Can the VOA justify its funding?

voa logoJonathan Marks followed up his last post with two more pieces from the Media Network Vintage Vault, again, on the topic of US international broadcasting.

Jonathan writes:

Interesting to see there was opposition to RFE/RL expansion in 1992. http://jonathanmarks.libsyn.com/mn06081992radio-free-asia

And Bill Whitacre is good in this edition: http://jonathanmarks.libsyn.com/mn07051992voakorea

My question remains: can VOA still justify the funding it has? It has spent billions over the last few decades, but has little to show for it.

No doubt, with the recent loss of CEO Andy Lack and the announcement that VOA Director, David Ensor, is stepping down, the VOA is struggling to remain viable.  I don’t believe this is due to a lack of good reporters or internal innovators, rather, a lack of proper management.

Jonathan also found this recently published report titled, “Reassessing US International Broadcasting” by S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth M. Portale. Click here to download the full report as a PDF.

Playa de Pals transmitter site history and documentary

Photo courtesy: http://www.radioliberty.org

Photo courtesy: http://www.radioliberty.org

In response to Listening to WWV at the source, SWLing Post reader, David (EA4998URE SWL) comments:

What a “coincidence”. Hopefully, before the summer holidays officially end, I will be off to another shortwave transmitter site. Well, to the remains of it. I will be visiting the former RFE/RL (and VOA in the last years of operation) site in Playa de Pals, near the Catalan city of Girona and also very close to my main QTH in Barcelona. The Pals RFE/RL site was from where a 1MW signal was transmitted by feeding the same audio signal to 4 Continental transmitters.

Their output signals where put in phase, then the big Group D dipole curtain was divided into two “halves” by switching the feed lines in the appropriate way. Each half of the curtain received 500KW from two transmitters. So the total was 1000KW, or 1MW. If we add the antenna gain, the ERP was in the order of several megawatts. This was a signal directed to Eastern Europe, and more specifically to Moscow, via single-hop propagation. I suppose receivers in Moscow released plenty of smoke and had to be replaced every time they were tuned to a RFE/RL signal from Pals. Hahaha!

The curtains were demolished in 2006 and because the place is abandoned now and has been repeatedly sacked, the station buildings are in a very poor situation, specially in the inside. Almost no radio hardware survives, but what is still there is quite interesting. […]

There is an excellent website (www.radioliberty.org) which is a virtual museum of all things related to the Pals station. It was created and is maintained by a former worker of the station. The language in the English version of the website is a bit “macaronic” in some parts of the site, but I think this is a minor issue given the excellent amount of information kept there.

There is also a YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/PalsRadioStation) which keeps videos for the above website. Some of them are really long and very complete.

Finally, although not part of the Pals station virtual museum website, there was even a documentary made, after the demolition of the antennas, as a tribute to the station. It can be watched in the following link although parts of it have not been translated to English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJnxsSL3bbY

Many thanks, David!

After you visit the Playa de Pals site, later this year, please share your experience with us!

BBG publishes report on the efficacy and future of shortwave radio

VOA-Greenville-Curtain-AntennasMany thanks to SWLing Post reader, Bennett Kobb, who shares this downloadable Report of the Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting. If you recall, this report was produced by a Broadcasting Board of Governors committee and chaired by Matt Armstrong.

Both Bennett and I believe it’s unfortunate that the committee failed to recognize one of VOA’s most innovative shortwave products: the VOA Radiogram.

Below you can read the full press release which accompanied the report:

(Source: BBG)

WASHINGTON (August 1, 2014) — The Broadcasting Board of Governors today released “To Be Where the Audience Is,” a report that found shortwave radio to be essential to listeners in target countries, but of marginal impact in most markets. The report’s recommendations came after a comprehensive review, grounded in audience-based research, of the efficacy of shortwave as a distribution platform for U.S. international media.

