America Calling China: A Strategy for International Broadcasting
Tuesday, May 31st 2011
DR. KIM ANDREW ELLIOTT
International broadcasting to China is one of the most difficult challenges in modern mass communication. China vigorously blocks Mandarin-language news from websites outside of China, jams foreign shortwave broadcasts, and restricts ownership of satellite television receivers. Even without these forms of interdiction, the Chinese audience for international broadcasts would probably remain small because of the many domestically available channels of entertainment, in addition to competent, if not especially comprehensive and independent, news services.
BBC World Service and Germany’s Deutsche Welle have already decided to end their shortwave radio broadcasts in Mandarin to China. China’s vigorous jamming of their shortwave transmissions is one consideration. More important are very low levels of shortwave radio ownership and listening in China, compared to near-universal television ownership, and widespread access to broadband internet.
The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has made a similar decision for its entity the Voice of America. For the first time in nearly seventy years, VOA may stop broadcasting to China, in Mandarin, via shortwave. This proposal in the BBG budget request for fiscal year 2012 would convert VOA Mandarin to an internet-only service, and reduce its staff from 76 to 38.
This decision does not stem primarily from a reduction in funds. The BBG, a bipartisan board that supervises U.S. government funded international broadcasting, is actually requesting a slight increase in its overall budget from 2011 to 2012. They call the elimination of VOA Mandarin shortwave a "recalibration." The BBG cites very low audience numbers for VOA from surveys in China, with only a small fraction of a percent listening weekly.
VOA Mandarin would continue as an internet-only service. VOA has as few internet visitors as shortwave listeners in China, but the BBG feels there is more growth potential for an internet audience, especially among young people. Certainly, the internet is much more popular in China: over one quarter of the population uses the internet at least once a week, but only one percent own radios with shortwave bands.
Another BBG entity, Radio Free Asia, would continue its Mandarin broadcasts on shortwave. RFA was created in 1996 to provide news about the dictatorially-controlled countries to which it broadcasts. This was based on premise that VOA limited itself to news about the United States and English language lessons. The premise was incorrect: VOA has always reported about China, and still does, though not to the exclusion of world and U.S. news, as is the case with RFA. However, because both the administration and Congress at the time supported the creation of RFA (the measure was, in part, a sop to those who opposed restoring most-favored-nation trading status to China), facts were overlooked. The result has been a great deal of duplication in the news covered by VOA and RFA. This duplication points to a more promising form of "recalibration.”
If asked in a survey, Chinese audiences who seek out international media for news would say what proportion of news from a U.S. international broadcasting station should be 1) about China, 2) about the United States, and 3) about the rest of the world. The resulting three percentages would likely include more news about China than VOA does, and more news about the world and the United States than RFA provides. In the present structure of U.S. international broadcasting, there is no one station that is mandated to provide the optimum mix of content.
There will probably be Congressional pushback to the BBG plan, perhaps saving some of VOA’s shortwave output in Mandarin. The problem, however, is not that the BBG proposal goes too far, but that it is insufficiently radical. Extremely small audiences, coupled with the need for all Federal agencies to identify efficiencies and savings, require a thorough restructuring of U.S. international broadcasting to China. A restructuring plan, unencumbered by the constraints of Washington politics and bureaucracy, would include the following elements …
1) Consolidate U.S. international broadcasting. This would eliminate the duplication discussed above. One station can provide the combination of Chinese, world, and U.S. news desired by the audience. Furthermore, China, because of its expanse, complexity, and official disapproval of independent journalism, is one of the most difficult countries to get real news out of. Because of its size and because of Beijing’s obsession with keeping information out, whether via shortwave, internet, or satellite, it is also one of the most difficult countries to get news back into. Success will require all of the resources and talent the United States can muster. With both VOA and RFA broadcasting to China, U.S. resources are divided in half, as are chances for success.
2) Expect, and make the best of, small audiences. Even if China were to stop jamming shortwave, blocking internet content, and confiscating satellite dishes, the Chinese audience for US international broadcasting would likely remain relatively small. The Chinese media environment includes many channels of television entertainment. Television news in China is reasonably well produced, and includes some stories on negative developments in the countries. What is missing is complete, probing coverage of the central Communist leadership, and of certain stories that leadership wishes to be minimized, e.g. the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. A small percentage of newshounds and dissidents will make the effort to complete their knowledge through international media. They compensate in quality what they lack in quantity and can pass information on to the larger Chinese population through social media and interpersonal communication.
3) Keep shortwave, for now. The BBG is correct that shortwave radio ownership and listening rates are very small in China. Even domestic FM and AM radio has been much less popular than television in the country. Nevertheless, because of the high cost of shortwave transmission, and the unpopularity of shortwave in China, there is incentive for a premature declaration of victory in internet censorship circumvention efforts. Shortwave arguably remains the medium most resistant to interdiction. It is the only medium with a physical resistance to jamming, because radio waves at shortwave frequencies often propagate better over long than short distances. When an objective, independent assessment determines that average internet users in China can conveniently work around government censorship, the shortwave transmitters can be turned off.
