And then there's the powerful board, which oversees all of the government's civilian broadcasting. The Broadcasting Board of Governors was established in 1999, to serve as a firewall between U.S. government policy makers and the media outlets' broadcasters, establishing credibility and objectivity. VOA spokesman King says that some members of Congress "think we're their microphone." The board is supposed to help mitigate that. But one VOA employee, who asked not to be named, said that most journalists in the building "feel they need more protection from the firewall than they need the firewall itself," because of the board's internal problems.
Only six of the eight positions of the board are currently filled. Many board members have high-profile jobs elsewhere and aren't active. Board member Dana Perino, a Fox News contributor and former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, has not attended a board meeting in person for a year. (She recently announced her resignation at the end of 2012, which will leave three unfilled positions.)
During one recent meeting, the board's interim chairman typed on his blackberry for the better part of an hour before leaving early. The member who led the meeting in his stead sought to railroad through a number of items without discussion, and still the board did not complete half of the items on the agenda.
"We can't do our job in an hour and 15 minutes," said Victor Ashe, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and a current board member, as the meeting closed.
James Glassman, former BBG chairman, says the board is rightly criticized as "completely uniformed and highly superficial" for these reasons. "BBG needs a major overhaul," he says.
"There frankly should be a Congressional hearing in the House about what's going on at the BBG," says Ashe. "You have to have board members who are more involved."
A number of members of Congress have already expressed their concern. In August 2010, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he had "long-standing concerns regarding transparency and effectiveness" of the board, and particularly VOA. In an interview with Foreign Policy Magazine in April 2010, Coburn called the board the "most worthless organization in the federal government."
California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher sent a letter to the board interim chairman in June questioning the BBG's attempts to keep their decision-making from the public."They just waive items on through, like a traffic cop not worried about the consequences of how he's directing traffic," Rohrabacher says. "This is a really important time in America's foreign policy agenda, and this administration is not taking it seriously."
There is talk about getting a CEO. That person would oversee the entire enterprise, including the board, VOA, and all the smaller broadcasters. A CEO might not be a silver bullet, Ensor and Redisch say, but it would be a good start.
Despite all its problems, Ensor sees a necessity and has a vision for VOA. He says he wants VOA to both have impact—such as the vital health reporting provided by the VOA service in Nigeria on polio and maternal mortality, as well as to have wide reach—such as the VOA service in Indonesia, where 25 percent of people in the country watch a TV program from the broadcaster each week.
Clarification, 10/23/12: A previous version of this story described a proposed 40 percent cut to VOA’s workforce. The cut was for the newsroom staff. The story also describes a broadcast to Nigeria. The broadcast was made by VOA’s Nigerian language service.