NASWA Journal Columns · International Broadcasting – February 2023

Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott • 5001 25th Street North • Arlington, VA 22207 kimelli◊

International Broadcasting – February 2023

RFE/RL’s January of publicity

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had a very good January of publicity. It started with a CBS 60 Minutes segment on January 1, with Bill Whitaker reporting ( The report discussed the history of RFE and RL and their covert CIA funding. Most of the feature examined RFE/RL’s activities now in Ukraine and Russia. The president of RFE/RL. Jamie Fly, explained that most of RFE/RL’s audience now uses online video, despite the “Radio” in its names. In fact, he acknowledged that RFE/RL may consider changing its name.

Bill Whitacre also interviewed (online only: Mark Pomar, a former executive of RFE/RL and VOA2, and author of the new book Cold War Radio. Pomar repeated the time-worn but never very true explanation that RFE and RL were unique in focusing on news about their target countries. Actually, most successful international broadcasting gives its audiences news about their own countries that is more credible and comprehensive than what they receive from their state-controlled domestic media. BBC2 did this for Europe during World War II, and for much of the rest of the world since WWII. VOA served a similar role in Africa, China, Iran, and many other places.

What is unique about RFE/RL, and later Radio Free Asia, is that their missions mandate an incomplete news service: no world news and no news about the originating country (i.e. the USA2). Almost all the news is about the target country, and almost all of that is bad news about the target country, a situation that could generate some skepticism among the audience. VOA2 also reports bad news about Russia (or China, etc), but in addition, when it happens, reports bad news about the USA. It’s more like real news, complete news, less likely to have an ulterior motive.

Good publicity part II: New York Times

RFE/RL’s second publicity coup of January is a New York Times story on January 24: “Russia’s War Breathes New Life Into a Cold War Symbol.” It’s by Matina Stevis-Gridneff, NYT Brussels (EU) bureau chief, reporting for this story from Prague, location of RFE/RL’s headquarters. The NY Times piece dug even deeper into RFE/RL’s CIA history. This includes mention of “Glória,” the Netflix spy thriller about the Cold War-era RFE transmitter site in Portugal.

Until 1971, Radio Free Europe was a covert U.S. intelligence operation seeking to penetrate the Iron Curtain and foment anti-communist dissent in what was then Czechoslovakia, in Poland and elsewhere. The C.I.A. stopped funding Radio Free Europe when its operation was revealed. Since then, the news organization has been funded by the United States Congress and has had editorial independence.”

Well, that description is a bit too neat. The CIA funding was not “revealed” in 1971, but had been an open secret for decades. “Editorial independence” may have been more to allow RFE/RL to be more blunt in its anticommunism than US diplomacy would have preferred. Journalistic independence did not fully develop until the establishment of the Broadcasting Board of Governors “firewall” in 1995. Language in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 re-politicized the US Agency for Global Media, successor to BBG. Now editorial independence is much more precarious, depending on who is President, who appoints the CEO of USAGM, who in turn appoints the president of RFE/RL and the heads of the other USAGM entities.

The usual big audience numbers

According the RFE/RL, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought in new audiences, despite the fact that its engineers have to work constantly to get ahead of censors by finding new ways to circumvent prohibitions in Russia and elsewhere. In the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, traffic to RFE/RL websites almost tripled to nearly 70 million, compared with the same week in 2021, the organization said. More than half of that traffic came from Russia and Ukraine.”

Specifically from Russia and Ukraine? Or to the RFE/RL Russian2 and Ukrainian sites from various parts of the world? Lofty audience numbers are provided, but the lack of transparency in USAGM audience research, plus the problems inherent in internet metrics, provoke doubts.

Speaking of USAGM, this parent agency of RFE/RL is nowhere mentioned in the Times story. Probably the writer did not want to muck up the article with the complicated structure of US international broadcasting. Nevertheless, USAGM and VOA2 executives might be frustrated to be out of the picture during the January publicity blitz. And the conspiracy theorist in us might imagine that all this publicity is a bid by RFE/RL to separate itself from the bureaucratic morass of USAGM and VOA.

And be sure to read the comments …

The reader comments under this article are worth perusing. Often such comments are a quagmire of insults, misinformation and stupidity, but it seems the Times does a fairly good job of editing out the rubbish. Of course, there are notes from the RFE/RL cheer squad, some of whose plaudits are curiously on script. On the other side are those spouting Russian2 propaganda, or who are otherwise sympathetic with Putin’s objectives.

Some doubters cite RFE/RL’s CIA history (a main reason why I think USAGM needs to merge its entities under a new brand): “To argue that a news operation founded by the CIA and which continues to be funded by the US Congress is not an agent of the US is very funny. It sounds much like RT.” … “It’s unsurprising that the CIA relic has been resuscitated at the same time as the Cold War. That government has no oversight is debatable.” … “Shades of Encounter magazine, the Anglo-American London monthly, founded in 1953, published an international Who’s Who of essayists, critics, poets, historians, philosophers, economists and journalists. .. [It] received back-channel funding from the CIA.”

On Brroadvay’

Some of the comments elicit nostalgia: “Having grown up watching RFL commercials (there was one where a guy in a radio studio says a long intro in what I believe was Polish, and then says in heavily accented English2. ‘On Brroadvay’ and spins the original Drifters record of that name, that one was an instant classic with me and my middle school friends.) So, who knew, the Drifters as subversive element in totalitarian society. Probably was more effective than all the billions spent on spies, surveillance and military hardware. Anyway, go and check out their website and leave your antiquated, 20th century notions about propaganda in check while you’re there.”

The politics of US international broadcasting is discussed: “Not mentioned here was the attempt by the Trump administration to take over and ultimately dismantle these programs, which was thwarted by the Biden administration. However, no guarantee the new GOP house majority won’t have another attempt on its ‘agenda.’” … “The House Freedom Caucus, following Trump’s lead, wants to kill off Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty by defunding it. Not coincidentally, Putin hates it too.”

And, finally, some of the comments are close to the heart of NASWA2 members: “It is also true that the Russian2 invasion has breathed new life into the importance of shortwave radio, which has been in decline. Shortwave can reach an audience in countries where internet connections and broadcast television are censored, banned, or monitored. The article does not mention shortwave.” … “When an authoritarian government has control over the internet and all media within its borders, radio waves will reach an audience. Radio receivers are passive and cannot be tracked, unlike devices on the internet. It’s old fashioned but everyone should own a radio receiver in case of disaster.”

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