Broadcasting board seeks restructuring of management, networks

Board chairman Walter Isaacson called the plan "a historic agreement by the board to streamline international broadcasting into one great organization."Flickr user jdlasica

The Broadcasting Board of Governors proposes to conserve resources by reorganizing to trim overlap in its management of U.S. international broadcasting, the board announced Wednesday.

Summarizing a resolution passed at the board's Jan. 13 meeting, Chairman Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and author, said, "the board is ready to strengthen U.S. international broadcasting in part by freeing up resources locked up in inefficient and duplicative administrative structures and reinvesting in programming. This is a historic agreement by the board to streamline international broadcasting into one great organization focused on quality journalism with many brands and many divisions but unified as one organization."

The board is preparing draft legislation that would establish a chief executive officer to serve as a central day-to-day manager while consolidating the agency's three nonfederal broadcast networks: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. It also would repeal a long-standing prohibition on domestic broadcasting of programming that, though adhering to journalistic standards, is designed to be consistent with U.S. foreign policy aims.

The broadcasting board, an independent body of appointees from both political parties, also supervises the federal Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti). It has a budget of nearly $750 million and oversees producers who use multimedia to broadcast news, debate and cultural programming in 58 languages.

In performing a strategic review during the past year, BBG worked with consultants at Deloitte and at Baker & McKenzie in dealing with the cost analysis and legal issues involved in streamlining operations. Deloitte estimates one-time costs for implementing consolidation, which would include severance payments, would be $7 million to $11 million.

In a strategic plan released October 2011, the board noted, "BBG is a complex amalgam of broadcast entities created by Congress at different points the time over the last 70 years in response to specific foreign policy challenges. It encompasses multiple media properties, some federal and some nonfederal, with different legal and administrative frameworks . . . all in organizational silos with little cross-cutting coordination.

"The current structure complicates managing resources for highest impact as well as the integration and projection of core talents and capabilities," the board continued. "It obstructs efforts to transform the agency's assets into an integrated network that can take advantage of the wide-ranging, highly professional newsgathering activities done by each BBG entity . . . Integration must therefore accompany innovation as an operational imperative."

Former VOA employees now working for the nongovernmental Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting criticized the plan. "Defederalization of the Voice of America would weaken its pro-human rights impact abroad and make it less representative of the views and values of American citizens," wrote committee leaders Ted Lipien and Ana Noonan. "Centralization of management controls over the surrogate broadcasters could hamper their ability to specialize in human rights reporting and divert resources from those who are the most knowledgeable about the countries and regions to which they broadcast."

Matt Armstrong, who recently left as executive director of the defunded U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, told Government Executive that "the efficiencies the BBG is seeking are long overdue." The long-standing goal, he said, has been to put more money toward programming and less on back-office functions such as human resources and press relations. "This is a preliminary narrative, so I look forward to seeing the detailed plan," he said. "But BBG does not effectively communicate what they're doing to Congress. The release of the plan will give an opportunity to build or establish relations on the Hill."

In releasing the board resolution, Isaacson said, "We look forward to working with internal and external stakeholders and experts as well as with the administration and Congress on these proposals."

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