisals do not share such information with strangers. If they can’t be counted, they don’t exist.
What can bring the BBG a large audience in China are English lessons with juvenile humor that the regime censors will not prevent from circulating on the Internet. The BBG plans to pay for expanding such program offerings by abolishing not only VOA Tibetan radio but also the entire VOA Cantonese Service. VOA radio programs to communist-ruled countries like Vietnam, Laos, as well as to Georgia, are also set for elimination.
Serious journalism and long-format news reporting and analysis that offend dictators cannot be placed on local networks and do not produce audiences that can be easily measured. The BBG therefore also plans to reduce drastically VOA English and Spanish programs, while China and even Iran are expanding theirs.
But in all respects, the VOA’s 70th anniversary TV game show message is completely in line with the Broadcasting Board of Governors current commercial programming and marketing philosophy designed to maximize the audience size by diluting the message. It reminded us of one of Marshall McLuhan’s keen observations other than “the medium is the message” and “the global village”:

[…] the commercial interests who think to render media universally acceptable, invariably settle for “entertainment” as a strategy of neutrality.

The Inside VOA message may seem banal but it was no doubt carefully crafted based on recommendations from the BBG’s research and marketing strategists. They have have recently signed a 50 million dollar five-year audience research contract with Gallup while planning to eliminate numerous broadcasts to countries without free media and to fire more than 200 journalists, broadcasters and support staffers.
During the Cold War, dissident writers who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain like Czeslaw Milosz and Milan Kundera raised the awareness among Western readers about the unfree part of Europe and the value of the individual over the collective. But if during that time the West relied on public opinion surveys, with their focus on studying the collective, they would have shown that most people in the Soviet Union admired Stalin, just as now in Russia a large segment of the population sill admires Vladimir Putin. Early Cold War market research results would have suggested to American officials that too much criticism of the Soviet Communist Party might offend too many Russians and be counterproductive. Commercial broadcasting is all about getting the largest possible audience. The Voice of America was created in 1942 to broadcast news and send a message about America. It was not created as a commercial broadcaster to please German radio listeners and gain program placement in Nazi Germany.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, a group of part-time presidential appointees who manage U.S. broadcasting to the Middle East and countries like Russia and China, believes in the market research-based commercial approach to international broadcasting. About ten years ago, they determined based on surveys that any associations with the word “America” are disliked in the Arab world. Their response was to terminate the Voice of America radio broadcasts in Arabic and create entities with names like Radio Sawa and Alhurra.
Market research also showed that young people in the Middle East — the BBG’s preferred target audience — like Western music. Radio Sawa adopted the music format. Arhurra Television broadcast statements from Holocaust deniers and anti-American Islamist extremists. Surveys showed that such views are popular with the audience and no one explained to Alhurra’s inexperienced reporters that there are principles more important than the prejudices of the collective.
A few years later, private market research consultants hired by the BBG determined that Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts to Russia were viewed by most Russians as too hostile because of their criticism of Vladimir Putin and human rights violations. BBG officials forced a programming change at Radio Liberty. Journalists specializing in human rights reporting who resisted these changes were fired.
At about the same time, VOA radio and television broadcasts in Russian were eliminated and VOA journalists experienced in human rights reporting were also forced out.
A highly respected independent Russian journalist and new media scholar determined later that the BBG’s new Voice of America Russian website, which was left after the broadcasts were cut, has a “pro-Putin bias” and downplays human rights reporting. The BBG replaced experienced journalists with website content producers recently hired from Russia who, among other things, were deceived into publishing a fake interview with a prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny said that “the Voice of America went nuts” and its Russian Service staff should be replaced.
Other than the fake interview, all of the staffing and programming decisions were driven by the BBG’s audience research.
In 2008, BBG strategists told VOA Russian Service staffers not to refer to the Russian military attack on Georgia as an “invasion” because their opinion surveys showed that most Russians disapprove of this term. More recently, these BBG experts instructed the VOA Georgian Service to avoid political reporting in their television program because it causes “difficulties” for the Georgian network carrying the program. Compromises have to be made to keep an audience, according to these BBG officials. The VOA Georgian could still include serious political reporting in their radio broadcasts, but the BBG wants to take VOA Georgian radio off the air. These BBG officials see nothing wrong with English lessons for China and a TV program for Georgia devoid of any political content. They both can pass local censorship and generate large audiences.
The VOA director’s 70th anniversary message and the Inside VOA website promotional text may be banal but sadly they are accurate. They reflect the current reality at the broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA journalists who care about news, human rights and those among their audiences who are the most disenfranchised and the most oppressed are being replaced by bureaucrats with a strong love for the collective and little regard for the individual. No wonder that BBG officials are consistently given the lowest leadership and management knowledge ranking in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) government-wide employee opinion surveys.
Perhaps we can learn more about the BBG’s research and programming philosophy from their chief strategist Bruce Sherman who will be one of the panelists at a discussion at the Gallup building in Washington, DC on Wednesday, March 28. Silencing of Voice of America radio to Tibet to be explained by chief BBG strategist
Audience research is extremely important. Broadcasters that do not conduct audience research or pay no attention to its results usually perish. But the ability to understand, interpret and apply research according to journalistic, human rights, foreign policy and public diplomacy principles is woefully lacking among BBG bureaucrats who can’t understand that radio broadcasting to a desperate audience in Tibet that may be small and cannot be accurately measured is ten times more important than hiring even more bureaucrats to generate more publicity blurbs and failed marketing schemes.

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