VOA’s Leader Talks About Navigating Employee Morale, International Crises and More
Yolanda López said employees “were hungry for information and transparency” when she took over as acting director when President Biden came into office.
On January 21, 2021, Yolanda López took over the taxpayer-funded news broadcasting service. She had an immense challenge ahead of her.
For the last approximately eight months of the Trump administration, the CEO of Voice of America’s parent agency, U.S. Agency for Global Media, and his top officials made sweeping editorial, personnel and operational changes at the agency and the networks it oversees. The Office of Special Counsel determined during its ongoing investigation in December 2020 there was a “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing among top agency leadership. With the new administration, López as acting director of VOA had to work to restore trust and morale in the agency, and then ensure coverage and reporter safety during several major international crises. Now she must plan for the agency’s future.
“Everything that we have done in the last 18 months has come from the employees themselves,” López told Government Executive in a recent interview. “For the first year, I was kind of, like, hiding in a cave. Everybody was like, where is the new VOA director? We were busy. We are busy talking to our employees and talking to the staff.”
López previously served as director of VOA’s Latin America division and director of the VOA News Center (a position she was demoted from a little over a week before Biden’s inauguration). She has received three Emmy awards throughout her career in journalism. Her work since becoming acting VOA director led to her becoming a finalist for one of the Partnership for Public Service’s annual awards for outstanding federal employees.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. The full version will be available on an episode of Government Executive’s daily podcast.
GE: It was a pretty tumultuous last eight months under the Trump administration with the former head of USAGM and you yourself experiencing some of that tumult. When you came into this role, what were your priorities? What did you want to say to the workforce and how did you handle the transition to the new administration?
YL: Well, it was like you said, very tumultuous, but since day one my focus was to regain the trust of the employees. There was a lot of fear. There was a lot of mistrust and I also think that we were in the midst of the pandemic. There were no vaccines at the time. So, there was a lot of fear and anxiety. And the first thing that we wanted to do was to address that anxiety, that fear, and that is why we launched with my team…a lot of town halls, a lot of meetings with the staff…And anyone that wanted to talk or wanted to have some question addressed, we will address it. First of all, we listened, we listened to the workforce. What is it that is bothering you? What is it that we need to do? So, you can focus again on being a journalist and focusing on the mission because there were so many questions regarding what was the future of the agency and also obviously the pandemic. So, we basically started listening.
From then, we got a lot of ideas to make changes, positive changes, I think in VOA and anything, I will say that everything that we have done in the last 18 months has come from the employees themselves because they are the ones like I was, and I am, still working day to day every single day whether remotely or in the building…they are the first ones that know what is what we need to do for them, so they can perform their job to the best of their abilities and they have the right tools, but also the peace of mind that they are supported by us. Because if you do that, then you automatically improve the morale, but also you improve your content, your output and also then it reflects positively in the product that we put out and how it impacts our audience…For the first year, I was kind of, like, hiding in a cave. Everybody was like, where is the new VOA director? We were busy. We are busy talking to our employees and talking to the staff.
GE: Can you talk about some of that feedback you got from employees that you said led to this positive change?
YL: They were hungry for information and transparency. So, one of the things that we set up to do is I inform every single week about what is going on in the agency, what I'm doing when I travel, what I do, not just me, but the front office in general. But also, I try to let them know what others are doing within the agency. This is a complex organization. We have 48 language services, imagine 48 newsrooms. And it's one of them with different languages. So, it is difficult sometimes to convey what the other is doing and maybe your colleagues are doing something similar to what you are doing as well, but you don't know. So, we are doing a lot of collaboration, a lot of connecting and a lot of knowing what others are doing as well.
Especially when we have had to go through experiences like the evacuation of the journalists in Afghanistan or Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it is so important that we collaborate because these kinds of stories as I come to know, and to understand, and that's what VOA is so unique about, it has a global effect.
GE: You had mentioned Afghanistan and Ukraine; those are two major international crises that you faced in your first year and a half in this role. Can you talk about how VOA has handled coverage of these crises, but also ensured the safety of the journalists who are on the ground?
YL: I always say last year as Kabul fell, I can tell you that it was the most dramatic, stressful time of my life. Not only in VOA, but in my entire professional life, I have never gone through something like that because all of the sudden that you had the lives of your stringers and their families on your shoulders, and you feel really helpless. Because as much as you want to help and probably this is something that you have heard from other agencies, there are so many issues that are out of our control that we cannot decide, that we cannot act upon. so, it was very stressful, very difficult. We were able to evacuate some people. I don't want to go into any specifics about the numbers or whatever, just for safety issues, because it is still very challenging to be in Afghanistan… But I can tell you that we worked day and night for several weeks just to get out most of our people. Again, it wasn't just our journalists, it was also their families and I'm talking about little children. I'm talking about their wives, people that had never left the country before, and they were in really traumatic situations.
