The Future of U.S. International Broadcasting: A Call for Debate on its Mission and Funding

By Alex Belida With the 70th anniversary of the Voice of America approaching (Feb. 1st), it is an ideal time to assess the future prospects for U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB).

USIB has, over the past 70 years, grown into a multi-headed conglomerate.  Besides VOA, it now includes Radio Free Europe (founded 1950), Radio Liberty (founded 1953 and merged with RFE in 1976), Radio Marti (founded 1983) and TV Marti (founded 1990), Radio Free Asia (founded 1996) and the Middle East Broadcasting Network comprised of Radio Sawa (founded 2002) and Al-Hurra TV (founded 2004).

The current Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), headed by Walter Isaacson, this month approved resolutions (see record of decisions Jan. 13) aimed at consolidating these operations.  As a first step, the Board will study the feasibility of merging into a single corporate structure the three so-called Grantee or surrogate entities – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network.  Secondly the Board will seek legislative approval to create a Chief Executive Officer to oversee day-to-day operations of these non-federal elements of USIB as well as the federal elements, the Voice of America and Radio-TV Marti.

Already critics are speaking out against this modest plan for a semi-merger.  The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB), a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization, wants the status quo preserved, stating in a letter to the BBG: “We believe in and support the distinct and special missions of both VOA and surrogate broadcasters.”

No doubt many employees, fearing for their jobs, would agree with CUSIB.

But the overlaps in the current USIB structure beg for a rational resolution.  Why, for example, should VOA and RFA both broadcast to the same Asian countries?  Why should VOA and RFE-RL vie for the same audiences in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Defenders of the current structure argue VOA has a different mission than RFE-RL, RFA and the other entities.  They say VOA “tells America’s story” while the so-called surrogates act as local broadcasters.

But this is a convenient myth that has been perpetuated for years by the BBG and executives of the various entities, largely to justify their continued existence.  The fact is that VOA has to report local news to the countries it reaches.  That is what audiences want and they would abandon VOA were VOA not to provide it.

In my view, the critics of consolidation are wrong. But the BBG is wrong, too, for taking too timid of an approach to creating a new structure for USIB in the 21st century.

Here are some bolder ideas:

  1. The U.S. should shut down its international broadcasting efforts altogether and cede the field to the BBC and others broadcasting in foreign languages as well as English.  This is unlikely, in my view, unless the same Congressional penny-pinchers who defunded the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy seize on the notion of even greater savings in the international sphere.
  2. The U.S., noting the vast amounts of money being poured into international broadcasting by China and Russia, can increase appropriations for VOA and the other arms of USIB ten-fold.  This is equally unlikely in the current budget environment.
  3. Create a single new organization for USIB that continues broadcasting in the same languages as present but cuts out all duplication.  This would yield cost savings but result in painful personnel cuts.  Congress would be unlikely to approve, despite the savings, because of the outcry from émigré groups and purveyors of the different missions myth.
  4. Turn VOA into an English-only, 24 hour a day super-station on radio and TV (as well as the web), leaving the surrogates in place to handle foreign language broadcasts.  While there would be painful cuts at VOA, this plan would preserve RFE-RL, RFA and MBN. Radio/TV Marti could be eliminated or converted from a federal entity to a private organization like the others.

While I personally favor the last idea, I believe any discussion of the future structure of U.S. International Broadcasting must first address a more fundamental question: what is its purpose?

The Chairman of the BBG has said he believes it is, first and foremost, good journalism – a belief that I and scores of other USIB veterans share. Regrettably those few members of Congress who pay attention to USIB, virtually all conservatives, seem to believe it should be propaganda – that is, content which aggressively criticizes our perceived opponents around the globe while downplaying our own national faults.

Unfortunately, because Congress controls the funding for USIB, those few Senators and Representatives involved with broadcasting have a disproportionate influence on the mission.  And while the BBG is supposed to act as a “firewall” against such political interference, the fact is that since the BBG Governors must be confirmed by the Senate, they are not likely to take any actions that run counter to the views of the influential few in Congress. Nor will any challenges come from the senior staff of the BBG and the entities, whose main job is not pleasing foreign audiences but keeping the Governors and Congress happy.

Therefore, I would argue that to enhance a mission of accurate, objective and comprehensive journalism, it is time to remove USIB altogether from government control and funding.

I propose that a new entity be created, call it Radio-TV-America.  It would be a private corporation.  Its CEO would be selected for a five year term, renewable one time only, by the Deans of the country’s leading graduate schools of journalism.

The Deans would serve on an advisory panel to the CEO and RTV-America, along with the chief editorial officers of the top ten U.S. newspaper and broadcast news organizations.

I see three options for funding this new entity.

First and most preferably, as in Britain, the U.S. could impose an annual user-fee on all households with televisions.  Individuals would not pay the fee but cable companies and national networks would pay it based on their certified audience figures.

Alternatively, the operation could be funded by annual grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Department of Defense.  These agencies already spend tens of millions of dollars each year on various types of media and media development projects overseas, including the creation of broadcast operations. Instead of funding the competition, they should fund our own international broadcaster.

Unfortunately, this option would still leave RTV-America vulnerable to government influence.

Finally, Congress could agree to a guaranteed annual grant to RTV-America, not subject to reduction, based on current appropriation levels with an automatic cost-of-living escalator.  (I suspect this is a non-starter even if  legislatively possible.)

The point is that before we allow the BBG and Congress to discuss half-measures for merging some of the elements of USIB, let us have a serious and more meaningful debate on the mission of USIB and whether it should be removed from government control.

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Alex Belida is a former correspondent and news executive who worked in U.S. International Broadcasting for 40 years. He is the author of a forthcoming novel on international broadcasting and information warfare.

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