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International Harvester Tractor Radio

Shut Down the Voice of America?

Feb 11, 2016


Sound extreme? Shut down an institution born in the dark days of World War II, lasting through the Cold War, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, into the new millennium and the age of the Internet and social media?

One that represented freedom of speech and the principles of unfettered journalism to millions around the globe, while also reflecting official U.S. policies and discussion about those policies?

But not so extreme to anyone who has followed reports about the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency overseeing all foreign-directed U.S. media, and the struggle over bipartisan legislation to restructure it.

Indeed, I believe closing VOA, and other elements of the BBG, should now be squarely on the table, though so far it's been almost off the radar of 2016 presidential candidates.

BBG has been seriously broken for decades, and in many respects VOA as well. This is one of Washington's dirty little secrets that only occasionally gets attention outside the DC beltway.

The agency has struggled with mismanagement and low morale, hovering at or just above the lowest levels in the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, one of the worst places to work in government.

Two of my former colleagues at VOA wrote this in 2014:

"VOA in particular has been poorly managed. The top leadership has shown little or no vision, some top managers have no real understanding of the needs of foreign audiences, some are allowed to manage through intimidation and cronyism and still others believe that the answer to the agency’s woefully low morale is to hold bingo nights and skating parties."

Co-author Alex Belida, whose commentaries appear in the CPD blog, and another former official, called the BBG and IBB "top heavy with highly paid and marginally effective personnel...[that have expanded] while the numbers of journalists and broadcasting staff at VOA have continued to be slashed to fit budget cuts.“

That's light years beyond then-Secretary of State and now 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's remark in 2013 during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that BBG was “practically defunct in terms of its capability to tell a message around the world.” 

VOA has been on an accelerating slide into irrelevancy, having long ago failed to gain enough traction in the digital realm. Regarding troubled online operations, one official noted that VOA "long ago lost the opportunity to become a destination of choice [for global audiences]."

To this shocking but highly descriptive picture, numerous other problems are attributable to mismanagement at BBG, IBB and VOA:

  • Failure to ensure that VOA’s main English website, language sites and social media, reflected the latest news in a timely and efficient manner.
  • Personnel tactics that kept the agency at the bottom of federal employee satisfaction ratings, creating conditions for a $400 million civil suit brought by contractors resulting from federal rule violations.
  • Frittering away millions in taxpayer funds on a severely flawed digital media management system which suffered numerous breakdowns, disrupting programming.
  • Mishandling the Persian News Network (PNN), and effective elimination of VOA as a potent English radio broadcasting force.

John Lansing, a former cable television executive hired as CEO in 2015, and other officials are conducting a frontal assault, lobbying Congress not to pass legislation aimed at restructuring the agency.

They argue that the United States, and the world, would be in a much worse position without the "bang for the buck" that VOA and other services provide.

At a minimum, the jury is still out on this. I also think the verdict is already in on an assertion by a former VOA director (David Ensor) that BBG programs can somehow help prevent the growth of domestic ISIS or al-Qaeda inspired terrorists in ethnic diaspora communities.

Where VOA is concerned, there is a widespread impression that it long ago ceased being a first choice for trusted and reliable news for audiences that have rapidly-expanding menus of traditional and online media, including superior content from the BBC.

VOA has been on an accelerating slide into irrelevancy, having long ago failed to gain enough traction in the digital realm. Regarding troubled online operations, one official noted that VOA "long ago lost the opportunity to become a destination of choice [for global audiences]."

BBG and other officials regularly roll out deceptively computed and seemingly inflated audience figures showing dramatically expanded use and impact of BBG material. 

Would the United States be measurably worse off, or its people and government's domestic, foreign and national security policies massively unrepresented on the global media stage, if VOA and other services were to disappear tomorrow? Not really.

These days, like radio and television stations, government agencies have their own websites and social media channels. The State Department, Pentagon, and White House have multiple ways of connecting with audiences. 

That the United States really needs hundreds of well-paid civil servant broadcasters to explain and analyze is a debatable proposition, as is the assertion that BBG operations can measurably reduce threat levels to the U.S. homeland and our interests abroad.

ISIS online brainwashing campaigns...competition from Putin’s information machine...China’s media juggernaut...all are of concern, but BBG executives are using these as excuses to keep the mismanaged BBG alive ad infinitum.

