In the past few months Vladimir Putin has terminated the work in Russia of the U.S. Agency for International Development, ended American adoptions of Russian children and, most damagingly, drastically reduced the audience and credibility of U.S. broadcaster Radio Liberty, driving a wedge between it and some of Russia’s most renowned human rights activists and journalists.
Only Putin didn’t pull off that last part. That was the work of the radio’s own dysfunctional management and its overseer, the Board of Broadcasting Governors. In September, Steven Korn, then president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, presided over the firings or resignations of more than 40 of Radio Liberty’s 100 staffers, including a number of veteran journalists, who were unceremoniously ejected from the Moscow office. As former supporters such as Mikhail Gorbachev and human rights icons Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Sergei Kovalyov loudly protested, a new strategy of focusing on the Internet and softer content bombed, leading to a big drop in audience.
The Radio Liberty fiasco appears on its way to a remedy, though the damage will be hard to undo. Korn resigned under pressure and was replaced last week by Kevin Klose, a former RFE/RL and National Public Radio chief whose dedication to its journalistic mission is unquestioned. An investigation by the broadcasting board into the Moscow operation is underway; probably an attempt will be made to get the radio back on the Russian FM dial through partnerships with local broadcasters.
That still leaves a larger problem. The United States is spending $750 million a year on international broadcasting, including more than $90 million on programs for Russia, former Soviet Bloc countries, Iran and Afghanistan through Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Yet as Hillary Clinton said in her final appearance before Congress as secretary of state, “we have abdicated the broadcasting arena. . . . Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”
How could so much taxpayer money be spent so poorly? Part of the answer lies in the broadcasting board, made up of the secretary of state and eight political appointees confirmed by Congress who work only part time. Few are experts in public diplomacy or journalism, much less the countries where the broadcasting is focused. An inspector general’s report issued last month found that the board, riven by feuding, was trying to do the impossible by overseeing the day-to-day management of a large organization on a part-time basis.
But even the government investigators, who relied heavily on interviews with disgruntled staff, missed the root of the dysfunction. The report blamed much of the trouble on board member Victor Ashe, a former ambassador to Poland who led the charge against Korn’s disastrous management of Radio Liberty.
In fact, Ashe understood what most of the rest of the board and staff did not: that Radio Free Europe was failing to deliver on its most essential mission – and the only one that really justifies its existence. Unlike Voice of America, which exists to promote U.S. culture and values to the world, RFE/RL’s mandate is “surrogate broadcasting” – the provision of objective journalism, diverse commentary and open political debate to societies whose local media, because of censorship or state pressure, cannot provide it.
For decades during the Cold War, the radios did this job superbly, attracting an audience throughout the Soviet Bloc and becoming the go-to medium in times of crisis. Since 1991, however, they have been subjected to serial attempts to revamp their programming, supposedly to accommodate a post-Cold War or post-Internet era. The idea, often peddled by board members and executives drawn from the entertainment industry, is that the audience needs to be broadened, radio downplayed in favor of digital offerings and ratings boosted. Hard-core journalism and political discussions should be leavened with lifestyle features, cultural offerings - or maybe just pop music.
The problem with this, as Radio Liberty is finding in Moscow, is that Russians – like Iranians or Belarusans – don’t need or want another Internet site pushing a mix of fluff and social commentary. They crave what’s missing on state media - serious journalism that offers a clear picture of what is happening in the Kremlin, the economy and the regions, and a forum for uncensored debates by Russians on those issues. Sure, the audience is often a small elite. But when political crisis comes to Moscow, as it did in late 2011 and surely will again, Russians will flock to the service, if they believe it to be credible.
In reality, this is a simple formula. The trick is creating a management structure for U.S. broadcasting that understands it - and is willing to let Klose and his remaining journalists do their job.
Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.