When prominent Burmese dissident-turned-opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi visited Washington last month, she made a stop at a nondescript WWII-era government building on Independence Avenue for an interview that would be broadcast throughout Burma. The broadcaster, Voice of America, has been the U.S. government's method of communication with populations abroad since 1942, when the institution broadcast anti-Nazi radio addresses to the German people in their native language.
Today, the service broadcasts in 43 languages in various formats, including radio, television, and social media, and boasts a weekly audience of 141 million. It employs 1,115 federal workers and 650 contractors, more than Fox News Channel's reported workforce last year. It also remains an important tool of public diplomacy. For 2012, VOA and its five smaller sister stations requested a budget of $767 million—$230 million more than the State Department budgeted for overall public diplomacy that year.
But 70 years after taking on Adolf Hitler and then communism, VOA is plagued with bureaucratic problems, including a bloated budget, redundant programming, and a uninterested board of governors. And despite the broadcaster's ubiquity abroad, a number of Americans do not even know VOA exists. In part, this may be due to federal law that prevents VOA's reports from being broadcast within America.
"Government building #38," jokes VOA executive editor Steve Redisch, who came to the broadcaster after a two-decade long career at CNN.
(Slideshow provided by Voice of America)
David Ensor, who became the head of VOA a year ago after a stint at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and three decades in journalism, says the broadcaster's problems are more about its makeup.
"This is a big, complex organism," he says.
VOA has five smaller sister broadcasters to augment what it does: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the International Broadcasting Bureau. They all work under an umbrella agency called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, made up of an 8-person, bipartisan panel chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The secretary of state serves as a ninth, ex officio, member.
VOA provides soft and hard news, satire and investigative reports, two-minute radio shows and feature length broadcasts. Delivery is also growing more complex. VOA once broadcast only over television and short-wave radio. Now apps, podcasts, toll-free numbers, text messages, newsletters and the Web have been added to that list. The method of delivery often needs to be adapted to the target audience: in Iran, newsletters are delivered by proxy servers because of government censorship of regular servers; in China, TV shows are fed by satellite because the Chinese government jams other broadcasts.
As VOA's reporting has grown over the last decade, so has the cost. Managers say the institution's expanded budget is a direct result of Congress's reaction to Sept. 11. The 9/11 Commission, which investigated the terrorist attacks, recommended that VOA's board "has asked for much larger resources. ...It should get them."
September 11 "unleashed a torrent of public diplomacy efforts," says Bruce Sherman, who oversees the global strategy and research for VOA's board. "Remember when George [W.] Bush said just after 9/11: 'Why do they hate us so much?'...At that time it was not about ending duplication but cranking up more. Our marching orders: get going, go out there and address that hatred, address that anti-Americanism. That's where the collective mind was."
The budget of the board that oversees VOA was $451 million in 2001. By 2004, the number had swelled to more than $591 million.
That same year, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying VOA and its sister entities had problems of "overlapping language services, duplication of program content, redundant newsgathering and support services, and difficulties coordinating broadcast efforts."
Still, the Bush administration asked for more funds in 2007, requesting a budget of nearly $672 million, to be "targeted to the war on terror." They received $656 million.
Addressing redundancy in a bureaucracy is not easy. Even an action like combining the news division with the very similar English program division would require an act of Congress, because it would be a budget line item.
Now the federal government is faced with budget cuts and VOA and its sister agencies are no exception.
Radio Liberty just announced that it was going off the air in Russia, leading to the elimination of 40 people from its Moscow operation. Though the service will still be heard on shortwave, the majority of its efforts will be put toward the Internet. An angry Radio Liberty employee told NPR the management was caving to pressure from the Kremlin; management says the broadcaster just needed to do more with less.
Voice of America is also facing possible cuts. Earlier this year, management made a budget proposal to cut 40 percent of the newsroom. Congress later said those cuts weren't necessary, but not until after some of the best of VOA's young talent had left for others jobs, and older employees took expensive buyouts, according one person with knowledge of the budget problems inside the organization.
Many VOA employees say they don't see the institution as a satisfying place to work. For the last several years, the job satisfaction of staff from the VOA and its sister agencies ranked among the lowest of all the federal agencies, as reported in an annual study by the Office of Personnel Management.
"Personnel issues" are to blame for the loss almost a year ago of one of VOA's most popular shows, Parazit, according to VOA spokesman Kyle King. While it was on air, the satirical program known as Iran's version of The Daily Show brought in 17 million views in a month on Facebook alone. As U.S. News reported last month, it is unclear if, and when, the show will return. A number of employees speaking anonymously for fear of retribution say mismanagement is to blame for the loss of the show, while executive editor Redisch disputes that account.
VOA employees also describe their reason for dissatisfaction as working for managers who vastly underperform.
A mantra at VOA is: "hiring is hard, but firing is impossible," according to several employees. Some former and current VOA staffers recount instances in which middle managers were "removed" from their positions for poor performance, but were not fired. Instead, employees say, they were put into a space in the VOA building known as the "Hall of No Jobs," where they waited for someone to find them another job or counted down the days until retirement.
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.
"Are there problems? That's why I'm here," Ensor says. "But the mission is wonderful. I wish more Americans knew about it, because it is one of the most successful uses of their taxpayer dollars overseas that I can imagine."
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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.