“Shortwave radio continues to be an important means for large numbers of people in some countries to receive news and information,” said Matt Armstrong, who chaired the BBG’s Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting, which issued the report. “However, many of our networks’ target audiences have moved to newer platforms including TV, FM and digital media. This report maps a way forward for U.S. international media to remain accessible for all our audiences.”

Research-based evidence of media trends suggests that the increased availability and affordability of television, mobile devices and Internet access has led to the declining use of shortwave around the world. Still, the report finds that substantial audiences embrace shortwave in Nigeria, Burma, North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Cuba and other target markets for the BBG.

At the same time, the committee’s recommendations make clear that the BBG will need to continue to reduce or eliminate shortwave broadcasts where there is either minimal audience or that audience is not a U.S. foreign policy priority. It also ratifies reductions that were made in redundant signals in 2013 and further cuts in transmissions that were made in 2014.

Even with these recent reductions, the BBG makes programs in 35 of its 61 broadcast languages available on shortwave where there is a strategic reason to do so.

The report notes there is no evidence that shortwave usage increases during crises. At such times, audiences continue to use their preferred platforms or seek out anti-censorship tools to help them navigate to the news online, including firewall circumvention tools or offline media including thumb drives and DVDs.

The Shortwave Committee report will be discussed at the August 13 public meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The report can be found here.

Details of shortwave reductions to VOA, RFE, RFA

Voice_of_America_HeadquartersEarlier today, I contacted Letitia King, Spokesperson for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). I asked her for details regarding the cuts to shortwave services that were recently announced.

Ms. King has just sent me the following list, with notes, which includes all shortwave reductions under the BBG:



Facts and Figures on Shortwave Broadcast Reductions

June 30, 2014

 U.S. international media must optimize program delivery by market. We are ending some shortwave transmissions. We continue shortwave to those countries where these transmissions are still reaching significant audiences or where there are no reasonable alternative platforms at a lower cost to the BBG.

The shortwave reductions will save U.S. taxpayers almost $1.6 million annually.

There are no reductions in staff or programming – these are transmission platform reductions only. Programming continues to be available through other media.

Shortwave transmissions continue in many languages including to key shortwave markets like North Korea, Nigeria, Somalia, Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. (List enclosed below). Transmissions also continue on other platforms including AM, FM, TV and online.

VOA Azerbaijani

  • Cuts: 30 minutes SW
  • Continuing Distribution: Satellite TV (HotBird)and satellite audio (TurkSat); Multimedia web and mobile sites & social media
  • SW is used by just 2% of adults weekly in Azerbaijan, and does not yield significant audiences for the service (0.4% weekly reach on radio in BBG’s most recent survey). By contrast, satellite dish ownership is widespread, at 56%, and 18% use the Internet weekly. The service has both satellite and online products, which are far more likely to reach audiences in Azerbaijan.

VOA Bangla

  • Cuts: 1 hour SW
  • Continuing Distribution: 1 hour MW(AM); FM and TV affiliates; Multimedia web and mobile sites; Social media
  • SW is not widely used in Bangladesh (just 2% weekly), and the majority of the service’s audience comes to its programming via FM and TV affiliate networks in the country.

VOA English (in Asia)

  • Cuts: 6.5 hours SW (2 hours of programming that was repeated)
  • Continuing Distribution: Some MW; Multimedia web and mobile sites & social media
  • Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, English speakers are rarely users of shortwave radio. They are more likely to be educated and affluent, and to have access to a broad range of media. Years of BBG research questions on consumption of VOA English on shortwave have failed to find any significant audiences outside Africa, in large part because usage of shortwave radio in other regions is mostly very low.

VOA Lao

  • Cuts: 30 minutes SW
  • Continuing Distribution: 30 minutes MW; 7 affiliates in Thailand on Lao border, with reach into Laos; Multimedia web and mobile sites; Social media
  • SW is very little-used in Laos – less than 1% of adults report listening to SW radio weekly. In BBG’s most recent research in Laos, no surveyed listeners reported using the SW band to access VOA content. A strong majority (66%) hear VOA on FM, through affiliate stations on the Thai border that carry VOA content (Laos is so small that border FM stations have decent penetration into the country).

