After years of dysfunction, U.S. international broadcasting might be headed for better times as new members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) settled into their responsibilities at the monthly board meeting last Wednesday.
The competition in global communication has intensified as has the challenges facing the U.S. from Islamist movements. Thankfully, the new board has a depth of expertise and understanding of communication, public diplomacy, and the Muslim world.
The verdict will be out on its effectiveness, though, as the ability of the BBG to make a dog’s breakfast of broadcasting strategy has been legendary. The congressional foreign relations committees will be following developments closely, being in the drafting phase of BBG reform legislation.
The most recent addition to the board is Kenneth Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute, who was sworn in on Wednesday. He joins two other new members: Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Matt Armstrong, the former director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
Sitting members of the board are chairman Jeffrey Shell, Michael Meehan, and Susan McCue. If you include Secretary of State John Kerry, who occupies a board seat (though is not likely to attend meetings), the board now has seven of its nine slots filled. At least a decision-capable quorum has been reached.
Two new initiatives were launched by the BBG on Wednesday.
One is a special committee on the future of shortwave radio. For some time, the BBG and the International Broadcasting Board, which oversees transmissions, have pushed to bring the era of shortwave to a close in favor of television and the Internet. Yet, in some regions—such as most of Africa—even electricity is a rare commodity, making radio the only viable medium. Africa, it might be noted, is turning into the new battlefield for some of the most violent Islamist movements today. Voice of America transmissions into Africa are done mainly by shortwave from the U.S.
Also set up was a special committee on the creation of a chief executive officer position to oversee the day-to-day running of the $731 million enterprise that is U.S. international broadcasting. This has been the duty of the part-time board since its creation in the 1990s. This group meets only once a month—sometimes not even that—and has for periods been without a quorum. A State Department inspector general’s report published in January called for a CEO position to be established. One caveat has to be whether a new CEO would have true power to make executive decisions for the many various broadcasters under the BBG or whether this individual would end up being manipulated by BBG members.
As Weinstein noted at Wednesday’s meeting:
We in the United States face an unprecedented strategic competition on many levels, whether it would be in the Arab world, in Central Asia, Africa, Asia, Latin America. It has gotten more complicated thanks to the international media landscape, where we see a significant number of broadcast outlets that claim to be impartial and in some cases actually hire American journalists, but have a completely other agenda.
Spot on. U.S. government leadership in communication is at stake.