Minutes for December 2, 2015 Official Meeting

Washington, DC
December 2, 2015


Minutes and Transcript from the Quarterly Public Meeting on the Future Strategic Direction of the Broadcasting Board of Governors

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 | 10:00-11:30a.m.
Senate Dirksen Office Building, Washington, D.C.

Mr. William J. Hybl, Chairman
Mr. Sim Farar, Vice Chairman

Ms. Michelle Bowen, Program Support Assistant
Dr. Katherine Brown, Executive Director

Mr. Chris Hensman, Senior Advisor


The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy met in an open session from 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, December 2, 2015, to discuss the future strategic direction of the Broadcasting Board of Governors under the agency’s new Chief Executive Officer, John Lansing. Mr. Lansing presented remarks on his motivations for becoming CEO of the BBG in addition to his five point strategy to move the agency forward. He took several questions from the audience and their details are in the below transcript. Chairman Bill Hybl closed the meeting briefly discussing the Commission’s ongoing congressional mandate. The Commission will meet publicly again on March 8, 2016.


Bill Hybl: Thank all of you for being here. I'm Bill Hybl, Chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

Since 1948, the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy has been charged with appraising U.S. Government activities intended to understand, inform and influence foreign publics. It also works to increase the understanding of, and support for, these same activities. The Commission conducts research and symposiums that provide assessments and informed discourse on public diplomacy efforts across government. Our signature product is the Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting and we released the 2015 version on September 22nd. I thank for Katherine Brown and Chris Hensman, the great work that has been done to make this work available throughout the world. Copies of the executive summary of that report are available on the welcoming table. We don't have the 350-page document, but we do have executive summaries for all of you.

Part of the Commission’s mandate is to also examine international broadcasting activities, so we are thrilled to welcome the Broadcasting Board of Governor’s new Chief Executive Officer and Director, John Lansing. John, thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

Before turning to John, I'd like to introduce Sim Farar, our vice chair from Los Angeles. He's with us here today. Took a red-eye and joined us here in Washington D.C. and we are thankful for that.

A list of the other members of the board is also on the welcoming table in the back. Sim.

Sim Farar: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and good morning.

Prior to joining the BBG as CEO, John was President of Scripps Networks for nine years, where he is credited with guiding the company to become a leading developer of unique content across various media platforms including television, digital, mobile and publishing. As President of Scripps Networks, he was responsible for strategic and operational oversight of the $2.5 billion division of Scripps Networks Interactive, including the company’s portfolio of six cable networks – Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, DIY, Cooking Channel and Great American Country – and the $100 million Scripps Networks Digital division.

Prior to joining Scripps Networks in 2004, John was Senior Vice President for Television in the broadcasting division of the E.W. Scripps Company, managing the company’s portfolio of 10 network affiliated television stations. Earlier, he held various senior management positions at Scripps-owned affiliates, including WEWS TV in Cleveland, Ohio and WXYZ TV in Detroit, Michigan. Most recently, he was President and Chief Executive Officer of Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM), a marketing association comprised of 90 of the top U.S. and Canadian cable companies and television programmers. There, he oversaw the development of business strategies and marketing initiatives that position cable television companies for continued growth as they compete with emerging digital content platforms.

John also brings a deep understanding of journalism from roles as an award-winning Photojournalist and Field Producer, Assignment Manager, Managing Editor, and News Director at several television stations earlier in his career. He's also on several boards and councils detailed in his bio in the front of the room. Please welcome John. Thank you.

John Lansing: Thank you. [Applause] Thank you.

It's great to be here and I really appreciate the opportunity to address the Commission. Thank you very much. Thank you all for coming. I’d like to thank Katherine for the invitation. When I first started, she came over and brought the annual report and we had great conversation. It was a very helpful discussion particularly around the idea of impact as it regards to research.

So as noted in my introduction, why the BBG, why me, why now?

Journalism is in my background, it's really at the heart of why I'm here today. I still believe myself to be a lifelong journalist -- at age 17 actually, I began as a public journalist with a camera on my shoulder. That frankly gave me an opportunity to serve my country. I have always held to strong beliefs that great journalism really moves communities in an important way. It holds institutions and governments accountable, and our citizens with undeniable facts that help them improve their individual lives.

Our role at BBG is to empower these audiences by giving them the truth. We don't do propaganda. Our mission is to inform, engage and support democracy around the world. So our goal for today is conversation. My remarks will be relatively brief and hopefully we can have a Q&A conversation. I've met a wide range of BBG staff stakeholders on the Hill and the White House, State Department and elsewhere. Today, I'd like to share with you my initial impressions.