VOA Special/Learning English

  • Cuts: 5.5 hours SW
  • Continuing Distribution: Learning English programs continue on SW on English to Africa. 30 minutes MW; Multimedia web and mobile sites, including special interactive teaching products; Social media, including social English lessons
  • BBG audience research indicates strong interest in learning English, but very limited shortwave listenership to VOA Learning English, outside a few select markets. The service is working more closely with other VOA language services to create English learning products for distribution on more popular channels. And Learning English offers a variety of digital products that are increasingly popular, including a Skype call-in show, videos on YouTube, and a website featuring both audio and transcripts for online audiences to follow as they listen.

VOA Uzbek

  • Cuts: 30 minutes SW
  • Continuing Distribution: Satellite audio and TV (HotBird); FM and TV affiliates in neighboring countries; Multimedia web and mobile sites (with circumvention tools deployed); Social media
  • SW is not widely used in Uzbekistan (just 2% weekly), and does not yield significant audiences for the service (0.3% weekly). Adults in Uzbekistan are much more likely to own a satellite dish (13%) or use the internet (12% weekly) than to use SW, so the service provides content on those platforms. Uzbekistan is an especially difficult market to penetrate with USIM content, but SW is not an effective platform for the country.

RFE/RL Persian (Farda)

  • Cuts: 1 simultaneous SW frequency for 6 broadcast hours
  • Continuing Distribution: SW on multiple frequencies for all 24 broadcast hours remains on, in addition to 24 hours daily MW; “Radio on TV” on VOA Persian stream; 24 hours daily satellite audio with slate plus 24 hour Audio on 4 other satellites including Hotbird, the most popular satellite in Iran; Multimedia website (with circumvention tools deployed); Social media; mobile app with anti-censorship proxy server capability built-in.
  • This is only a reduction to the number of simultaneous frequencies during some of the broadcast day. SW radio, with 5% weekly use in 2012, is considerably less popular than other platforms on which audiences can access Farda content, such as MW (10% weekly use), satellite television (26% own a dish, and 33% watch satellite television weekly) or the internet (39% weekly use).

RFA Lao

  • Cuts: 2 hours SW
  • Continuing Distribution: 5 FM radio affiliates in Thailand provide cross-border coverage; Multimedia web & mobile sites; Social media
  • SW is very little-used in Laos – less than 1% of adults report listening to SW radio weekly. RFA Lao’s listeners come overwhelmingly via FM stations on the Thai border – 94% of past-week listeners report hearing RFA on FM. (Laos is so small that border FM stations have decent penetration into the country).

RFA Vietnamese

  • Cuts: 2 hours SW
  • Continuing Distribution: MW coverage of all broadcast hours remains on; Multimedia web and mobile sites (with circumvention tools deployed) include webcasts and other videos; Social media
  • · SW radio is very little-used in Vietnam – less than 1% of adults report any weekly use of the waveband, and RFA reaches just 0.2% of adults weekly on radio. MW is slightly more popular, but the future for USIM in Vietnam is likely online: 26% of Vietnamese use the Internet weekly now (with much higher rates among certain populations, like the young and the well-educated), and three in four personally own a mobile phone. While Vietnam attempts to block access to sensitive sites, Vietnam is actually the most active country in our most popular Internet Anti-Censorship tools with almost 600 million hits per day.

