International Media? There’s an App for That!

A woman in Somalia uses her cellphone. (Pete Heinlein/VOA)

A woman in Somalia uses her cellphone. (Pete Heinlein/VOA)

The Pew Research Center reports that 91% of U.S. adults own a cellphone, with smartphones comprising 61% of that total. Increasingly this is how people get their news. Although the BBG operates in areas with media markets that widely diverge from the U.S., our own research shows that from feature phones to iPads, mobile is definitely on the rise.

As I blogged about last August, 73.1% of Nigerians have a mobile phone. Use of mobile is also prevalent across many other less-developed countries. About eight in 10 Indonesians (81.0%) say they have mobile phones in their household. In Mali’s capital, Bamako, nine in 10 adults say they have a mobile phone in their household.  More than seven in 10 Somalis (72.4%) say they personally own a mobile phone. Nine in 10 Russians (90.2%) say they personally have cellular phones, and there is virtually no difference between urban and rural areas in ownership in Russia.

Within U.S. international media we must meet our audiences on their platforms of preference.  Our challenge is to adapt and innovate within our existing resources.  Innovation, outstanding content and pivotal partnerships are the keys to success in this dynamic arena.

Our BBG in-house innovators are making it possible for our global audiences to carry the news in their pockets wherever they may go.

Our Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) collaborated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to significantly expand our mobile offerings.  The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Voice of America and Alhurra TV have launched or about to launch a new suite of apps to let our audiences get push notifications of breaking news, stream radio podcasts on demand, as well as download content for offline viewing. Using our new apps for Android and iOS, individuals can easily consume and share content in over 40 languages, a historic innovation, something that has never been done before on a mobile news app.

Earlier this year, ODDI also partnered with Radio Free Asia on bringing long-form journalism across closed borders by releasing an iBook called “Remembering Tiananmen” in both English and Mandarin. The iBook format allows our audiences to fully immerse themselves in our journalism on their tablet devices, and to learn about the China 1989 protests via a multimedia experience. Now ODDI is collaborating with Voice of America to release an interactive book expanding its Immigration: The New Face of America coverage, and the team is working on a second book with RFA in the Uyghur language.

These are just the most recent examples of the innovations underway across the BBG. Credit goes to the internal entrepreneurs and innovators who spot opportunities and pursue them, create compelling content such as our Middle East Broadcasting Networks’ Syria Stories, develop groundbreaking mobile apps, and craft other avenues critical to amplifying our journalists’ top-notch and sorely-needed reporting to countries where the media are not entirely free.

Spring and Sequestration

March 21 Briefing on Workplace Engagement Action Plan

As is true across the government, at the BBG we are wrestling with the very real budgetary challenges of sequestration and yet another continuing resolution. Our day-to-day operations have been impacted in ways that may go largely unnoticed in the U.S. – except by our dedicated employees.

The team here sought to put our audience and employees first and managed to avoid furloughs, despite the 5% budget cut under sequestration. No one at the BBG is being furloughed, which is a big accomplishment in my book.

That means finding savings in other areas than salaries. There are difficult choices to make but I am proud of the unity of purpose our staff has shown seeking avenues to cut costs but not people or programs. This includes trimming some low-impact shortwave transmissions, freezing hiring, curtailing travel, postponing expenditures on non-essential items, and cutting funds for awards.

While tackling serious fiscal issues, we have also outlined a plan to tackle long-standing, critical workplace issues. I am referring to issues that have come up as persistent concerns to employees. Last week we had a very productive all-hands kick-off to our action plan for workplace engagement. We shared and discussed the plan that is based on staff input and feedback, we introduced a dedicated group of staff volunteer facilitators who are serving as an additional bridge between employees and management, and we tasked managerial action leaders to lead the way on implementing constructive changes. We are working with and drawing upon the expertise and experience of the Partnership for Public Service. They have a track record of coaching organizations through cultural change that we want to tap into. We know it will take time but the feedback I got from our employees is that they are willing to join us in this groundbreaking endeavor.

So as we all look to welcome cherry blossoms and Spring here in Washington, I am reassured that our unity of purpose and mission at the BBG can and will withstand the fiscal challenges ahead and we will continue to work together to innovate and transform U.S. international broadcasting to better serve our audiences and cultivate our human resources at the same time.

