FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog September 30, 2008, San Francisco — Sources say that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) tried to recruit John Cochran of NBC, then ABC News, as their high profile public relations guru. According to earlier reports, the BBG also tried to recruit Paula Zahn, who turned them down.
The yearly cost of such a position is well over $100,000. The same bipartisan Board, which manages U.S. government-funded international broadcasts, terminated the Voice of America radio programs to Russia and wanted to end broadcasts to Ukraine and Georgia. Most members of Congress are strongly opposed to these cuts.
Despite Russia’s attack on Georgia in early August, the BBG continues to oppose the resumption of VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts, but its plan to cut radio programs to Ukraine and Georgia has been put temporarily on hold due to strong protests from foreign policy and human rights groups. Earlier, the BBG had tried to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet and China but was forced by Congress to cancel these plans.
The money which the Board proposes to spend on its new public relations initiative would pay for VOA radio broadcasts to at least one country near Russia’s borders. The Voice of America Russian Service already has sufficient resources to produce radio programs, but the BBG prevents it from resuming radio broadcasting to Russia. The Board keeps VOA Russian staff underemployed and wants to limit their work to producing a website in order to save money for its other projects.
Ted Lipien, president of media freedom nonprofit FreeMediaOnline.org, criticized the BBG’s decision saying that a VOA website will not have any significant impact on the Russian government leaders or the Russian public opinion. Only one of the current six BBG members, radio broadcaster Blanquita Cullum, was reported to have voted against program cuts to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
The program cuts and the hiring of a new spokesperson were supported by the former BBG chairman, James Glassman, who is now the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Cullum was reported to have strongly objected to spending money on public relations campaigns while programs to countries without free media were being cut. Both Cullum and Glassman are Republicans.
All Democrats on the Board have supported program cuts. One of the strongest advocates of ending VOA radio programs to Russia was Ted Kaufman, Senator Joe Biden’s former chief of staff who now works on his vice presidential campaign. Voice of America radio to Russia has been off the air for over two months. Last week, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KA) proposed legislation that would abolish both the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the position of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and create a new agency in charge of U.S. public diplomacy.