publicdiplomacycouncil.org; via LJB by email
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Friday, March 4th 2016
“It’s a whirlwind of positive change.” Summing up the recent (February 26) bimonthly public meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the BBG), the acting chairman of the Board for that session, Michael Kempner, reflected on the unprecedented innovations and fresh energy that have characterized America’s publically-funded international broadcasting over the past six months.
At last, the oversight Board has appointed a chief executive officer to coordinate the work and set priorities for its five multimedia overseas networks that reach nearly a quarter of a billion adults in other lands each week but are largely unknown in the United States.
The new CEO is a seasoned media executive who formerly headed Scripps-Howard news, John F. Lansing. The networks are the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network in Arabic, and Radio-TV Marti in Spanish to Cuba.
Almost immediately after assuming charge last September, Lansing began to bring together the sprawling community of former rivals and set in motion the unprecedented “whirlwind.” Hours after he became CEO, he was handed a somewhat incomplete draft request for funding during the U.S. government fiscal year beginning next October 1 and told he would have to defend it before the White House Office of Management and Budget a day or so later.
“No way,” he declared, asking for a postponement of a week or two. His first step was to call a meeting of the presidents, directors or acting chief officers of VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN and the Martis. He christened a new U. S. International Media Coordinating Council, or ICC, to collectively decide on the budget request, and together, jointly present it to the OMB. He and the five network captains would meet biweekly to coordinate programming and focus on the impact of their broadcasts.
This was unprecedented in the 20-year history of the part-time BBG. All the network executives signed off on five main goals Lansing proposed. The stage was set for potentially the most creative initiative to coordinate all of U.S. international broadcasting since RFE was established alongside the flagship VOA in 1950. The key: accurate, objective and comprehensive news and information around the globe to foster freedom and democracy. Lansing’s goals:
--- to aggressively pursue a market-driven shift to more digital media
---to coordinate programming globally with daily exchanges of content among the entities
---to focus on areas of American strategic concern, ISIS, Russia, China, Africa and terrorism
---to acquire and adapt programming from U.S. commercial and public broadcasting outlets
---to amass evidence of impact in all world regions to reinforce the impressive survey numbers.
What then, are the most important recent breakthroughs? One is to expand the first regularly scheduled joint TV program of VOA and RFE/RL in Russian. That program, Current Time, was inaugurated before Lansing’s arrival to offer a journalistically sound, credible hour a day to Russia and other countries with substantial Russian-speaking populations.
Current Time is now available on at least 28 TV affiliates in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states, Germany, Israel and three Central Asian states, a sharp contrast to the Kremlin’s often slanted and propagandistic Russia Today TV available in many of those countries.
Most telling: Current Time is also seen via satellite by an estimated two million viewers weekly inside Russia itself. Nenad Pejic, acting president of RFE/RL, says that Current Time will be expanded to six hours daily on a pilot basis by March 17, likely with a formal inaugural by mid-April.
During the first public roundtable of the ICC in VOA’s new high density TV studios, the Voice’s acting director Kelu Chao cited live coverage of the State of the Union message across the board in U.S. international broadcasting. For the first time, other networks --- RFE/RL, RFA and the Martis to Cuba --- used the Voice’s live simultaneous translations of President Obama’s remarks in languages such as Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. They did so on TV, radio and on line services of each.
MBN president Brian Conniff discussed a very effective interactive program his network is producing for Arab world audiences called Have Your Say, also shared widely across the BBG community. New digital platforms, Conniff said, go beyond passive, one-way communication to engage and connect audiences, as the BBG mission prescribes.
BBG governor Karen Kornbluh praised the strong collaboration among the networks and expressed hope it would continue. “I think we’re really seeing the tip of the iceberg,” RFA president Libby Liu added. “We get together often, and that’s something that wasn’t done in the past.” As an example, she and VOA’s Kelu Chao cited the VOA-RFA daily coverage coordination of Burma’s recent landmark election which reformers won for the first time since 1990.
Other evidences of impact: Radio-TV Marti’s new director Malule Gonzalez said an opposition leader in Cuba had appealed to her station to continue quoting him and his colleagues. She added that the Martis would be drawing on VOA Spanish live coverage at the forthcoming Democratic and Republican National Conventions. VOA’s Kelu Chao said that as recently as February 24, China’s Peoples Daily condemned the Voice’s coverage of Tibet, another indicator of significant impact. (On March 2, VOA Tibetan organized and broadcast an unprecedented debate of candidates for the Tibetan community leader in exile, the sikyong, or prime minister).
So why the question mark at the title of this report, “A New Era in U.S. International Broadcasting?” Legislation before the House of Representatives, HR 2323, would split the U.S. government overseas multimedia networks in two, each with its own CEO and own Board. The welcome new creative teamwork among the federal VOA and Martis and grantee RFE/RL, RFA, and MBN would be stillborn, shattering the thesis of BBG Governor Ryan Crocker that “we’re all smarter if we work together.” It would undoubtedly cost more because of the duplication in bureaucracies, at the cost of investments in innovative coordinated programming content. Far better to immediately authorize in streamlined legislation a CEO to enhance day-to-day teamwork and creativity at the five networks, ensuring that the John F. Lansing initiatives stick.
The late Edward R. Murrow, a legendary broadcaster and former director of USIA said it best: “Radio, if it is to serve and survive, must hold a mirror up to the nation and the world. The mirror must have no curves, and be held with a steady hand.” Today, that’s a multimedia mirror, with unimaginable ever widening platforms Murrow could scarcely have dreamed of in the 1960s. The new leadership in U. S. international broadcasting --- if supported by a new Congress and new Administration --- holds great promise for a 21st century populace yearning to engage in an audio-visual, digital dialogue aimed at improving lives in every corner of the planet.