The New York Times, in a recent article, describes a growing split between the VOA Union (American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812) and VOA journalists over the proposed changes to the VOA mission (via H.R. 4490), which would make it an active voice of American policy. (Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Marty, for sharing this relevant article).
WASHINGTON — Voice of America journalists who are fighting to maintain what they say is their editorial independence are now at odds not only with Congress, but also with their own union.
The union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, recently endorsed a bill that would change language in the charter for the 72-year-old news agency and require it to actively support American policy. That came as a surprise to some Voice of America employees, who said the legislation would make them mouthpieces for government policy. They want the union to withdraw its letter of support.
“A lot of us would welcome change and reform, but not at the cost of undermining V.O.A.’s journalistic credibility,” said Jim Malone, a senior national correspondent at the government-financed news agency who is not a member of the union.
In its letter, union leaders said the agency’s managers had lost sight of their mission and were trying to turn the “V.O.A. into something they envisioned as a global variant of CNN.”
“In the end, some of the currently entrenched senior management represent a far greater threat to V.O.A.’s journalistic independence, indeed to the very existence of the V.O.A.,” the union wrote.
The danger, said the union’s president, Tim Shamble, is that the government could withdraw its financial support if the agency continued its current course. The federation represents about 40 percent of all Voice of America workers and 11 percent of the journalists in the central news division.
AS AUTHORITARIAN states such as Russia and China ramp up well-funded and sophisticated global propaganda operations, U.S. officials and members of Congress fret that the U.S. government’s information operations are lagging behind. […]
A bipartisan bill headed for the House floor after more than a year of study and drafting would tackle some of these problems. But it also would take a dangerous step toward converting the most venerable and listened-to U.S. outlet, Voice of America, into another official mouthpiece.[…]
The bill sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking Democrat Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.) would refocus VOA on reporting “United States and international news and information,” which might eliminate some of the overlap. It also would usefully reorganize the management of the surrogates, combining them into one non-federal entity called the Freedom News Network and creating an independent governing board similar to the one that directs the National Endowment for Democracy.
However, the bill would define VOA as an instrument of U.S. “public diplomacy,” fold it into a new United States International Communications Agency and require programming that “is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.” Quarterly meetings would be required with the State Department undersecretary charged with directing public diplomacy. This mandate inevitably would conflict with VOA’s historic mission of producing “accurate, objective and comprehensive news”; how could stories about controversial subjects such as the Guantanamo Bay prison or National Security Agency spying be “objective” and supportive of U.S. policy? The result could be an exodus of VOA’s best journalists and a steep drop in its credibility with international audiences.
[…]The United States will never beat China and Russia in the game of official propaganda, but it can win the war of ideas — if it doesn’t lose faith in its own principles.
“the creation of the United States International Communications Agency within the executive branch of Government as an independent establishment”
creating an Advisory Board of the United States International Communications Agency–as the name implies, this board would serve in an advisory (in lieu of management) capacity
a new CEO of the United States International Communications Agency, who would be “appointed for a five-year term and renewable at the Board’s discretion. The CEO would exercise broad executive powers.”
the creation of the Consolidated Grantee Organization, for the non-federal grantees of the BBG who would be consolidated “and reconstituted under a single organizational structure and management framework.” This would affect the following agencies:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL),
Radio Free Asia (RFA), and
Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)
“The Consolidated Grantee Organization would have its own board and its own CEO.”
“The Voice of America would be placed within the the United States International Communications Agency.”
Changes to the VOA charter including more freedom and flexibility to report the news. BBG Watch quotes: “The Voice of America’s success over more than seven decades has created valuable brand identity and international recognition that justifies the maintenance of the Voice of America; the Voice of America’s public diplomacy mission remains essential to broader United States Government efforts to communicate with foreign populations; and despite its tremendous historical success, the Voice of America would benefit substantially from a recalibration of Federal international broadcasting agencies and resources, which would provide the Voice of America with greater mission focus and flexibility in the deployment of news, programming, and content.”
The new bill also outlines sharing resources between the VOA and the new Consolidated Grantee Organization (which currently maintains much of its own network infrastructure)
Much like VOA Site A, the VOA Delano, California site has been turned over to the Government Services Administration (GSA). After consideration for federal use, the GSA reached out to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who expressed an interest in the site. If approved, HUD could use the site to house the homeless or, possibly, create an affordable housing campus. We won’t know the future of the site until later this year.
Though I know it’s not in the realm of possibility, I would love to see the site donated to a non-profit broadcaster or university who could carry out HF broadcasts and/or research.
On a side note, several months ago, I came across a declassified 2005 Report of Inspection for the Delano Transmitting Station. It makes for a fascinating look into Delano when it was once fully operational.
The new budget would expand Leaning English content, but reduce, “low-impact, long-form English language radio created for shortwave.”
The Broadcasting Board Of Governors is requesting a reduced budget from congress for FY 2015 and re-focusing efforts on services to Asia and Africa.
Of course, this will be at the expense of Azerbaijani, Georgian, Persian, and Uzbek language programming and a complete cut of programs to Serbia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Programming to Cuba will be reduced as well.
The FY 2015 Budget Request also outlines the closure of VOA’s bureaus in Jerusalem and Houston.
For a quick summary, read the VOA News article below.
After the article, I’ve clipped quotes where the BBG specifically mentions shortwave radio in the 2015 budget, so continue reading.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. government entity that oversees the Voice of America, has released details of a 2015 budget request that will cut Balkan language services but add spending aimed at Asia and Africa.
