What return on investment do American taxpayers receive for the money we pay for international broadcasting in 61 languages from the Voice of America and five other USG-funded media organizations? And is that investment effective? The answer to each question is, we believe, not nearly enough.
Having recently spent several years on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed body responsible for oversight of international broadcasting, we have serious reservations about the effectiveness of the taxpayers’ current investment of $720 million. In our experience, U.S. international broadcasting is run by a dysfunctional organization in pursuit of an unfocused mission attached only tenuously to U.S. foreign policy objectives. This state of affairs is the result of the last round of “reforms” to international broadcasting in the 1990s. It hasn’t worked.
Fortunately change is in the air again, this time serious reform that actually addresses U.S. international broadcasting’s many challenges.
The BBG —the product of the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994 and the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998—is a perfect storm of unworkable structure, broken governance, and no management. Try to follow this.
Today’s BBG oversees six separate international broadcasting organizations. Three—the Voice of America (VOA), the Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB), and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB)—are part of the BBG federal agency, which operates under federal guidelines much like all other federal agencies. The other three organizations—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), and Radio Free Asia (RFA) are federal “grantees.” This means that they are not a direct part of the federal agency, but rather are set up as non-profit 501(c)3s operating as private companies. Thus the BBG is responsible for reconciling two incompatible governance models, one federal and one private.
These six different media organizations compete for funding to support their diverse missions, with members of the BBG supposedly responsible for adjudicating which organizations get how much and for what. Yet in an obvious conflict of interests, members of the BBG separately and at the same time form the supposedly independent fiduciary board of each grantee. In practice, this means that each BBG board member is actually a member of the board of no less than four theoretically independent and competing entities, while still retaining separate jurisdiction over the non-grantees—the VOA, OCB, and IBB—in the federal agency. Not surprisingly, little incentive exists for the different networks to cooperate by combining capabilities, sharing assets, creating synergistic strategies or shutting down duplication. In fact, they spend a disproportionate amount of time competing with each other for funds and advantage, putting their respective boards squarely in the middle, while important strategic and mission-focused activities often suffer.
The original concept of the board itself abets the dysfunction. The BBG was designed to be a part-time bipartisan oversight group of four Democrats and four Republicans, with the sitting Secretary of State serving ex officio as the ninth member. In practice this means that most Governors have outside jobs, often as heads of major corporations or institutions, and little time to oversee six complex media organizations. The chairman has no special powers or authority, just one vote. No one is in charge. And with no management structure—no CEO, COO or even an operational director—the BBG defaults to those individual Governors who may be inclined to interfere directly in the operations of the networks, seldom, in our experience, to good effect.
Confused yet? No one can seriously believe this is a good way to rationalize and manage a complex organization in a fast-changing media environment dedicated to serving hundreds of millions of people across the globe in need of coherent news, perspectives, analysis, and an understanding of American objectives, policies, and attitudes.
The muddle deepens when one considers U.S. international broadcasting’s dual purpose. The notional division of labor for U.S. international broadcasting is, first, to support America’s public diplomacy by explaining American policy and “telling America’s story” to listeners and viewers worldwide while offering a menu of objective news and information. The second function is to provide “surrogate” media services focused on local news, with analysis and commentary, in societies where media are not independent or are easily influenced or intimidated.