Shocker: GAO finds duplication in US international broadcasting (updated).

Posted: 10 Mar 2013   Print   Send a link
U.S. Government Accountability Office, 29 Jan 2013: "Nearly two-thirds of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) language services--offices that produce content for particular languages and regions-- overlap with another BBG service by providing programs to the same countries in the same languages. GAO identified 23 instances of overlap involving 43 of BBG's 69 services. For example, in 8 instances involving 16 services, a Voice of America service and a Radio Free Asia service overlapped. Almost all overlapping services also broadcast on the same platform (i.e., radio or television). BBG officials noted that some overlap may be helpful in providing news from various sources in countries of strategic interest to the United States; however, they acknowledged that overlap reduces the funding available for broadcasts that may have greater impact. ... GAO recommends that BBG systematically consider in its annual language service reviews (1) the cost and impact of overlap among BBG entities' language services and (2) the activities of other international broadcasters. BBG agreed with GAO's recommendations and reported taking initial steps to implement them."

A quick look at the websites of its entities shows that duplication is pervasive in US international broadcasting. Since 1989, I've been writing about, and seeking to eliminate, this duplication. As an indicator of my effectiveness, in 1994 Congress and the Clinton administration, egged on by then-BBG-member Bette Bao Lord, created Radio Free Asia, thus adding eight more languages of duplication and massively increasing the inefficiency of USIB.

The danger now is that the GAO report will force USIB to transform itself from one unsatisfactory situation, i.e. duplication, to another, i.e. inconvenience. If VOA is no longer allowed to broadcast news about the target country, then audience will be required to tune to two US stations, different times, different frequencies, to get all of the day's news. The audience will, of course, not put up with such nonsense. They will tune instead to the BBC to get all of the news from one source.

In 35 years of international broadcasting audience research, I am aware of no audiences that are interested only in news about their own country, and none interested only in news about the rest of the world. Audiences are interested in world news, US news, and news about their own country, in proportions that vary by country. To succeed, USIB should provide news in the ratio appropriate for each target country. In the present structure of USIB, there is no provision for success.

The GAO report considers the possibility of duplication with the international broadcasters of other democracies. In theory, such duplication cannot occur because the international broadcaster of another country cannot report as completely about the United States as VOA. In reality, BBC and even Al Jazeera English have more US reporters than VOA, which concentrates its resources on reporting about its target countries. Elimination of duplication would allow VOA to shift its resources to coverage of the USA.

The report also addresses duplication with US private international broadcasting efforts. USIB attracts its audience because of its news, not because of any public diplomacy function. The private sector also provides news. If private broadcasters can supply news to foreign audiences at no cost to the US taxpayer, this is a good thing. USIB should not duplicate, or compete with, or undercut the profit potential of US private international broadcasting. Indeed, USIB should cooperate and barter with US private news media, and therefore enjoy the same benefits that the BBC World Service derives from the domestic BBC.

It is difficult for USIB to justify broadcasting in English, except to Africa. CNN International is established as a successful global news channel, and there are many US-based English news websites. Any plans to expand USIB in Spanish should carefully weigh the role that CNN en Español already plays in the Hemisphere. CNN activities and partnerships in Turkish, Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic should be taken into account, along with the expanding number of foreign language websites of the New York Times.

It might be said that CNN cannot substitute for VOA because CNN does not speak for the US government. Such a statement, however, would be an admission that VOA is not entirely a news organization. To the extent VOA adds advocacy to its output, it subtracts from its credibility. In this duplication-elimination exercise, VOA should no longer duplicate the work conducted by the public diplomacy offices of the State Department. The best way for VOA explain the policies of the United States is through its news and current affairs coverage.

A short term solution to duplication is one that VOA will not like. VOA would no longer have separate broadcasts in languages also transmitted by a "radio free" grantee. VOA staff in those language services would serve as the VOA-branded Washington and US corespondents for the grantees. VOA would also be the clearinghouse for the global reporting of VOA and USIB correspondents in all languages, translating and feeding those reports back to the grantees.

After such short-term adjustments, USIB would still be a cumbersome organization. In the long term (I hope not too long), consolidation is the only satisfactory way to eliminate duplication. Consolidation would reduce the number of senior management structures from seven (BBG, IBB, VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN, OCB) to one. The senior managers who stand to lose their jobs as a result will resist mightily. They will fight to keep their jobs and to keep USIB inefficient.

Government Executive, 1 Feb 2013, Charles S. Clark: "In response to the report's publication, BBG put some of the blame on Congress. 'During the past decade, the BBG has proposed to cut 20 language services due to overlap and obsolescence,' the agency said in a statement. 'But in each of the last three years, Congress has restored funding for what we identified to cut.' BBG also argued GAO had missed a major point. 'Our mission is to provide news and information to countries that don't have full press freedom. If the agency eliminated 43 of the 59 language services entirely, the theoretical savings would reach $149 million,' it said. 'Our experience with the past few budget cycles shows that even much smaller cuts have constituencies that effectively lobby Congress to fully restore them. That said, having two services for the same country is in some cases the right thing to do. Many of our broadcasts are branded and distributed for different audiences, who have come to count on them.'"

Update: Washington Post, 1 Mar 2013, Al Kamen: "Looking for budget cuts? A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last month concluded about $149 million a year (or $1.5 billion over 10 years) could be saved by cutting duplicate services in U.S. overseas broadcasting operations. ... The BBG says there is indeed overlap and it’s working on that, but it’s 'simplistic' to say the savings would amount to $149 million a year and that the 'overlap' doesn’t account for important differences in programming. But the GAO and the agency agree that much of the overlap is, as the BBG notes in its response, 'mandated by statute,' meaning Congress." -- The "differences in programming" are "important" only in the eyes of bureaucrats. If the audience is a factor in this equation, the audience it wants credible news about its own countries, about the world, and about the United States, in proportions that vary by target country. That proportion can be achieved only by one station, not by multiple stations. If US international broadcasting wants to improve its performance, it has no choice other than to reduce its budget.