U.S. International Broadcasting at the Speed of Life

ISNA-satellite-dishes

Satellite dishes number in the thousands on rooftops in Iran. (Iranian Student’s News Agency)

Sitting in on a whiz-bang presentation at the USC/Public Diplomacy Council’s forum this week by BBG’s dynamic and talented CIO and CTO, André Mendes, I was reminded of important progress we’ve made in our transmission and technical infrastructure.  We now have the most reliable transmission network – ever – providing the best array of signals on all platforms to our audiences worldwide. This means transmission downtimes that are fractional – often less than one percent. This also means we’ve tapped new methods for reaching our audiences in key regions.

I’m thinking in particular of the satellite “radio with slate” concept that is now reaching China, Tibet and Iran unobstructed.  We know there is growing use in China of these small satellite dishes, something in the range of 11 percent, according to the most recently available data – and by now, that number would be higher.  In Iran, the proliferation of small satellite dishes far exceeds that of China. This is a direct consequence of a precipitous drop in the cost of these satellite set-ups and their ready availability in  normal commercial venues and the black market. In these places that continue to inhibit news of issues deemed uncomfortable to authorities, access to the balanced news of our broadcasters is a real lifeline.

Similarly, our successful Internet Anti-Censorship program continues to employ leading-edge technology. We have developed and are distributing a credit card-sized network device that contains web addresses of popular sites, checks their accessibility from countries that censor access to the web and reports these blockages back in real time. Another tool developed by the BBG’s IAC program allows users to download and browse web content from a satellite feed outside the authoritarian firewalls and slow bandwidth encountered in places like Iran and Cuba even if the Internet is completely shut-off.

In some cases, we must transition from the traditional platforms that we’ve been using for many years, such as shortwave, and onto the newer platforms.  We can’t do it so quickly that we hurt our audiences.  For example, in places like Nigeria and rural Afghanistan, we continue to have substantial SW radio audiences even as there is an explosion of use of cell phone technology.

At the same time, we now deliver content via mobile and have grown users of U.S. international broadcasting’s content to over six million new users per month. For example, we’re reacting to changes in Mali and other hotspots by creating simple, low-bandwidth audio distribution channels for mobile phones.

Given the speed of change in marketplaces around the globe and the shifting habits of our old and new audiences, I am gratified that our dedicated team has made such important progress even as I know we have to be faster and more nimble in the days to come. I know we can be!

A Breakthrough for International Broadcasting

Coverage like this interview by RFE/RL’s Azadi Radio in Kabul, Afghanistan, could become accessible to U.S. audiences under a new law.

Recently, Congress passed and the President signed legislation that will ease restrictions on access by people in the United States to the world-class news, information and cultural programming created by Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) entities.

Under a decades-old law known as the Smith-Mundt Act, we had been prohibited from making available to domestic audiences the programs that we had been producing for people overseas.  The advent of the Internet and satellite broadcasting, of course, made it difficult for U.S. international broadcasting entities to keep their content away from American audiences, and it was not clear whether the outdated law restricted our use of certain distribution platforms.

Congress and the President agreed that the law needed to be clarified, and they lifted this restriction in legislation that will take effect in July.

The law provides better transparency on agency activities and will offer Americans a better understanding of the journalistic mission of U.S. international broadcasting.  At the same time, it may give taxpayers a clearer view of how America’s international broadcasting dollars are being spent.

Our objective news and information programming could benefit a variety of domestic audiences who request that programming, especially diaspora communities that may have scant access to information in their native languages.

The new legislation does not change the BBG’s founding statute, so we’re only allowed to create programs for international audiences, and we cannot disseminate programs within the United States outside a request for that programming.  Our funds will continue to be spent serving overseas audiences.

The legislation was just signed into law last week, and it doesn’t take effect for six months, so we have time to consider all of the effects it may have and the opportunities it may present.

In short, this is a very welcome change that has been long sought by the BBG and some of our public diplomacy colleagues outside government as well as at the State Department. But it does nothing to change the agency’s overarching mission, which is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

A Spotlight on Excellence

Right to left, Dick Lobo, VOA Director David Ensor, and representatives of the Indonesia Service.

Right to left, Dick Lobo, VOA Director David Ensor, and representatives of the Indonesian Service.


This week I was pleased to participate in a new initiative designed to shine a light on the some of the best work being done here at the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It’s called, appropriately, the Spotlight on Excellence Awards.

The program was created in our Office of Performance Review (OPR), which took on the difficult task of identifying the very best examples of excellent media content from among an extremely rich pool of quality work by broadcasters in the Voice of America (VOA) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB).

Spotlight Awards were given out in six categories for content that represent the best of what we do without regard for program popularity or geopolitical clout.

I understand the selection process was extremely difficult and that any one of our services could easily have been honored in each of the categories. But as Bob Long, a program analyst in the OPR said in opening the ceremony, these are spotlight awards, not floodlight awards.