Languages that continue on Shortwave

VOA

  • Afan Oromo/Amharic/Tigrigna to Ethiopia and Eritrea
  • Bambara
  • Burmese
  • Cantonese
  • Dari
  • English to Africa
  • English to South Sudan
  • French to Africa
  • Hausa
  • Khmer
  • Kinyarwanda/Kirundi
  • Korean
  • Kurdish
  • Mandarin
  • Pashto (to FATA and Afghanistan)
  • Portuguese to Africa
  • Somali
  • Swahili
  • Tibetan
  • · Shona/Ndebele/English to Zimbabwe

OCB

  • Spanish to Cuba

RFE/RL

  • Avar/Chechen/Circassian
  • Belarusian
  • Dari
  • Pashto (to FATA and Afghanistan)
  • Persian
  • Russian
  • Tajik
  • Turkmen
  • Uzbek

RFA

  • Burmese
  • Cantonese
  • Khmer
  • Korean
  • Mandarin
  • Tibetan
  • Uyghur

MBN

  • Arabic (Afia Darfur to Sudan/Chad)

Amendment to H.R. 4490 protects “critical” shortwave services

View of the Capitol Building from the roof of the Voice of America on 330 Independence Ave., S.W.

View of the Capitol Building from the roof of the Voice of America on 330 Independence Ave., S.W.

In response to yesterday’s post regarding sweeping cuts to VOA’s shortwave service, an SWLing Post reader (who wishes to remain anonymous) writes:

“HR4490 contains the following amendment attached to the bill by Cong Lowenthal of CA. Cong Lowenthal has the largest Cambodian community in the US in his constituency as well as Vietnamese.

This is the amendmentto HR4490 which was approved unanimously by the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The Amendment to HR 4490 reads:

“Shortwave broadcasting has been an important method of communication that should be utilized in regions as a component of United States international broadcasting where a critical need for the platform exists.”

 

AMENDMENT-TO-HR4490

Click here to read the full text of H.R. 4490.

Sweeping cuts to VOA, RFE and RFA shortwave services

Voice_of_America_Headquarters

Unfortunate news from the Voice of America: Congress has approved major cuts to US international broadcasting over shortwave. Thanks to Dan Robinson for sharing this significant news.

Dan writes:

This news emerging from VOA late Friday:

VOA to end shortwave broadcasts in English and several language services Monday.

Received this late Friday afternoon:

voa logoFAREWELL TO SHORTWAVE

We were informed late Friday that BBG’s proposed shortwave cuts for FY2014 have been approved by Congress.

As of the end of the day on Monday, June 30th, all shortwave frequencies for English News programs to Asia will be eliminated. We will no longer be heard via shortwave in the morning (12-16 utc), and the evening (22-02utc)…mostly in Asia.

Shortwave frequencies for the following services will also be eliminated: Azerbaijani, Bangla, English (Learning), Khmer, Kurdish, Lao and Uzbek. Shortwave being used by services at RFE/RL and RFA are also being cut.

Because shortwave has been a cheap and effective way to receive communications in countries with poor infrastructure or repressive regimes, it was a good way to deliver information. But broadcasting via shortwave is expensive, and its use by listeners has been on the decline for years. At the BBG, the cost vs. impact equation no longer favors broadcasts via this medium to most of the world.

Important for us is that we will continue to be heard on shortwave frequencies during those hours we broadcast to Africa. Also, we know through our listener surveys that about half of our audience in Asia and the rest of the world listens to us via the web and podcast – so all is not lost.

Let’s break the news about this change to our audiences starting Sunday night. I doubt specific frequencies are critical to announce. The important point to make for our listeners is that we encourage their continued listening through local affiliates, and on the web at voanews.com.”

Russian “clamps down” on US media, US to increase funding for RFE/VOA

Photo of Kremlin: ??????? ?. (Julmin) (retouched by Surendil) via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Kremlin: (Julmin) (retouched by Surendil) via Wikimedia Commons

This morning, I noticed the following press release from the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG):

Russia Clamps Down Further On U.S. International Media

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has condemned a recent decision by Russian authorities to cut off all remaining radio transmissions by U.S. international media in Russia.

In a one-sentence letter dated March 21, Dmitry Kiselev, the director of the information agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), stated that “we are not going to cooperate” with the BBG’s request to continue a long-standing contract for broadcasting on Russian soil. Effective at the end of March, this decision removes the last vestige of Voice of America programming – including news in Russian and English-language lessons – from a local frequency in Moscow (810 AM).