The BBG is asking Congress for $721 million, a reduction from a $731 million budget in the current fiscal year. Agency officials say their goal is to reach a new generation of audiences through media that global listeners and viewers increasingly use.
The 2015 budget request includes youth-oriented video and digital initiatives for Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma – also known as Myanmar.
In China, the BBG plans to increase the use of social media and programs to fight Internet censorship.
The BBG is also planning to set up a new satellite television channel and expand FM radio in the Sahel region of north-central Africa. A new Lingala language service is planned for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
VOA’s English Learning programs would also be expanded.
But the 2015 budget would eliminate the VOA language services for Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia. The Azerbaijani, Georgian, Persian, and Uzbek services would see reductions and broadcasting to Cuba would also see a very significant cut.
The proposal also calls for the closure of VOA news bureaus in Jerusalem and Houston.
Dave Allison, acting president of the union representing many VOA employees, said with the cuts in services VOA is “retreating” from its historic mission that began in 1942. He said Balkan broadcasters had tears in their eyes when they were told their shows face elimination.
If you take a look inside the FY 2015 Budget Request (click here to download it as a PDF) you will see how they perceive shortwave radio in the media mix moving forward. I particularly find the mention in their summary insightful.
Here are a few highlights:
From page 9 of the FY 2015 Budget Request:
“The FY 2015 Budget Request reflects a host of distribution changes. In the mix of technology and distribution platforms, the BBG sees clearly the global adoption of digital media. Actively underway is the migration from legacy distribution platforms such as shortwave and medium wave (AM) to the media platforms audiences are using today, including satellite TV and audio, FM radio, mobile phone technologies, and social and other digital media. In many of our markets, use of the Internet overall and as a source of news already exceeds radio, and in some cases by a wide margin. The BBG is adapting to this fundamental shift by taking, where appropriate, a digital-first approach and combining digital and traditional media into one integrated strategy.
That said, the BBG remains platform-agnostic, meaning we will use the media on which our audiences prefer to receive information, engage with media and connect with one another.
Shortwave radio will still play a role in selected countries such as Nigeria, Burma, and Afghanistan, among others.”
No money has been budgeted for shortwave radio capital improvements in 2015:
On page 45, the BBG mentions regions where they believe shortwave radio is still an important information medium:
“Audiences accessing VOA using mobile devices and social media grew exponentially in the past year; and VOA has a global network of FM affiliate partners as well as wholly owned FMs. Meanwhile, VOA’s long-standing role as a shortwave broadcaster remains at the forefront in markets where
shortwave is still viable, including the Sahel, where Islamist extremists have carried out terrorist attacks in the past year, and in information-deprived societies such as North Korea and Tibet.”
Then on page 64:
“Capitalizing on current research on audience media habits, TSI will continue taking steps in FY 2014 to move away from less effective legacy distribution systems, such as shortwave and medium wave transmission, toward use of more modern technologies, where appropriate, to reach larger and younger audiences. Where shortwave remains important, TSI is building a more cost-effective transmission infrastructure to support continuing broadcast requirements. In addition, where available, transmitting stations will receive their broadcast content through lower cost digital services, instead of the more expensive satellite distribution. TSI also is using satellite radio in China, including in Tibet, – for just a fraction of the cost of shortwave or medium wave transmissions to that country – as a means of leveraging the widespread use of satellite receive dishes in remote locations or where local cable and Internet access is restricted.”
Burmese broadcasts mentioned on page 74:
“RFA’s Burmese Service is preparing for comprehensive radio and TV coverage of the 2015 national elections, Burma’s first opportunity for truly free and fair elections. At the same time, RFA is reporting on the numerous domestic problems which could derail the move to democratization, especially the need for constitutional reform prior to the elections. RFA
provides a platform for civil, civic dialogue where the people of Burma can express opinions on their problems and possible solutions. RFA will also address religious and ethnic divides,
and more programming will be targeted toward Burma’s rural population, providing basic education in areas such as health, agriculture and basic human rights. Shortwave radio, which still dominates in rural areas where most of the population lives, is the best medium to present such programs.”
Afia Darfur‘s programming on page 78:
“Afia Darfur is broadcast into Darfur via shortwave each evening at 9:00 p.m. local time and targets all people in Darfur and eastern Chad, and it is heard in Khartoum. The 30-minute program is rebroadcast two additional times, once in the evening (10:00 p.m. local time) and again the following morning (6:00 a.m. local time).”
Cost savings through shortwave broadcasts from Kuwait (page 82):
“BCI funds will be used to reconfigure the shortwave broadcast infrastructure at the Kuwait transmitting station to enhance coverage of Iran and achieve cost savings for shortwave
broadcasts. Because of the very low cost of electrical power in Kuwait, the IBB Kuwait Transmitting Station is the least expensive station to operation in the IBB global network. This project will allow the Agency to shift scheduled transmissions from other stations in the IBB network to Kuwait, especially those transmissions from high cost leased facilities wherever possible.”
But, perhaps this clip from the 2015 budget summary provides the best insight:
“In order to serve audiences in less developed areas of the world, the BBG must continue to broadcast via traditional technologies such as shortwave and maintain capability on these platforms by replacing antiquated equipment. But to stay relevant in competitive news markets and serve both current and future audiences, the BBG must also invest in new cutting-edge technology. In areas where the BBG has ceased to broadcast, or where ownership and usage of shortwave radio has declined significantly, the BBG has closed transmission stations, repurposed equipment, and invested these savings in digital media technology and new high-priority programming.”