The headlines scream of government dysfunction: “Bad Management Threatens Voice of America’s Future,” and “Broadcasting Board of Governors Has Let America and Obama Down,” are among the most recent and tactful.
Such blasts appear daily on BBGWatch.com, a three-year-old online compendium of mostly anonymous critiques of how the Washington-based BBG bureaucracy handles digital innovations, personnel cuts and shifting U.S.-sponsored media roles in overseas conflict zones.
The current debate splashed to the website’s global readership is a split between some professionals in the Voice of America newsroom and the American Federation of Government Employees over the union’s support of a BBG management reform bill (H.R. 4490) by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., that would replace the BBG with a new communications agency and alter VOA’s charter to make it more an expression of U.S. policy.
The man behind the assemblage of anonymous BBG kibitzers is Ted Lipien, 60, a Polish-born veteran of the Voice of America, now retired, who now runs the site from his home in Truckee, Calif. “It started in response to many crises at VOA, and functions as a watchdog, a useful tool for the public as to whether the organizations within BBG are effective,” he told Government Executive.
The original impetus for the blog was a 2008 decision by the agency to end satellite and radio broadcasts to Russia and later China and Tibet, Lipien said. Later, the blog’s protests “had a lot of impact in focusing the board’s attention” on management’s firing of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty employees in 2012, as well as exposing waste and inefficiencies, he said.
BBG Watch launched in August 2011 with a “group of then current and former VOA and other BBG employees” in response to a proposal by BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau to cut all VOA short-wave and TV broadcasts to China and all radio to Tibet, Lipien said. “VOA would have been left with only a website and satellite TV for Tibet. We adamantly opposed these cuts, and we prevailed when Congress blocked them.”
BBG Watch also criticizes VOA for getting what it sees as a late start in developing digital media. “The VOA website is not something that strikes you as very impressive,” Lipien says. “Its tweets and Facebook shares are not that many. VOA has only about 100,000 Twitter followers, but the State Department has more than 900,000,” he noted.
“Without reform, the BBG would be shut down,” Lipien said.
Most of his site’s blogposts are anonymous “because of the nature of the work,” he said. Most contributors are current VOA or Radio Free Europe or Radio Liberty employees, “and obviously can’t write under their own names under current management. It was from the beginning designed as an anonymous watchdog, protected by the First Amendment, as has been recognized by the Supreme Court,” he said.
Lipien, who speaks several languages including Russian and other Slavic ones, covered the Balkans war and helped get the VOA into Afghanistan and Iraq after U.S. troops invaded. He eventually became director of VOA’s European Division before retiring in 2006 to write a book on Pope John Paul II.
His team operates BBG Watch with no outside funding. “All our people are very dedicated, all volunteer and some contribute their own private funds,” he said. The work “doesn’t take a lot of money, but it takes effort and time to write and travel to BBG meetings. We all moderate and edit; it’s a group effort.”
The reaction to his labors, Lipien says, “depends on who you talk to. Many BBG members really appreciate the effort, and say it opens their eyes. I have a very good relationship with several, including the current chairman. I talk to them, and they come to me for advice. Within the rank and file, BBG Watch is appreciated, though some,” he added, may not like the current coverage of the legislation.
One current BBG member said he is glad Lipien no longer works for BBG.
“That’s part of democracy,” Lipien says.