“Moscow has chosen to do the wrong thing and restrict free speech,” said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. “This is a fundamental value shared by many countries around the world. The BBG will continue to reach audiences in Russia through digital platforms and via satellite transmissions.”

Distribution of VOA and RFE/RL programming in Russia reached a high point in 2005, when VOA Russian programming was distributed on a nationwide television network and both VOA and RFE/RL had extensive partnerships with domestic Russian radio stations. But starting in that year, the Russian government turned greater attention to these stations and asked them all to re-apply for their licenses. And beginning in 2006, by denying the licenses of the stations that re-applied and intimidating the others, Russian authorities systematically eliminated domestic radio distribution of BBG-supported programs and almost all television distribution. In 2012, Russian authorities forced RFE/RL off its last remaining domestic radio outlet, an AM frequency in Moscow.

“We urge Mr. Kiselev and other Russian authorities to open Russian airwaves to more of our programs and those of other international broadcasters,” Shell added. “We’re asking for an even playing field: As Moscow’s media crackdown deepens, Russian media – including Russia Today television, which is under Mr. Kiselev’s authority – enjoy open access to the airwaves in the United States and around the world. The Russian people deserve the same freedom to access information.”

Kiselev, known for his strident anti-Western and homophobic views on Russian state television, was appointed in December 2013 to lead Russia Today. At the same time the Voice of Russia and the RIA Novosti news agency were merged into Russia Today.

The move also comes amid a fast-moving campaign to target opposition and independent media. Lists of “traitors” have been circulating in Moscow, and pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov recently added RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Radio Liberty to his “list of traitors” on Facebook. In the same vein, politonline.ru, a part of the Pravda.ru media holding, has created Russia’s first top-20 list of the most “anti-Russian” news outlets. This list, which places Radio Liberty sixth, is being shared by influential Russian political advisors such as Alexander Dugin, who wrote on his Facebook page that “this is the order in which Russia’s most contemptible media outlets will be closed or blocked.”

Russians are increasingly turning to the Internet and social media for their news. VOA’s digital strategy incorporates content across platforms. In addition to live interactives with domestic television channels, such as Russian Business Channel, VOA’s web-TV show, Podelis, allows users to connect and engage with the content in real time using social media. Podelis, which means “share” in Russian, provides a unique opportunity to engage in discussions about current events, Russian politics and U.S.-Russia relations. VOA’s social media following in Russia has grown significantly and visits to VOA’s website have doubled every year since 2008.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian Service provides 24 hours of radio programming via the Internet and satellite, a website that was visited more than 6.5 million times in March, and a strong presence on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. RFE/RL has started a multi-hour, daily video stream for Russia consisting of coverage of the most important events with reactions from Russian citizens as well as opinions from the West. The stream also includes live roundtable ?discussions and expert interviews on Russia.

On Wednesday, BBG Watch posted an article with details about new legislation that would increase funding for Russian, Ukrainian and Tartar language services to “counter the propaganda that is supported by Russia.”

Here’s a quote from a press release in their article:

“S. 2183 is international broadcasting legislation originally authored by Chairman [Ed] Royce (and included as Section 103 of the Ukraine Support Act (H.R. 4278) that the House passed last week). The legislation authorizes increased funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America to enable them to expand their broadcasting in Russian, Ukrainian, and Tatar. This legislation requires the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to counter the propaganda that is supported by Russia and increase the number of reporters in eastern Ukraine. In addition, this legislation recognizes the threat to free media that neighboring states are under and bolsters the Balkan and Moldovan language services.”

Is it me, or is this starting to feel like the Cold War again?

I think the BBG would be wise to take a close look at the VOA Radiogram. In this case, the target audience is highly computer literate and could easily decode VOA transmissions with a simple shortwave radio and free, open-source software.