Employee View of BBG Strategic Plan: Weakening America's Message Abroad – CUSIB Member's Comments

A Short Critique of BBG’s Strategic Plan 2011-2016
by Timothy Shamble, AFGE Local 1812 President, member of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) Advisory Board
This “new” plan is anything but. It is for the most part just a continuation of past Strategic Plans with its calls to eliminate broadcaster positions, language services, and shortwave radio broadcasts and its emphasis on television. The biggest apparent contribution by the new BBG members to this document is the desire to consolidate the surrogates, greater sharing and cooperation between the various entities, and a change in the stated mission. The old BBG Mission Statement, going back to at least 2002, emphasized news and information.
To promote and sustain freedom and democracy by broadcasting accurate and objective news and information about the United States and the world to audiences overseas.
The new BBG Mission Statement does not emphasize news and leaves out being accurate and objective as a goal. It also ignores the VOA Charter requirements of providing information about the United States.
To inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.
Both mission statements emphasize freedom and democracy which are dirty words to their own management ranks when it comes to how they run their organization.
Some quick observations on areas of emphasis in the new report:
1. Too much focus on TV Just as in 2002 TV is the primary broadcast medium. There are problems with this. Television is extremely expensive to produce. Except for direct satellite TV it is reliant on in-country affiliates for dissemination. That adds more costs and surrenders editorial control. It is also an extremely crowded field with some very competent competitors (as Al Jazerra has proven to be). TV is not the field the BBG should concentrate on. They have no chance of getting the type of funding that would be necessary to compete with the likes of Al Jazeera. Their largest TV product – Al Hurra – has proven to be a huge flop. The BBG’s TV products should be very limited and should be used only for a few target areas.
2. No vision for a global English broadcast and limited use of shortwave radio The one field the BBG has a chance to dominate is shortwave radio broadcasting. That is the field in which they made their mark and it is a field with limited competition. They should reestablish a global English shortwave radio broadcast that is 24/7 and capable of being heard anywhere on earth. English is our mother tongue. It is the primary language for science, the Internet, and diplomacy the world over. It is too important to ignore. The BBG should be actively involved in further development of digital shortwave and stop whining about the lack of digital receivers. To paraphrase a famous movie line – If they broadcast it – the receivers will come.
3. Needed in countries even with “developed, independent media” The BBG’s idea that it is NOT needed has proven to be a big disaster. This was the thinking that led to the elimination of the Russian Service Broadcasts because some on the previous Board believed that Russia had a developed and independent media. No doubt now the current Board members are thinking of eliminating the Greek Broadcasts just as a major economic catastrophe is developing there that could affect the entire globe. It would be good to get our viewpoints heard. But as long as Greece has a developed, independent media then there is no need for us to reach them with our message.
4. The world’s population is aging The concentration on the youth market began back in 2002 as well. Here the BBG is behind the times. Stories have just been released indicating that not only is the world’s population growing to 7 billion but it is also “graying”. There is nothing wrong with trying to reach a young audience but to focus exclusively on this demographic means that you are forever broadcasting to a group that has no power. Trying to reach people in their youth and influence the way they think before they are in a position to exercise any real influence is a very limited plan. At what point to you abandon the youth and target the previously young so you stay in touch with them when they are in a position of power? This myopic plan may be good for selling pop music where a youth market is continually renewed and you don’t need to follow your audience as they age but it is not so good for changing policies.
5. Close cooperation with the State Department What exactly does “close cooperation” mean? Isn’t this a danger that BBG is meant in part to prevent. Are the entities under the BBG to gradually become just the mouth piece of the State Department? Is this what Congress envisioned when the Voice of America was established? This is not something that is designed to ensure our audiences that our broadcasts are independent of and free from government interference.
6. Overlap This idea goes all the back to 2002 as well. There is no real overlap between VOA and the surrogates. These services have different missions and purposes.
7. Embracing audiences’ content and conversationsThere is a role for citizen journalism. That is not nor can it ever be the role of the BBG’s entities. Not if we want our content to be considered as accurate, objective and balanced. How can you double source a lot of what appears on the Internet? Perhaps that is why the new mission statement avoids these terms.
8. Success measured by audience numbers Another blast from the past. The primary measure of success for the BBG is audience numbers. A good measure of success for commercial broadcasters but not for broadcasters such as the Voice of America where selling airtime is not an issue.
9. De-federalization Nothing new here except that in 2002 it was known as “privatizing”.
The report states that one of its challenges the Board will face is that “[e]mployees will naturally worry about their jobs”. You bet employees will! And we will actively oppose the constant elimination of broadcaster and journalist positions while the ranks of high graded positions of advisors and assistants continue to swell. The number of SES and GS-15 positions has grown to such embarrassing numbers that the Agency has begun redacting portions of the staffing pattern from the Union to prevent anyone from actually seeing the actual number of these positions.
As one broadcaster told me he has had enough. “We have been forced to do pieces that are adapted for radio, TV, internet and now cell phones all the while we have seen a loss of colleagues to help us shoulder these extras duties. In the meantime the managers get more and more aides, assistants, and deputies.”
“We had expected more from this new Board. What we wanted was fresh new ideas but instead it seems to be the same old thing.”