I believe strongly in recognizing extraordinary achievement, not only to reward our most dedicated and talented professionals, but also to encourage others to strive for excellence in their work. We want our employees to know their contributions to our team will be respected and appreciated. These awards are yet another way to recognize success and boost morale.

The surprised winners received a handsome, framed certificate and another appropriate gift: a high definition camcorder.

Excellence in Journalism: VOA’s Khmer Service for its special report “Khmer Rouge War Tribunal,” which attracted the wrath of the Cambodian government.

Excellence in Presentation: VOA’s Indonesian Service, which provides reports and features seamlessly to its many strong affiliates and provides  an indispensable window on the world for all of Indonesia.

Technical Excellence: VOA’s Vietnamese Service for its website, “VOATiengViet.com,” with its nimble mastery of the platform and intense attention to detail.

Excellence in Relevance:  The OCB for “Estado de SATS,” a TV program which is produced by dissidents inside Cuba and smuggled out to OCB.

Unique VOA/OCB Quality: VOA’s Urdu Service for “Sana, a Pakistani,” a unique 30-minute television program that views life in America through the eyes of a young Pakistani woman who has just arrived in the country.

Excellence in Audience Engagement: VOA’s Russian Service for “Podelis,” a TV/webcast program which on Nov. 1 was the most shared link among Russians discussing the American elections.

Staying On The Air Through a Storm of Historic Proportions

With the Capitol in the background, a jogger passes a fallen large oak tree on the National Mall near BBG headquarters.

With the Capitol in the background, a jogger passes a fallen large oak tree on the National Mall near BBG headquarters.

Rain was falling in sheets. Wind was whistling down a deserted Independence Avenue at speeds that mocked the 25 mph speed limit. Outside the Cohen building, streets were dark and eerily devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of midday traffic.

But inside at our Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America (VOA) headquarters, hard by the Capitol, scant attention was being paid to the local impacts of this “Frankenstorm” called Sandy that raged outside our walls and windows.

Instead, legions of people were sharply focused on a mission that has, over the years, met every challenge: VOA was on the air.

It was with great pride that I personally witnessed the dedication of VOA journalists, producers and technicians who braved a storm that had shuttered federal agencies, closed mass transit, and turned Washington DC into a ghost town for two days.

BBG and IBB staff, including top managers, were on hand at headquarters, while many others kept operations moving apace by telecommuting from home.

I know, also, that similar challenges were being met across town at the headquarters of Radio Free Asia and across the river in Springfield, VA, where the Middle East Broadcasting Networks are headquartered.

Some members of our staff never left the Cohen building, taking their meals in a family-run, basement cafeteria that sporadically opened through the ordeal. There were folks sleeping on cots, on office couches, at a few nearby hotels.

As my colleague VOA Director David Ensor said afterwards “it was really an extraordinary team effort.” Every program went out as scheduled and some language services provided nearly non-stop storm coverage to affiliate stations and audiences around the world.

To everyone who helped the BBG meet the extraordinary challenges of the last few days, I want to say thank you and congratulations on a job well done.

 

 

Thinking Outside the Government Box

Left to right, Rob Bole, Todd Park, Raina Kumra, and Dick Lobo

 

Last week I had a very engaging conversation with one of America’s foremost technology evangelists, Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer of the United States.

Park spoke to me and other members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) team about innovation, entrepreneurship and how government can function best by applying private sector thinking to public sector missions. He is seeking to get government managers to think more like entrepreneurs and less like bureaucrats.

Park is the kind of next-generation thought leader this government needs as it strives to become leaner, more innovative and more efficient by taking advantage of all technology has to offer. We can’t continue to rely on what used to work.

Not yet 40, Park founded two highly successful health IT companies, including one when he was 24-years-old, before being named Chief Technology Officer for the Department of Health and Human Services in 2009. He was picked by President Obama to be America’s Chief Technology Officer this year.

In both of his government roles, Park has been seen as a change agent who is unafraid to think outside the government box. He is, to quote the White House website, the federal government’s “entrepreneur-in-residence.”

Before he met with me, he visited our Office of Digital & Design Innovation where he found a couple of kindred spirits in BBG’s Co-Directors of Innovation Rob Bole and Raina Kumra. Like Park, Rob and Raina are working every day to bring new technologies and innovation to all corners of the BBG enterprise.

They presented Park with a black ODDI t-shirt. And while it may not have been a formal endorsement of ODDI and its work, Park immediately put the t-shirt on over his dress shirt and tie and wore it through the rest of his meetings here.

