Digital media is increasingly shaping the way the U.S. government’s international broadcast networks communicate with audiences around the world.
Once strictly a radio enterprise, U.S. international broadcasting – including its leading brand Voice of America – now reaches more people via television, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and mobile apps, then it does via the radio airwaves.
We will have more tools and product in our tool box to reach people all over the world as they change their media habits. We’re going to be there for them.” – Richard Lobo
And recognizing the changing times, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which oversee the government’s worldwide broadcasting outlets, are embracing these 21st century platforms to connect with 187 million people a week.
“We are trying to be at the forefront of all the digital innovations that come down the road,” said Richard Lobo, director of the IBB, which oversees operations of the BBG’s five broadcast entities: VOA, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa.
As the communications revolution exploded, the BBG realized it had to change too if it was to compete in an ever more crowded global media environment.
“The media landscape is changing every day,” Lobo told Breaking Gov. “We have to keep reaching people on their preferred platform.”
But radio, once the dominate platform, is now only one piece of the equation.
“This agency made its mark as a big radio agency. We know we have a lot more to do,” said Lobo, a long-time broadcast reporter and executive whose grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1904.
The networks currently reach 187 million people a week – 97 million on TV, 106 million on radio and 10 million on the Internet in 59 languages. The goal is to grow these audiences to 216 million in five years.
The independent agency operates news outlets that include television, vast numbers of social networking platforms on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr and specialized programming available online and on mobile apps.
Many individual reporters and shows also use Facebook and Twitter to communicate with their audiences. There are many written and video blogs. Search for VOA on Facebook to get an idea of the vast range of social media that the agency maintains.
At VOA, and the other international broadcasters, this migration toward digital platforms has been more evolution than revolution. It is a model for other federal agencies struggling to embrace the digital age.
What started with a broadcast into war-torn Europe in 1942, evolved with the addition of television, the Internet and now social media and mobile.
Virtually all emerging technologies are in play. While the broadcasters were early adopters to the Internet with the establishment of websites, recent years have seen those sites also available on the mobile web — http://m.voanews.com and http://www.rferl.mobi.
The agency also is reaching out to experts with a new commission on innovation that includes thought leaders from Internet titans like Twitter, Microsoft, and Facebook along with government technology experts like Vivek Kundra, who served as the first federal CIO.
But with success comes challenges, Lobo said. One big challenge for BBG is fighting increasing satellite jamming and Internet interference From China, Iran, Cuba, the Middle East and elsewhere.
“We have devoted a lot of energy to breaking through Internet firewalls,” Lobo said. “We’ve dedicated over $11.5 million to Internet circumvention and freedom issues, tools to get around some of these firewalls and break down these obstacles.”
The IBB is applying innovation to its products at every turn:
- Podelis – A new weekly TV-webcast to Russia in which anchors interact with the audience in real time on Twitter, Skype and other social media channels that are displayed on a giant video wall in the studio.
- Parazit – A Persian version of The Daily Show in which two Iranian-American hipsters lambast the Iranian government is transmitted via satellite. It’s often jammed by the Iranian government, but it is available on YouTube, where it has been viewed almost 10 million times
- OMG!Meiyu – A video blog in which 24-year-old Jessica Beinecke teaches Chinese youth about American slang terms such as “muffin top” and “sweating bullets.” It’s been viewed 725,000 times.
- Al Youm, Alhurra’s western style news magazine in the Middle East. Last week, the network interviewed actor George Cooney at the Sudan embassy where he was arrested for protesting human rights violations.
- TV Martí’s “Antena Live” combines coverage of Cuba with international topics of interest. The show is available 24 hours a day. The Office of Cuba Broadcasting uses a range of innovative means to deliver its content to its audience, including sneaking it into the country on DVDs and flash drives.
It’s an enormous challenge to harness this new age media and especially daunting in these economic times when every federal agency is being called on to cut their budgets.
And that means developing new platforms and new products for the public on a tight $720 million budget for fiscal 2013, a 4.2% cut from 2012.
“It’s going to be leaner, but just as powerful and relevant as it has been,” Lobo said. “We practice excellent journalism. We will have more tools and product in our tool box to reach people all over the world as they change their media habits. We’re going to be there for them.”
While there will be cuts to all of its broadcasters, BBG hopes job losses will be absorbed through attrition. And its strategic plans calls for saving though consolidation of resources, ending duplication and leveraging new technology and innovation.
BBG’s portfolio continues to be a work in progress, Lobo said.
“Digital is a huge part of our future…We think innovation is going to help bolster us and keep us relevant,” Lobo said.