2010 07 12 NYT Op-Ed Contributor – Radio Free of Bureaucracy – NYTimes.com
Radio Free of Bureaucracy
AFTER seven months of politicking, the new Broadcasting Board of Governors was confirmed by the Senate at the very end of last month. The bipartisan board, now headed by the former CNN chairman Walter Isaacson, supervises the government-financed programs Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Arabic-language Radio Sawa and Al Hurra TV, and Radio and TV Martí, which broadcast to Cuba.
The board faces an increasingly competitive global media environment. The benchmark is the British Broadcasting Corporation’s World Service, which produces radio programs in 32 languages, plus television in Arabic and Persian, and has a global weekly radio audience of 180 million people — about 10 million more than the combined audiences of the American international stations.
Can the B.B.G. catch up with its cousins at the BBC? It might seem difficult, given that President Obama has just asked all federal agencies to plan for a 5 percent reduction in spending.
A budget cut, however, might be just the thing. After all, the BBC World Service keeps its audience listening on an annual budget of $420 million. The United States spends close to twice as much on international broadcasting — $757 million per year.
A common explanation for this discrepancy — that the BBC World Service gets free support from its parent agency, the domestic BBC — doesn’t really hold up. A World Service spokesman tells me (and provides documentation to back this up) that the BBC “does not allow for any cross-subsidy between the various funding streams.”
The real reason the United States spends so much more is that, instead of having one entity that produces all broadcasts, American international broadcasting is a collection of often redundant agencies working under the banner of the Board of Governors.
In more than 20 of the languages covered by American broadcasting, both Voice of America and Radio Free “surrogate” stations transmit programs. The theory behind this is that the Radio Free station provides news about the target country, while Voice of America presents United States and general world news. If that were true, the audience would have to tune into two American stations at different times and different frequencies to get complete news coverage. In reality, V.O.A. also extensively covers its target countries. If it didn’t, no one would listen. As a result, there is much duplication of effort.
The new Broadcasting Board of Governors has a chance to change this. It should propose to Congress and the Obama administration a merger of the separate broadcasting entities into one corporation under the board’s supervision, similar to the BBC World Service. This would eliminate the duplication and reduce overhead, compensating for the 5 percent budget cut and then some. It would also free up money to invest in television, an expensive medium that is necessary to attract audiences in many target countries.
The present mixture of broadcasting bureaucracies, created over the decades by this and that legislation, must be replaced by a consolidated structure that can increase audience reach without reaching for taxpayers’ wallets.
Kim Andrew Elliott, an audience research analyst for the United States International Broadcasting Bureau, has taught communications at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and blogs on international broadcasting.