America Calling China: A Strategy for International Broadcasting

Tuesday, May 31st 2011


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, 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.

Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott has taught in the communication departments of the University of Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and is now an audience research analyst in the U.S. international Broadcasting Bureau. His articles and papers have appeared in the New York Times, Houston Chronicle, The Melbourne Age, Foreign Policy, Foreign Service Journal, Journalism Quarterly, and other publications.
He reports on international broadcasting at
Views expressed are his own. This paper was submitted to the Public Diplomacy Council on May 31, 2011.

3 people have commented on this article so far authors name for more info

Author: Lisa Heyn

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US International Broadcasting

The alleged "strategy" offered by the author is a dual strategy of defeat and failure.

Should the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) succeed in ending its direct radio broadcasts to the People's Republic of China (PRC), it will have completed its troika of failures: in Russia, the Middle East and Asia. It will signify that the political winds of have changed and that the United States lacks the presence of mind and the will to carry forward with the core principles of its mission. In reality and in symbolism, these are powerful indications that the United States is in a serious period of decline as an international power.

Under these circumstances, American taxpayers should no longer allow public funds to be spent on this continuing process of failure and defeat. The PRC government knows that the United States has been defeated. The American people need to know this as well.

The alleged BBG "strategy" is to place heavy reliance upon the Internet as its primary delivery media. The Chinese, in partciular, have a robust cyber warfare operation in place, both defensive and offensive in nature. The National Endowment for Democracy notes that the Chinese government has over 50-THOUSAND personnel assigned to internal Internet surveillance. These individuals are part of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) which is an indication of the importance the PRC government attaches to these operations. Recently, a cyber attack against Google and gmail email accounts of US government and private sector officials originated in China.

The Chinese take these operations seriously. They intend to control Internet access and have the resources to do so successfully. Control is not synonymous with blocking the Internet entirely. They will allow content that is believed to be useful and consistent with Chinese national goals and interests.

With these mechanisms in place and operational it is idiotic for the BBG to continue on a path that is suicidal to the agency's mission. It is equally foolish to expand upon an already clearly failed strategy as the author suggests. It is quite foolish to abandon direct radio broadcasts by the Voice of America Mandarin and Cantonese services which are difficult to jam uniformly and represent an expense to the Chinese government in maintaining jamming facilities.

What has already been demonstrated in Russia and the Middle East is that the BBG audience has disappeared. They have migrated away from US international broadcasting and have sought out other media content and sources for that content. They are not migrating to the alternative or "new" media adopted by the BBG.

Secretary of State Clinton recently commented that the United States is losing the information war. In truth, the United States has lost the information war and has clearly demonstrated that it has no resonance in the 21st Century. The alleged "strategic plan" of the BBG and the BBG itself are wholly responsible for this abject failure.

In so many words, American taxpayers are keeping US international broadcasting on life support. It is time to pull the plug. The American people need fiscal resources to restore the national economy, which in its current lapsed state, is a threat to our national security in the form of increased debt, as one example.

Who owns a substantial portion of that debt?

The People's Republic of China.

New content strategy needed

VOA is not the only international broadcaster going through changes. BBC World Service is also having a rethink. The difference is that the latter has identified the information need in the target area, rather than trying to simply put in practice what Washington would like people in Moscow, Beijing, Kabul or Cairo to see or hear. This results in a much broader media strategy than simply producing news bulletins and analysis. There are much cleverer ways of getting ideas across a border than shouting on shortwave. Anonymous above suggests the solution is simply to pull the plug. I disagree. But I do think they need a fundamental rethink in their content strategy. VOA, RFE, RFA have always been driven by a distribution strategy without working out how they will compete with local media for peoples' attention. This will need a different strategy per region. For the moment, the Chinese haven't realised this either.

Retreat from China and Censorship -- New Lows for BBG

This is an important article. The Broadcasting Board of Governors executives have done a lot to confuse the public and members of Congress. The choice between traditional radio and TV and the Internet and social media, as the BBG presents it, is completely false. The beauty of the Internet and social media is that they are very inexpensive to do. For example, a single Ethiopian journalist living in exile in the U.S. used his news website to expose how three BBG members traveled to Ethiopia, negotiated with the repressive regime, and then fired the VOA Horn of Africa Service chief who reported about it and censored VOA news reports. ( reported on this as well.) The lesson is that almost anybody can do Internet news reporting for very little money, but only VOA, BBC, and a few other international broadcasters can reach those who cannot use the Internet or are afraid to use it, as in China, Burma, North Korea, Cuba, and many other countries.

The entrenched BBG executive staff could learned from the editor of the Ethiopian American news website that not a lot of money is needed to fight censorship using the Internet. These executives have been unable to protect VOA websites from Iranian and Chinese hackers, who have made them inaccessible sometimes for a few days, and even posted anti-American propaganda directed at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet the BBG wants VOA news to be available in China only on the Internet.

The decision to send BBG members on a mission to Ethiopia is the latest blunder, made even more irresponsible by the fact that a few years earlier the Ethiopian regime charged several VOA journalists working in Washington with treason and threatened them with the death penalty. These charges were later withdrawn after protests by the State Department and human rights NGOs.

The Ethiopian American community and American taxpayers have good reasons to worry. An independent journalist in Russia warned that after BBG executives and consultants were done with the VOA Russian service, pro-Kremlin propaganda displaced much of the pro-democracy reporting. Some BBG executives switch jobs between private contractors run by the BBG and U.S. government positions, allowing them to be paid more in salaries and retirement benefits than most members of Congress. That may explain their preference for cutting journalistic positions and reducing human rights reporting at VOA in favor of hiring more private consultants.

Finally, even members of Congress have had enough of the BBG's incompetence. In a full bipartisan rebuke, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted by unanimous consent to approve the amendment proposed by Rep. Dana Rohrebacher that would prevent the BBG from ending VOA radio and TV transmissions to China. The amendment now needs action from the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate. In a House committee meeting, both Democrats and Republicans derided BBG "bureaucrats" who seem to believe that people in China and Cuba would jump in joy and admit to listening to VOA or Radio Marti. One congressman pointed out that BBG pays a private contractor in the U.S. which in turn hires local contractors in Beijing to conduct audience surveys in a country that is swarming with secret police. 

If nothing is done to change the political patronage system that is killing U.S. international broadcasting and America's reputation abroad, we may next hear about new BBG missions to negotiate with regimes in Cuba, Burma, or North Korea. Let’s hope the U.S. Congress will put a stop to such nonsense, will protect Voice of America broadcasts to China, and will prevent any future censorship by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which should have been abolished long time ago.

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