Keeping America Connected: End the Static at the Broadcasting Board

Our ability to respond to fast-moving changes in the global technological and demographic environment is hampered by chronic functional problems with the organization in charge, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
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America's international broadcasting operations are a key element in our diplomatic efforts to communicate our values to the rest of the world and to bring news and information to closed societies. Through traditional outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and newer ones like Radio Free Asia and the 24-hour Arabic-language Alhurra TV, the U.S. government distributes programming via radio, TV, the Internet and other new media in 60 languages to an estimated 175 million people weekly.

Rapid technological change, shifting demographics, new competition and stepped-up jamming all pose fresh challenges to our broadcasting system. Unfortunately, our ability to respond to this fast-moving environment is hampered by chronic functional problems with the organization in charge, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

This is one of the main conclusions from a recent Foreign Relations Committee staff study I commissioned, "U.S. Public Diplomacy 2.0--Is anybody listening?" The BBG, set up in 1994 to have four Republican and four Democratic members, Senate-confirmed, was to serve as a political "firewall" to protect against undue interference. Instead, the report found, it has become a "political football." Partisan politics and perennial squabbles over nominees have frequently left many board seats vacant.

The BBG has not had its full complement of governors since 2004, and has had no chairman since 2008. Today, only half the seats are filled, two Republicans and two Democrats, each of whom has been serving since 2002, well past their official three-year terms. In fact, the report found, the BBG has been at full strength for only six of the past 15 years. The average seat is vacant for 460 days, and one seat has been empty for more than four years. Not surprisingly, morale suffers: the BBG ranked last among 37 federal agencies in a 2008 employee survey on Leadership and Knowledge Management, Results-Oriented Performance Culture and Talent Management. It ranked second to last on Job Satisfaction.

This is no way to run a multi-media network with global reach. (The BBG also operates Radio/TV Marti for Cuba, the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MEBN), comprising Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa in Arabic, plus services directed to critical audiences in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.) While the current four governors have been doing yeoman's work, only a full-strength board can set the policies and provide the oversight necessary. The report identified numerous issues facing the BBG, among them:

Iran--The Tehran government attempts to jam both VOA's Persian News Network TV and Radio Free Europe's Persian-language "Radio Farda." In February 2010, the Iranian government arrested seven journalists who had merely held job interviews with Farda.

China--Well before this year's well-publicized cyber-attack on Google that originated in China, Radio Free Asia, which broadcasts in Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan and Uygur, had been subject to extensive China-based cyber-hacking. Making sure American programming gets through China's "Great Firewall" of sophisticated Internet censors is a major strategic challenge.

Arabic radio--BBG's Radio Sawa has been a victim of its own success. It pioneered a new format of mostly music interspersed with brief newscasts. To the surprise of its many critics, Sawa quickly became popular with the all-important under-30 audience. But local stations copied the formula and Sawa's listenership has declined by 25%. Decisions are needed about funding for marketing or a possible change in format.

Marketing--The BBG develops and broadcasts quality programming, but efforts to attract listeners and viewers to that content have been erratic. Radio Free Asia, with a target audience of more than a billion people, has never budgeted more $7,000 on marketing. MEBN has seen its marketing budget fluctuate from a few thousand dollars in 2005 and 2006 to $100,000 in 2007, back to $5,000 in 2008 to over $1 million in 2009. The BBG must learn to compete for audience share, particularly in the crowded Arabic TV market where Alhurra has few viewers outside Iraq.

These and the many other issues described in the report deserve the concerted attention of a robust board of governors. It wasn't until November of last year that the administration nominated a full slate of eight members, to be chaired by former journalist Walter Isaacson. They still have not been confirmed.

In the short term, I urge my colleagues in the Senate to move quickly to approve all the nominees so they can get to work. However, should the chronic dysfunction in the confirmation process persist, Congress may well have to consider a new structure to oversee our international broadcasters so that this important tool of public diplomacy gets the consistent management and oversight it deserves.

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