The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) recently informed its workforce about sequestration cuts to Voice of America’s (VOA) shortwave and medium-wave broadcasting. Ironically, the Board is cutting the most cost-effective part of its organization: radio.
It would be more rational to cut the bloated management and administration of the International Broadcasting Bureau, which accounts for over 36 percent of the 2013 BBG budget request. Television broadcasting would also be a good place to look for savings, being far more expensive to produce and highly variable in terms of ratings.
Last year, however, the BBG declared in its “Strategic Plan” that radio is a “legacy medium,” a hold over from the past compared to television and the Internet. Now a golden opportunity has presented itself for the BBG staff. Thus, under the guise of complying with sequestration, the board has moved ahead with plans to cut radio, plans that have been fought by Members of Congress and heavily criticized by supporters of U.S. public diplomacy for several years.
One vocal critic was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, no less. During her Benghazi testimony in January, Clinton had harsh words for the BBG. Clinton bemoaned the fact that the U.S. government has “abandoned broadcasting to the Middle East,” and stated that the BBG, which is responsible, is “a defunct agency.” While this is hardly true in terms of budget, it is in terms of leadership.
Under sequestration, the BBG must cut $37.2 million out of its total budget of $720 million. The announced cuts in shortwave and medium-wave broadcasting are a drop in the bucket, a mere $5.3 million. While efficiencies should certainly be part of the budget picture, decimating the agency’s core mission—broadcasting—should not. Moreover, management has made it clear that these cuts are permanent and not reversible.
In a letter (obtained by the Heritage Foundation) dated March 26 and addressed to “all employees,” Richard Lobo, director of the International Broadcasting Board under the BBG explained that “we’ve done everything we can to avoid furloughs under sequestration, but to do so, costs other than salaries have to be reduced.” So, employees will be protected, but their work products will not.
A few days later, employees were handed a document summarizing the cuts in broadcasting. It means deep cuts in broadcasting in Cantonese to China, Dari and Pashto to Afghanistan, English to Africa and Asia, Khmer to Cambodia, and English-learning programs around the world. It further means elimination of medium-wave and shortwave broadcasting in Albanian, Georgian, Persian, and Spanish, as well as in English to Afghanistan and in English to the Middle East.
The document notes that national FM and television affiliates will continue to carry VOA broadcasting. The catch is that local affiliates are subject to the whims of the host countries, with all the vulnerabilities and complications that entails.
Again, the BBG has demonstrated why it is a broken institution, unfit to handle the U.S. government’s most important public diplomacy tool: its broadcasting complex. Congress needs to act, soon, to give U.S. international broadcasting a leadership with the proper priorities.