Director Bruce Sherman on Broadcasting Board of Governors' killing of Voice of America brand-name


BBG Watch Commentary

BBG's chief strategist Bruce Sherman speaking at a joint BBG Gallup audience research panel

BBG's chief strategist Bruce Sherman at BBG Gallup audience research panel

Why is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) trying to silence Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Tibet when Tibetan Buddhist monks are self-immolating to shock the conscience of the world and the Chinese government is increasing its repression of the Tibetan people and their culture? Why are the Voice of America Cantonese Service and many other VOA brand-names, including VOA English and VOA Spanish, being put on the chopping block by the BBG when China and even Iran are expanding their radio and television broadcasts around the world, including Latin America?
The answer to these questions was provided recently by the BBG’s chief strategist in an important article posted on one of the BBG’s websites.  Because of its significance, we are providing a link to Mr. Bruce Sherman’s article and reposting it at the end of our commentary. He holds the position of  the Director of  the BBG Office of Strategy and Development.
In a display of unlimited confidence, Mr.  Sherman explained that his federal agency can change brand-names at will. No name or institution is safe.  Even those that have been around for more than 70 years, have Congressional mandates and are closely associated around the world with America and its support for freedom can be erased and silenced overnight.

“Where our brands resonate with audiences, we want to preserve them. Where they don’t, we have the flexibility to invent new ones. Radio Sawa (‘together’ in Arabic) helped us rebrand our efforts in the Middle East and reach millions of new listeners.” — Bruce Sherman —  The BBG: One Organization, Many Brands

This is how the Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Office of Strategy and Development described the elimination a few years back of Voice of America (VOA) Arabic broadcasts and the banning of the VOA brand-name from the Middle East by the BBG. Mr. Sherman did not elaborate further that the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decision to kill these broadcasts and their brand-name was based on audience research showing that words like “America” and “American” were disliked in the region.
Using the same logic,  the United States should not have used the “Voice of America” name to call its radio station established during World War II to broadcast news to Nazi Germany. It should have used a more neutral one. Perhaps a name like “Radio Together with Music” would have been less offensive to most citizens of Hitler’s Germany, who after all overwhelmingly supported their leader and viewed America as an enemy until almost the end of World War II.
In his article, Mr. Sherman overlooks an important fact that the American people and the U.S. Congress have always wanted the Voice of America to provide news and hope to those who are the most silenced and the most oppressed.
These audiences are often condemned to censorship and silence not only by their governments but also by the majority of their countrymen fed on regime propaganda. And yet, these marginalized groups that the BBG wants to abandon in its pursuit of a mass audience often produce the most influential intellectual and political leaders in support of freedom.
Sophie Scholl German stampThink of Sophia Magdalena Scholl (9 May 1921 – 22 February 1943), a German student active within the White Rose non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany. She was executed and widely condemned by the vast majority of Germans at the time of her death. The Voice of America brand-name surely did not resonate well with those who cheered her death sentence.
Chen Guangcheng (born November 12, 1971), an illegally detained civil rights activist in the People’s Republic of China, and Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate, belong to the same category of officially marginalized activists and intellectual figures for whom the Voice of America was established more than seventy years ago. They are not likely to receive news through the Internet. The VOA Mandarin and Cantonese websites are in any case effectively blocked by the Chinese cyber police, especially in prisons, labor camps and for those kept under house arrest like Chen Guangcheng and his family.

Chen Guangcheng with his family

Yet, the BBG strategists wanted to do away with the VOA Mandarin and Cantonese shortwave radio and satellite television broadcasts and to rely on Internet only. Their great idea for getting a mass online audience is to  promote English lessons with high school juvenile humor, which while being both creative and popular are ignored by the Chinese censors because they are unthreatening to the regime.
Mr. Sherman would no doubt point out that the agency planned to continue Mandarin and Cantonese radio news broadcasts on Radio Free Asia (RFA), also managed by the BBG. RFA is a “surrogate” broadcaster performing a very important function but was not created to represent the United States by providing American viewpoints. It was created to provide internal Chinese dissident viewpoints delivered by independent Chinese journalists. Two different missions, both equally important.
Still, Mr. Sherman’s commissioned research shows that  the RFA’s brand-name resonates even less well with audiences in China. Should it also be killed and replaced with something more neutral, perhaps even more neutral than VOA once the VOA radio and TV brand-name is also eliminated? The U.S. Congress needs to step in and stop this before it goes any further.