4) Position radio newscasts in peak listening times. The best way to combat shortwave jamming is to transmit on as many frequencies, and from as many disparate transmitting sites, as possible. Given the vicissitudes of shortwave propagation, at least one of these frequencies might penetrate Chinese jamming. This technique also makes it easier for a Chinese listener, tuning across a radio dial, to happen upon the U.S. international radio station. This anti-jamming method would be expensive to maintain throughout the present daily twenty-hour schedule of U.S. Mandarin-language international broadcasting (twelve hours of RFA and eight hours of VOA). On the other hand, if flagship radio news programs, 30 to 60 minutes in length, using the best talent and resources of U.S. international broadcasters, are scheduled for morning and evening peak listening times, a large number of BBG-owned and leased shortwave transmitters can be mustered for a saturation anti-jamming effort. (Of course, these radio newscasts would also be available via internet and satellite.)
5) Experiment with radio entertainment formats. Radio endures in an era of television and the internet where it concentrates on its strengths: music, personality, intimacy. China has modern music formats on FM radio, but in such a controlled environment, there must be some creative format, some mix of music and/or personality and/or talk, missing from its domestic radio dial. The correct formula might coax some Chinese to buy and listen to shortwave radios, just as British youth listened to Radio Luxembourg’s distant medium wave signal in the 1960s. The U.S. funded Radio Sawa, with its music format, remains very competitive in Arab radio markets. Such an experiment to China should be given a two- or three-year trial before the last of America’s shortwave transmitters are shut down.
6) Have a compelling internet presence. If the U.S. international broadcasting website can get through to China, it will face competition from thousands of Chinese websites, hundreds of which provide news. For the worldly Chinese internet consumer, U.S. international broadcasting will also have to compete with Chinese-language sites from outside China, including those of competing international broadcasters BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France International, and those of newspapers and news agencies Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Reuters. VOA by itself might have trouble keeping up with this competition. U.S. international broadcasting combined – adding the newsgathering efforts of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Alhurra – would have better prospects. Complete success, however, will require partnership with at least one major U.S. news organization, logically one that is not already providing output in Chinese. In addition to a traditional website, a version must be available for the large proportion of Chinese who will access the internet through mobile devices. Content through the fashionable social media platforms (if accessible) should also be provided.
7) Start a private sector Mandarin-language television channel. U.S. government funded international broadcasting should work with the private sector to create a 24-hour channel in Mandarin, or partner with an existing one. The private partner would acquire appealing entertainment and special-interest programs, and would sell advertising with the goal of making the channel eventually profitable. The BBG would complete the schedule with daily news programs. (These might be simulcast with the radio newscasts mentioned above.) At first, this channel would be carried by cable and direct-to-home satellite systems in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and wherever Chinese-speaking communities exist. If the channel is sufficiently appealing, its reputation will eventually become known in China itself. Chinese black-market satellite receiver owners and broadband internet users will find a way to view the channel.
8) Explore new ways to get information into China. The Chinese government is pathological about blocking news and information coming into the country. Finding ways to overcome these interdiction efforts is half the battle in international broadcasting to China. The BBG already has a formidable internet censorship circumvention team. One of the problems with internet is that it usually involves landlines into and within the target country. One possible solution is to drop text and data wirelessly – via satellite or unfashionable shortwave -- into China and other closed nations, from where it can be passed along using the domestic internet or mobile services.
9) Credibility is paramount. Bias in a news organization can be perceived not only by how stories are written, but also how stories are selected. The Radio Free Asia Mandarin Service has the dilemma of reporting almost entirely about China. News as practiced in the West has a tendency to report on negative matters. RFA also probably sees a need to report the stories not being covered by the Chinese media, bringing additional negative perspective. Reporting good and neutral stories about China, to the extent legitimate journalism warrants, would make the negative stories about China more believable. A consolidated U.S. international broadcasting entity would also report good, neutral, and positive stories about the United States, and about other countries, further providing a “smoothing” effect and enhancing credibility. Consolidation would add to the value of U.S. international broadcasting, because the entity would less likely be perceived as the bad-news-about-China station.
10) Conduct public diplomacy as a separate, complementary activity. While U.S. international broadcasting adheres to its news function, the official explanation and advocacy of U.S. policies can be conducted by the Chinese-language websites, social media outlets, interviews, and other media activities of the State Department. After the March 2011 decommissioning of America.gov, which was available in Chinese and six other languages, the website of the U.S. Embassy at Beijing has become the flagship public diplomacy vehicle for China.
11) Publicize the lack of reciprocity in media between China and the United States. China Radio International is rebroadcast by radio stations in many parts of the United States. China’s CCTV is on U.S. cable and satellite systems. The insert China Today is included periodically with newspapers in large cities. No similar activities on the part of U.S. international broadcasting or public diplomacy are permitted in China. Additionally, while China jams and blocks U.S. media content, the United States does not subject Chinese media to similar interdiction. This lack of reciprocity should be a prominent theme of U.S. public diplomacy, publicized frequently in press statements. This might beckon reporters to include questions about this when interviewing Chinese officials.
12) The United States does not have to match Chinese international media expansion. Chinese propaganda expansion is not a reason for US to expand in a similar manner. China has a portion of our trade deficit to spend, wisely and unwisely, on international communication activities. They seem to do so in blunderbuss fashion, without seriously assessing the efficiency of any single medium. China Radio International has expanded its shortwave output at a time when audiences in most of the world have moved to other media. Furthermore, China now has three English-language global television news channels: CCTV News, CNC World (Xinhua), and Blue Ocean Network. A look at these channels suggests that the consolidation of resources and talent would, as in the case of U.S. international broadcasting, help Chinese international broadcasting to be more competitive.