The only silver lining of this is that we were able to collaborate with a lot of NGOs [and] other news organizations as well. So, it was to help out whoever we could help out. With Ukraine it wasn't as dramatic, but still obviously in Russia, we have some people that obviously cannot work from there anymore because it is too dangerous. But overall, I will say and hopefully taxpayers that fund our agency––which is funded by the government, but not controlled by the government because of the firewall, I wanted to make that clear––hopefully they know that the work that VOA does does not stop in this crisis. We had an Afghan service for years and we have been continuing covering Afghanistan right after the fall of the country. We have released a lot of content just now after the year anniversary of the fall of Kabul and we will continue covering the country.
Voice of America because we are not a private company, we are not looking for Facebook click pages or high ratings. We are looking for impact. That's what we do. We say we were there before everybody else was there and we continue being there.
GE: You brought up the firewall. I'd love for our readers and listeners who are unaware of it, or don't know much about it, if you could just go over it briefly. And then, the firewall was a big debate under the last administration. Are there any other protections or provisions you think Congress needs to enact to strengthen the firewall or to do anything else with it?
YL: So, the firewall: it first entered into law with the U.S. International Broadcasting Act in 1994. It says that no other part of the U.S. government may attempt to interfere in editorial decisions, including USAGM, which is our parent company. There are some weaknesses in the firewall and even the [Government Accountability Office] said in their 2021 report former agency leaders may have been able to violate the firewall, partly because it was not well defined in legislation [and] recommended Congress consider clarifying the firewall in legislation and more. We will very much take some action following the suggestions and we are gathering and collecting this kind of suggestions either from the GAO or from [the inspector general]. And just to make sure that we strengthen the firewall. It is there, but it is not as strong enough.
GE: Now that you're coming up on two years in this role, I'd love to hear about some of your future plans for VOA and what you envision for the agency five, 10, 15 years down the line?
YL: That's a great question. The media landscape is very competitive and it's changing all the time, so it is challenging for us not only because again, in general, the media landscaping is changing but also people are losing trust in the media and then we have to deal with different situations in different countries where there are countries where there is more press freedom; there are others that there is not. We have to be nimble. We have to be flexible. And now even with the rising of more platforms, we have to address the needs of the audience, how to reach our audience. So that is challenging enough by itself, but then you had to do it in 48 language services.
Now the challenge, like any other media organization, is to be relevant. We want to be relevant five years from now, 10 years from now, and that is what we are working on: continue being relevant and continue serving our audience. Again, it is very difficult because the media trust is at an all-time low. But, on the other hand, in some countries, VOA has a very high level of respect and a great reputation. So, we should continue delivering and maintaining that trust and that reputation in years to come.
GE: In VOA’s budget request for fiscal 2023, it mentions the 50:50 Project. Can you describe what it is and what the goals are with it?
YL: Oh, 50:50 is a great project. I'm so glad that you are asking about that…We agreed to participate in this project that was created by the BBC, but a lot of media organizations are putting it into practice and it is a way of [stopping and thinking] about how are you handling your content in terms of gender, in terms of for instance to a producer, to an editor, how many women you have in your contact list?
It is about thinking about that when you choose a picture of an economist, nuclear scientist, what picture are you choosing? When you want an expert, what kind of expert you are choosing…And then you realize by something as simple as by counting how many guest women you have this week in your show, you realize, oh, wow, not that many. Then you ask people, well, are you discriminating against women? Or do you have any bias? And no, no one is doing that on purpose. It's just that we are not thinking about that. It's not coming naturally. So, you have to force it a little and then you realize when you look for it, obviously there are a lot of experts that are women. Obviously, there are a lot of women that are in positions of power.
GE: There's so many other things I could have asked about, is there anything else that I didn't ask about that you'd want to point out?
YL: What I would like is to say I'm super humble to lead this organization. And I'm now in this position, I get a chance to know more about the work of our journalists, and I am super proud of the work our journalists do here in Washington and around the world. And I'm very proud of the topics that we choose to cover, which are so different from what the conventional media covers…. What I would like everybody to know about VOA and also that the journalists in VOA … work in very unusual circumstances, in conflict zones, in places where they cannot perform their job as journalists freely. I really commend them. Their commitment, their professionalism and the desire to tell those stories to the world is just amazing.