Liu Xiaobo

What is then the real reason for killing the best-known American international radio brand-name in China? The real reason — we suspect — is a bureaucratic desire to take control over U.S. international broadcasting away from the American people, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
It’s not about saving money when budgets are tight. The BBG and its bureaucratic arm — the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) — are wasting U.S. taxpayers’ money right and left.
It’s not about moving to new Internet platforms, which as everyone knows are inexpensive and often free, and which VOA and other U.S. international broadcasters have already been using and expanding their use for many years. It is about preserving and creating new bureaucratic jobs by eliminating critical international news programs.
It is about firing close to 300 journalists and program support staffers so that the BBG can give a 50 million dollar audience research contract to the Gallup Organization.
Gallup has already reported to the BBG that the majority of people in China think that their media are free. This kind of finding is hardly worth millions of dollars. But the VOA Tibetan radio service and the VOA Cantonese news services are to be eliminated to pay for this kind of research in China.
What’s the point of doing questionable research in support of disappearing programs?
Much of what Mr. Sherman writes in his article are conclusions based on similar research findings consisting of only half-truths. Mr. Sherman claims for example that millions of new listeners were reached in the Middle East with the new Radio Sawa brand-name.
It is true that millions of new listeners came to the station over the years. But what Mr. Sherman fails to explain is that the BBG is now paying millions of dollars each year to put music-heavy Sawa programs on local FM and regional AM transmitters — something it had not done for Voice of America Arabic programs. If the same millions have been spent on the production and especially local FM distribution of the old VOA Arabic broadcasts, millions of new listeners also could have been gained for a much more substantive news and information on an American-brand radio and website.
In fact, the audience research data which Sherman swears by is highly misleading and practically useless for countries like China, where people are too afraid to give honest answers to politically sensitive survey questions. Yet, on the basis of this kind of research in highly repressed nations, which may show that broadcaster “A” has 0.1% weekly rating and broadcaster “B” has only 0.04%, the BBG makes strategic decisions to kill brand-names that have been around for 70 years and represent America, its institutions and its values.
How can any sane person make such decisions on the basis of a fraction of one percent difference when the margin of error in this kind of survey can be 3 to 5 percent and more? How can a survey conducted among Tibetan refugees in Nepal be used to prove that VOA Tibetan satellite TV programs should continue but VOA Tibetan radio programs should be eliminated when everyone knows that the Chinese authorities rigorously control private ownership of satellite dishes?
“Where our brands resonate with audiences, we want to preserve them. Where they don’t, we have the flexibility to invent new ones.”
What it means is the flexibility to decide what brand-names resonate with BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau’s officials  who want to have greater control of U.S. international broadcasting resources. They want the power to kill brand-names, to show incomplete and unreliable research data to BBG members, and to get them to approve their decisions.
Tibetans, victims of human rights abuses in China will be ignored if it means saving the IBB’s bureaucratic jobs, giving $10,000  bonuses to its top executives, allowing them to travel around the world at taxpayers’ expense, and giving them the power to distribute multi-million-dollar contracts. All this for being rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) government-wide employee opinion surveys as being the worst leaders and managers in the federal bureaucracy. Should the U.S. Congress give even more power to this group of bureaucrats held in such low esteem by their own employees who are experts on their own countries and regions?
If that happens, the U.S. Congress, which had created the Voice of America and gave it its Charter and its mandate, will be ignored as well.
The BBG’s own data show that there is little strategic vision in BBG’s strategic planning.  Afghanistan and the Middle East are important, but strategically China represents the greatest  and the fastest growing public diplomacy challenge for the United States. And yet,  the BBG’s per capita spending on China is 39 times less than in Afghanistan, 29 times less than in the Middle East, 18 times less than in Iran, eight times less than in Tajikistan.
A BBG member Michael Meehan pointed out recently that the Chinese spend 6.6 billion dollars a year doing what the BBG is doing. (The BBG’s annual budget is about $750 million.) If there is not enough money, which is clearly the case, the last thing BBG members should be doing is giving more money to their bureaucrats and allowing them to eliminate programs to Tibet and China. This can hardly be based on any kind of strategic thinking.
But perhaps it is be unreasonable to expect BBG and IBB bureaucrats to propose eliminating their own positions to absorb budget cuts. The bureaucrats  will always push for cutting programs and jobs of journalists and broadcasters. That’s why BBG members have a responsibility to protect these important broadcasts. And yet they have failed to exercise this duty. They have given away their powers to Presidentially-appointed IBB Director Richard Lobo, his deputy Jeff Trimble and to Director Sherman.
Among BBG members, Ambassador Victor Ashe seems to be the only one speaking out publicly about the bureaucratic waste and abuse while strategically important broadcasts are silenced for no good reason. Most of the other BBG members approve whatever the IBB executive team puts in front of them, including ending VOA radio to Tibet.
A letter addressed to Congresswoman Kay Granger (R – TX), Chairman of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the House Committee on Appropriations and to Ranking Member Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D – NY) criticizes the Broadcasting Board of Governors for expanding their bureaucracy at the expense of critical overseas broadcasts and U.S. strategic interests:

The proposed reductions are driven not by a considered strategic world view, but by bureaucratic expedience and a fundamental misunderstanding of the mission of VOA. If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted, the staff level for VOA will be reduced by 13.2% from the current year. In contrast, only 3.3% of the positions from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which provides administrative support to the BBG, will be cut.
If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted the number of full time equivalent (FTE) positions for the IBB will rise from 593.2 in fiscal year 2011 to 678.2. In the same time period VOA will lose 121.2 FTE positions. The general trend of the IBB has been to grow larger while the number of language services they support is being reduced. Broadcasting should be the last thing to be cut. It makes little sense to grow the bureaucracy while cutting that which it is meant to support. The eliminations and reductions in broadcasting to Tibet, China, Laos, and Vietnam alone will cut 28 positions from VOA.

Link to the Letter

BBG proposes to cut VOA’s funding by more than 9% ($17.096 million) while increasing funding for IBB’s major bureaucratic offices.


Funding for IBB management
Director’s office
$5.91 million
+ $0.113 million
($6.023 million in total)
Office of General Counsel
$2.224 million
+ $0.032 million
($2.256 million in total)
Office of Chief Financial Officer
$14.432 million
+ $0.36 million
(14.792 million in total)
Office of Contracting and Procurement
$2.869 million
+ $0.18 million
($3.049 million in total)

Source: Broadcasting Board of Governors FY 2013 Budget Request


BBG’s Strategic Vision and Planning Is Seriously Unbalanced

Country/ Language
Mandarin/Cantonese/Tibetan/Uyghur (VOA & RFA)
Pashto & Dari (VOA & RFE/RL)
Arabic(MBN & RFE/RL)
Persian (VOA & RFE/RL)
$34.59 mil.
$29.6 mil.
$129.25 mil.
$34.42 mil.
Target Population
133.8 mil.
28.4 mil.
174 mil.
(15 Arabic nations)
73.2 mil.
Average $per Capita
(39 times)
(29 times)
(18 times)


Country/ Language
Target Population
7.5 mil.
82.8 mil.
Average $per Capita
(8 times)
(same as China)


Mandarin Service

2010 budget
Hourly Programming Expense
Weekly website visitors
Weekly website visit
Weekly audience reach
VOA Mandarin
$12.744 million
(160 million)
RFA Mandarin
$9 million
(40 million)
1 : 1.62
1.5 : 1
2.33 : 1
4 : 1
2.5 : 1

Cantonese Service

2010 budget
Hourly Programming Expense
VOA Cantonese
$1.27 million
10% (7.24 million)
RFA Cantonese
$1.07 million
4% (1.81 million)
1 : 1.6
2.5 : 1

Tibetan Service

2010 budget
Hourly Programming Expense
Weekly website visit
VOA Tibetan
$3.46 million
28% (1.51 million)
RFA Tibetan
$5.44 million
24% (1.30 million)
1 : 1.87
1.29 : 1
1.17 : 1

