U.S. international broadcasting needs a new leadership, new plan and more public scrutiny

By Ted Lipien The BBG restructuring plan would remove much of U.S. international broadcasting from Congressional and public control and scrutiny. The surrogate broadcasters were created in the first place because there was too much control, centralization, interference, and ineffectiveness at the Voice of America. Their job was to undermine dictatorial regimes. The BBG plan would limit their independence and specialization and puts a premium on centralization and bureaucratic control.

Centralization of management and of news production will undermine the effectiveness of surrogate broadcasters. It will also further weaken the Voice of America, where individual language services have won for themselves considerable editorial freedom.

VOA's mission is to project America abroad. The surrogates' mission is to undermine various unsavory regimes. It's true that these missions overlap. In fact, the most successful VOA services have a significant element of surrogate broadcasting but they can't do everything the surrogates can. What VOA can do, and surrogates can't, is to broadcast and produce Internet and new media content on behalf of the American people.

We either need a separate surrogate broadcaster targeting a particular regime because it is especially repressive or dangerous or we don't because the repression and the danger are no longer there. We will always need the Voice of America.

One of the BBG's most foolish decisions was to end all VOA radio and TV programs in Arabic and Russian. The current Board even tried to end all VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China. All Democrats and Republicans in the relevant House and Senate committees told the BBG it was the wrong thing to do while the Chinese regime is cracking down on dissent and perfecting Internet censorship.

The BBG needs to focus on multi-platform, multi-media program delivery that includes new media but does not eliminate VOA broadcasting, where BBG has the greatest competitive advantage. New media outreach is not as difficult or as expensive to develop as the  current BBG management claims it is. Millions of individuals prove it can be done easily, and thousands of broadcasters do it without destroying their core operation.

We are told to have faith in the authors of the BBG restructuring plan. Yet, they are the ones who year after year have been rated by their own employees -- probably more knowledgeable about international broadcasting than anyone else -- as being dead last among all federal agencies officials in leadership and management knowledge.

Still the BBG tells us it not the current management's fault. It's the bad system, full of redundancies, that the Congress and great Americans like Eisenhower, A. Dulles, Kennan, Kennedy and Reagan created and supported. Funny that this "deeply flawed" system helped us win the Cold War and the downhill slide of U.S. international broadcasting started when the BBG was formed in the 1990s.

The BBG's plan to establish another NPR outside of the U.S. Government is politically naive. Sure, all journalists would like to get free money to broadcasts what they want. It does not work that way in the real world. Spending public money requires transparency, accountability and a clear purpose that serves the American public. All BBG news content should be in public domain and available to anyone in the U.S who wants to use it, but allowing BBG officials to market their programs domestically is asking for trouble. It would seriously distract them from their primary mission abroad.

I would start by reforming the BBG itself.

The composition of the Board needs to change. We should bring in to serve on the Board more foreign policy experts, human rights advocates, journalists who have covered pro-democracy movements abroad, respected representatives of various ethnic communities, perhaps some former members of Congress from both parties. Such a Board would not only better project and protect the interests of the American people and the U.S. Government, it would have more expertise to understand foreign audiences and ability to do its job right.

The Board should have the power to hire and fire top managers but it should not run day-to-day operations. A completely independent NGO -- not one that is retained and funded by the BBG -- should perform foreign audience research for the administration and the Congress. Random foreign language scripts should be regularly translated into English and posted online so that anyone can evaluate them.

U.S. international broadcasting also could use a powerful government sponsor since the BBG has proven incapable of winning public support for its mission. It could be loosely linked with USAID, or better yet with a new strategic communications agency, but reporting to its own Board of Directors. We could even entertain a domestic public broadcasting serving some U.S. ethnic communities if there is a demand for it. It should never be, however, another NPR. It should have far more rigorous public scrutiny and bipartisan oversight.

What we should not do under any circumstances is to give the BBG and its management team carte blanche to do whatever they want with critical national security assets. They're the ones after all who brought us to where we are today. What we need is a new vision and a new plan.

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Ted Lipien’s last position at VOA was acting associate director.  While at VOA and BBG, he was in charge of VOA broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity's struggle for democracy, placed BBG broadcasts on stations in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and developed rebroadcasting relationships with commercial stations in Eurasia.

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