The Obama administration told Congress it was "on board" with the intent of reforms. But a House-passed bill died in the Senate. A revised bill has yet to come up for a vote.

In 2014, Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ) became the first member of Congress to actually propose eliminating funding for VOA, which he said had "become another duplicative, federal program" that had "veered from its original mission."

For now, Congress continues to support the BBG's nearly $750 million plus budget, including infusions for anti-Internet censorship programs. The FY 2017 budget request is about $778 million. A new GS-15 position was created for a Director of Internet Freedom, a job that appears better placed directly under the State Department.

There is a zero likelihood in 2016 or in the new 115th Congress in 2017 that lawmakers will create some new non-government entity to subsume all of the current BBG broadcasters.

When the new Congress decides it has finally had enough, federal and non-federal employees at the numerous entities should prepare for substantial shrinkage. 

Strong arguments can be made that a slimmed-down agency would be just as, if not more, effective in achieving whatever goals still exist to inform foreign audiences, and which are deemed to be still worth public expenditures.

But as everyone knows, this is Washington, the place where government programs, regardless of how unwieldy and inefficient they become, don't die easily, if ever.

Photo by Colin | CC BY-SA 2.0


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Sliding into Irrelevancy

It pains me deeply to join my former colleague Dan Robinson in saying a shutdown of VOA and the other entities of U.S. International Broadcasting is a realistic option. Poor decisions and mismanagement have led to what Mr. Robinson accurately describes as an “accelerating slide into irrelevancy.” Is this what we want as a nation? Are politicians satisfied with just having and funding a VOA, for example, even if it has no impact in places where it should? New executives and Board Governors come and go and try and reinvent the wheel yet nothing fundamentally changes. Promises are made and hopes are built up only to be dashed time and again. I know Mr. Robinson doesn’t believe it is politically feasible, but I still think there is a place for a U.S.-financed non-governmental global media outlet (see my CPD Blog of 1/25/16 “Giving New Life to America’s Voice with Conviction”). But shutting down the current operation would be an essential first step. Just trimming it, even substantially, is not enough if lawmakers really want to accomplish something. Given the past record, a slimmer USIB would likely end up with 20 executives to 10 journalists and program producers.


Radio has a job to do on behalf of the United States; it reaches where no computer goes.

It's sad that VOA hasn't been doing a great job. So much sadder that, rather than figure out how to do it better, we seem to want to throw up our hands and quit trying.

"Reforming" VOA

A good test of the relevance of a government program is to ask, if it didn't exist, would Congress vote to authorize and fund it in the current operational and budget environment? Few people, even its most loyal supporters, could honestly say VOA would meet such a standard today.

I take no pleasure in saying this. The media landscape -- radio, TV, online, digital -- is swamped with the kind of non-partisan information choices that the Voice was created more than 70 years to provide. Meanwhile, the news staff resents and resists its statutory public diplomacy mission. Management lurches from strategy to strategy to remain relevant, but undermines its effectiveness by robbing Peter -- the "legacy" broadcasts -- to pay the TV and digital Paul. But trying to be all things to all audiences has boomeranged because it's hurt the news product. While VOA has some talented reporters, the overall quality of the journalism is just not that good -- wire rewrites, pedestrian news commentary, late filing, shallow coverage of pop culture at the expense of regional enterprise, the list goes on and on. Given this, why would anyone turn to VOA for the news when NPR, BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, RFI, and other top organizations are just a click away?

Even with a new CEO to fend off reform, the Board is living on borrowed time. Congress will eventually, almost certainly, take up VOA's problems and it might not be pretty. Starting all over with a more focused mission and more professional, less bureaucratic, leadership may be the best way to go if the "idea" of the Voice of America is to survive.

Quality of News reader at VOM

We have a local (Auckland, New Zealand) radio station that rebroadcasts the VOM hourly news direct from Washington. I have given up listening. The quality and skill of the VOM news readers are without authority and read the news like bedtime stories. The recording technical requirements are of very low standard with a far too high 'headroom' with modulation not being monitored by limiters or ultramizers.
Sad, yes sad that a news gathering and news presenting organisation such a Voice of America has trouble achieving a high standard of authoritative voice presentation and lack of resource from the technical suite.

Robert Houison. New Zealand.


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