Burmese Service

2010 budget
Hourly Programming Expense
Weekly website visitors
Weekly website visits
Weekly audience reach
VOA Burmese
$2.41 million
RFA Burmese
$2.5 million
1 : 1.26
1.02 : 1
1.6 : 1
1.1 : 1
1.13 : 1

Vietnamese Service

2010 budget
Hourly Programming Expense
Website Visit
Audience Reach
$1.96 million
0.9% (0.79 million)
0.2% (0.17 million)
1 : 1.6
1.04 : 1
4.5 : 1

NOTE: All data are sourced from BBG 2010 Annual Language Service Review Briefing Book unless otherwise noted.
BBG Watch is providing a copy of Mr. Sherman’s article posted on one of the BBG websites:
The BBG's brand logos“One organization, many brands” is integral to the BBG’s new strategy, Impact through Innovation, and Integration. The ability to have multiple brands offers several advantages…
More from the BBG Strategy Blog
By Bruce Sherman
BBG Office of Strategy and Development
The BBG’s major brand names are, of course, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra TV, Radio Sawa, Radio Martí and TV Martí. There are also various sub-brands such as Radio Azadi (RFE/RL) in Afghanistan and Deewa Radio (VOA) in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Popular BBG programs — Parazit in Iran, OMG Meiyu in China, and Studio 7 in Zimbabwe — often acquire identities in their own right.
Differential branding is beneficial. It lets us position our products for specific markets and target key audience segments (women, youth, etc.). It helps us stand out in cluttered media environments and deal with challenging political realities, including anti-Americanism. All this helps boost our reach and impact — a BBG priority.
Where our brands resonate with audiences, we want to preserve them. Where they don’t, we have the flexibility to invent new ones. Radio Sawa (“together” in Arabic) helped us rebrand our efforts in the Middle East and reach millions of new listeners.
While the BBG sponsors multiple brands at the agency level, local audiences see only one or perhaps two brands in their particular markets. Research shows they usually know one from the other, and often use one more than the other — which is to say, the brands have unique audiences. Preserving those audiences is decidedly in the BBG’s interests.
Our brands, as symbols of our organizations, also reflect our statutory requirements — to do the news (local and international), represent America, and present U.S. policy. They each are established in law and have supporters in Congress. Preserving the brands thus upholds our congressional mandates.
That said, while supporting the brands, the BBG will become an increasingly unified international media network. Each brand will produce value-added content and retain editorial control. Where two brands coexist, they will complement each other so as to satisfy both audience needs and mission imperatives. The BBG will support them through integrated strategy, budgeting, research, distribution, marketing, and administrative management.
This is the “one organization, many brands” vision. The FY 2013 budget proposals to begin streamlining management and ending language service duplications are steps towards realizing this vision. So, too, is the board’s decision to combine the three grantee organizations (RFE/RL, RFA, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks), into one entity and to seek legislation to achieve definitive agency restructuring.



  1. Avatar
    Michael Smith 12 April, 2012 at 01:57 Reply

    When Worldnet TV was taken over and eventually dismantled and absorbed under false reasoning, no one stirred. IBB’s layering of overpaid Managers didn’t wake anyone up, all done under the smokescreen of “better management/saving money”.
    BBG? Obvious to employees the beginning of the end. They’ve destroyed what VOA stood for. Too bad, the hard working employees know, but the public isn’t educated enough to know what VOA even is. And Congress really doesn’t care about this subject … too small … back home. So China suffers, VOA gets whacked, and THESE “one percent” have meetings around the world on our dime. Good luck folks.
    And wow, this Sherman guy sounds full of himself! … Too bad.