The BBG’s Gold Medal Awards


Last week, it was my privilege to join in celebrating the accomplishments of 94 employees who demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and our mission during the previous year.

Our annual Gold Medal Awards ceremony is one of the highlights of the year for me, for the gold medal recipients and for our team. Being selected for a Gold Medal Award is a special honor, since the winners are nominated not by their bosses, but by their peers.

The recipients are reporters and editors, support staff, IT professionals, multimedia specialists and more. In many cases, they are innovators who helped us explore new ways of reaching our audiences. Each recipient receives a medal, a framed certificate and $2,500.

Christine Brown, Administrative Officer, Resource Management Directorate, TSI, receives her award from VOA Director David Ensor, center, and Dick Lobo, right.

As I said in my remarks at the ceremony, these extraordinary accomplishments come at a time the agency is being asked to do more with less. But while we face many challenges as an agency, we also see opportunity to bring new ideas and technologies to our mission to engage with people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

The ceremony, held in the Cohen Auditorium at our headquarters in Washington DC, drew a standing-room-only crowd that included the winners, their co-workers, friends and family members. It was a celebration of all that is good about the work that we do here.

The video above tells the story of the Gold Medal Awards and how much they mean to the recipients and to the agency. Watch it, and I you’ll see why this recognition means so much.

A Tragic Loss for the U.S., Libya

Christopher Stevens

Christopher Stevens

Last week, the United States lost an able, experienced and dedicated diplomat, and the people of Libya lost a friend.

The shocking, outrageous deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans during an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi robbed the fledgling democracy movement in Libya of one of its staunchest allies.

Just before he left to serve as ambassador, Stevens stopped by my office here in D.C. to discuss the assignment and to learn about the BBG’s growing broadcast capabilities in Libya. It was our first meeting, but it was clear right away that this was a man dedicated to Libya and its people. Along with his deep knowledge of the country and the many challenges it faced, Stevens also demonstrated a keen interest in U.S. international broadcasting.

This was to be Stevens’ third assignment to Libya, and he was looking forward to helping to shape the post-Qaddafi future there, never mind the enormity of the challenge or the immense personal peril he would be facing.

Stevens was very enthusiastic about the BBG’s plans to expand our broadcast capabilities to reach an ever widening Libyan audience via the Middle East Broadcast Networks’ Radio Sawa. He understood the importance of providing the people, especially its young future leaders, with uncensored, accurate news and information.

At the time, our Radio Sawa was already broadcasting around the clock in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and we were just bringing online a new FM radio transmitter in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. We are currently working to construct a third new BBG FM facility in Misratah.

In a statement last week, Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. mission in Libya is “both noble and necessary” and that carrying it forward in the wake of the violence in Benghazi honors the memories of Stevens and the other victims.

We totally agree. And that’s why the BBG has vowed not to let this tragedy weaken our commitment to a robust U.S. international broadcasting presence in Libya.

BBG Sharing American Democracy With the World

Balloons fall at the Republican National Convention

Every four years the eyes of the world focus on political life in America and the battle for the White House.

And while you and I are used to seeing the quadrennial presidential election drama unfold, for many around the globe it is an opportunity to witness American democracy at work. Giving the world an up-close view of our electoral system in action is at the very heart of our mission “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

That’s why we sent a team of writers, producers, correspondents, VJs, editors, and technicians to the Republican convention last week in Tampa and to the Democratic convention that is going on now in Charlotte.

Coverage from VOA will be broadcast around the world in dozens of languages and remote feeds of key speeches and other events will be provided to affiliate stations. Alhurra TV’s “Road to the White House” is on every night, Radio Sawa is carrying the top speeches and TV Martí’s “Antena Live” is broadcasting live nightly from the convention sites.

Of course we provide ongoing coverage of the presidential race throughout the election season, but the conventions offer an opportunity to show a uniquely American exercise in democracy. Each convention is a microcosm of the political process, with delegates from all the states and territories coming together to make official the primary voting that has already taken place nationwide.

Bringing this to the world is one of our core obligations. And providing coverage in many languages is critical to our goal of delivering context and background on American politics to the foreign audiences we reach.

In fact, the Voice of America’s charter – now enshrined in the U.S. International Broadcasting Act which governs the family of BBG broadcasters – requires us to “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions” and to broadcast responsible discussion and opinion on U.S. policy.

So as the politicians deliver speeches, as the nominees accept their respective party’s mantles, as the balloons drop from the rafters, BBG journalists are there, as always. And millions around the world are better informed for it.