The new Broadcasting Board of Governors, announced on Friday by the Obama White House, have their work cut out for them. For a variety of not very satisfactory reasons, the U.S. broadcasting entities (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, et al.) on whom the federal government spends $745 million a year of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money, have been without strong leadership and management for an unconscionably long period.

Members of the board whose terms have long since expired have been doing yeoman service holding down the fort at the BBG since before President Obama took office. Yet, the assertive institutional leadership needed to face 21st century challenges has been absent. In fact, wrote Sen. Richard Lugar (R–IN) recently in The Huffington Post, “The BBG has been at full strength for only six of the past 15 years. The average seat is vacant for 460 days, and one seat has been empty for more than four years.” As an institution, it has often been a political football as Congress continues to seek some way of exerting oversight over U.S. international broadcasting.

The fact is that the war of information and ideas did not end with the victory over communism in the Cold War. Not only is the challenge today coming from violent, extreme Islamism, but also from state actors like China and Russia, both of whom have honed in on the elements of “soft power” critical to their international ambitions and are now investing major resources in mass media. In Latin America, not just Cuba, but also autocratic rulers like Hugo Chavez are tightening the grip on the free flow of information, making U.S. efforts to reach their populations with accurate news as important as ever. And against this background looms several pending decisions regarding the strategic allocation of resources: Radio versus television, traditional media versus Internet and new media, mass appeal versus the targeting of elites and dissidents.

The eight individuals, four nominated by Democrats and four by Republicans, charged with providing this leadership, were stuck for months in congressional limbo awaiting confirmation as Sen. Tom Coburn (R–OK) demanded a thorough vetting of the group for their qualifications and views on broadcasting. On Friday, however, the White House finally made the announcement of their appointment. With Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale being the ninth member of the Board, the membership now consists of:

  • Chairman Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute, former Chairman and CEO of CNN and former Editor of Time Magazine;
  • Victor H. Ashe, who recently served as U.S. Ambassador to Poland;
  • Michael Lynton, Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment;
  • Susan McCue, former Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid;
  • Michael P. Meehan, President of Blue Line Strategic Communications;
  • Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary to President George W. Bush; and
  • S. Enders Wimbush, Senior Vice President at the Hudson Institute and from 1987–93 and former Director of Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany.

The board’s newest members are now entering a world where tensions run high and opinions are anything but lacking. At a recent Heritage Foundation forum, “Perspectives on U.S. International Broadcasting,” some of the biggest voices in public diplomacy aired sharply diverging views on the effectiveness of the BBG as an institution. Jim Glassman, former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, provided analysis and support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ role and mission. Ambassador Tom Korologos, another panelist had a clear message for critics of the BBG: “Lay off!” While admitting that the BBG does have some problems, he encouraged the audience to “keep this in perspective.” The BBG broadcasts in 60 languages, over 100 countries, and has 3,500 employees.

Meanwhile, Robert Reilly, Senior Fellow for Strategic Communications at the American Foreign Policy Council and former Director of Voice of America told a different story of a very dysfunctional institution.  Oftentimes governors let politics and self-interest distract from good management and proper priorities.  This is compounded by the fact that personnel issues and journalistic short-comings often end up inflaming tempers on Capitol Hill. According to Josh Carter, Legislative Director for Senator Brownback (R–KS), the BBG’s budget has “exploded,” from $425 million to $745 million in the past few years. The BBG takes up 40 percent of the U.S. Government’s public diplomacy budget. Yet, because the BBG is by statute meant to be a firewall guaranteeing editorial independence from political influence, Congress feels deprived of proper oversight mechanisms. Tim Shamble, President of the American Federation of Government Employees of Local 1812 chapter, stressed that personnel morale has plummeted as radio is being downgraded in favor of other media.

With the host of issues that demand attention, the new BBG will have its hands full. Most important of all, however, is that the board has a global strategy and a passionate commitment to the free flow of information and ideas. That remains one of the most potent foreign policy tools we have.

Co-authored by Morgan Roach.