  2. Avatar
    Quo Vadis 13 April, 2012 at 12:23 Reply

    Brand-name blunders. Road to Radios Whatever.
    By Jackson Diehl, Monday, December 16, 2002; Page A25 Washington Post
    After an Iranian court sentenced the reformist academic Hashem
    Aghajari to death last month, the largest and most sustained student
    demonstrations in years erupted in Tehran. As they grew, day after
    day, U.S.-operated Radio Azadi, or “Radio Freedom,” was their favorite medium. Every day, student leaders would call by cell phone from the roiling campuses to the radio’s headquarters in Prague and narrate the latest developments live. Each night the radio would broadcast a roundtable discussion, patching together students and journalists in Tehran with exiled opposition leaders to discuss where the reform movement was going. So instrumental to the rebellion-in-the-making did the radio become that pro-regime counter-demonstrators recently held up a placard reading “Who does Radio Azadi talk to?” — a taunt taken by the station’s staff as a badge of honor.
    The protest movement, now five weeks old, rolls on, spreading from
    students to workers and from Tehran to other cities. Some see
    parallels to the popular movements that overthrew the Communist
    regimes of Europe in 1989 — with a big dose of help from U.S.-
    sponsored Radio Free Europe. In this case, however, the tottering
    dictatorship has gotten a big break: Two weeks ago, Radio Freedom
    abruptly disappeared from the air. Iranians were no longer able to
    hear firsthand reports of the protests or the nightly think tanks
    about their country’s future. Instead, after two weeks of virtual
    silence, the broadcasts are being replaced this week with tunes from
    Jennifer Lopez, Whitney Houston and other soft-rockers.
    How did the mullahs pull off this well-timed lobotomy? They didn’t:
    The U.S. government, in the form of the Broadcasting Board of
    Governors, did it. In an act that mixes Hollywood arrogance with
    astounding ignorance of Iranian reality, the board has silenced the
    most effective opposition radio station in Iran at a time of
    unprecedented ferment. In its place, at three times the expense, the
    United States now will supply Iran’s revolutionary students with a
    diet of pop music — on the theory that this better advances U.S.
    Even the name of the station has been sanitized. Instead of “Freedom” — regarded as too political by the programmers — the radio will be called “Farda,” meaning “tomorrow.” Never mind that “freedom” is what thousands of young Iranians have been risking their lives to shout every day on the streets. “The assumption of the people who did this back in Washington is that Iranian young people, like young people in most places, don’t want to hear news,” says Stephen Fairbanks, the ousted director of Radio Freedom. But this is not most places — this is Iran, where young people are leading a rebellion against a dictatorship that has stifled opposition media. The student leaders who used to phone in, Fairbanks says, now tell him that “they are losing their voice.”
    The “people back in Washington” Fairbanks referred to are led by
    Norman Pattiz, a Los Angeles-based commercial radio mogul and generous Democratic contributor who was rewarded by President Clinton with an appointment to the broadcasting board. As the chairman of the board’s Middle East committee, Pattiz initially focused on the Voice of America’s Arabic service, which he deemed out of touch in a region where there is growing popular hostility to the United States. His solution was to replace what he called the “old-style propaganda” of VOA with Radio Sawa, a pop-music station that debuted last March. Sawa broadcasts five minutes of news twice each hour, along with Whitney, Britney and a few Arabic balladeers.
    The jury on Sawa is still out. The good news is that the station seems to have captured a fairly large audience in countries such as like Jordan and Dubai, where American culture is popular even if American policy is not. But Pattiz and his Washington-based program consultant, Bert Kleinman — a former producer of Casey Kasem’s hit countdown — have yet to prove that they can sustain the audience while “layering in” more news. In fact, they have yet to deliver on promises to Congress that the news programming will be significantly increased. Their argument that young Arabs in cities such as Amman and Beirut are more likely to be captured by American music than by canned documentaries is not unreasonable. What’s inexplicable is the extension of that logic to mullah-ruled Iran. Yes, Jordan’s young population, governed by a pro-American dynasty, is angry at the United States; but in Iran, where an anti-American dictatorship is clinging to power through sheer brutality, the United States and its policies are wildly popular, especially among young people.
    So was America’s radio station, until recently. “This is not the Cold
    War era, where oppressed people were under the thumb of tyrants, and they would stand with one foot in a bathtub holding a wire hanger to hear what we would say,” Pattiz smugly told the Boston Globe. Maybe not in Egypt, but that’s exactly what was happening in Iran — until Washington pulled the plug. “We made extraordinary inroads,” says Fairbanks. “Everyone started to see us as a forum. Each day there were students who would report live to us from their mobile phones. It’s a measure of how bold they have become that they would do that.”
    “Or did.”

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