First of all, the BBG is a tool for advancing U.S. foreign policy, but its lane is journalism. Independent professional journalism. But it advances the interest of the United States in many interesting ways. We support free, democratic and open societies. Societies that enjoy greater stability and prosperity that live in peace with their neighbors; that reject terrorism and extremism and make a better political and treatable allies and trade markets. Our goal with our journalism around the world is to have positive impact and to measure that impact and hold ourselves accountable with that impact.

I just returned from Prague and Kiev and I saw the impact we're having there in a very interesting way, both from VOA and Radio Free Europe. Traveling with me was our correspondent who works just down the street here at Third and Independence Avenue. Walking down the Main Street with Myroslava Gongadze is like walking down Broadway with Walter Cronkite. She is the most well known journalist in all the Ukraine. In her work we were reporting on the story of America and on the international angles of the daily news, coupled with local reporting being done by our investigative reporters. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty on the ground gives us an important combination and strategic one-two punch of a broad international American perspective and a local Ukrainian perspective, all coming through the strategic news of two different channels of the BBG.

There are other examples of impact around the world that even go beyond journalism. For example, Voice of America partnered with the CDC in Nigeria to carry on multi-year campaign stories, PSAs and town halls that helped to educate the nation that taking on polio vaccine was the right thing to do. In the end polio was eradicated in Nigeria.

The remaining examples are the kind of impact we are having around the world like that. I received a letter just the other day from Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud. He had contacted the Somalia Service because they were developing their new constitutional convention and a documentary produced by the VOA was so influential he sent a thank you note to me, thanking me for helping them to develop the constitution they were writing.

So, all of my early days arriving here over the last three months, all of the information I've gathered, all of the conversations I've had, they've all led me to consolidate my thinking and my strategy around five key things. I'd like to share with you the theme that formed the basis of our advancing the BBG.

The first is the need to be where our audience is today and where it's going to be tomorrow, and that's an aggressive shift to digital, social and mobile platforms with a particular target on young, urban influencers and future leaders.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, is to enhance the strategic cooperation of the five entities that make up the BBG. Today's issues are complex and they span regions. The example, for instance, I just gave you of the Ukraine. We must ensure coordination between the networks in an era of tight fiscal resources at the very least, but really to operate strategically with the greatest potential impact.

My first step in entering the BBG was to form the U.S. International Media Coordinating Council. That's the council of the five entity leaders from the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. I was told to be careful before doing that because these entities often were at odds with one another, at the very least competitive with one another. The idea of working together was not something they would look forward to doing.

I discovered the opposite. I discovered that they absolutely looked forward to working together and we meet twice a month. In fact, we have a meeting this Thursday at 10 and we're eager to get together and continue the work that they're doing to develop joint programs across the globe, multiple entities working together for greater impact. An example of that, when we went up on the Hill, or not on the Hill actually to the OMB for the 2017 budget proposal, entering into the door of the BBG I had roughly 14 days to develop that budget narrative. I brought together the five entities and presented them with the problem and asked them to work together to solve it. They got together over the weekend and over the next 10 days and together developed a strategic plan to allow the five of them to work together for a greater impact. We presented that plan at the OMB with all five entity heads together, which had never happened before. Of course in my world that's exactly how you would put together a reorganization plan. The plan was widely, well received.

Another example of cooperation is Current Time. The program is produced every day, a half hour program. Half of it is produced at the VOA Headquarters here at Third and Independence and the other half is produced in Prague. Our VOA partner program covers the international and American perspective on the Russian periphery and Russian propaganda. It's carried in nine countries in the Russian periphery in 25 media outlets and 2 million Russians within Russia view the program every day. Most importantly, the greatest audience of that program are viewers ages 15 to 25 years old.

So it's an example of a federal agency, VOA, and a surrogate RFE/RL, working cooperatively and strategically to counter Russian propaganda that's seeing broad and wide reach in Russia.

Here's a quick example of Current Time. [Video playing]

Video: Current Time launched in record time, just six weeks after the project got the green light. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power called the powerful program a reality check against all of the Russian government's propaganda on the airways. One example of Current Time’s coverage of the fight for the strategic Ukrainian town of Debaltsevo provided a balanced perspective not found on Russian networks. The reaction from Russian Federation Media to some honest competition was almost immediate. [Russian speaking] A few months ago, Russia's Channel One reported that Baltic affiliates were dropping Russian state programming and adding Current Time to their schedules. One analyst complained that Russia's "alternative point of view" was being lost. It was the best three-minute promo we could have asked for. [Russian speaking] Current Time got more free advertising on Russia's first channel when the BBG's budget was announced. The focus was on DIGIM, our new initiative for news and information in Russian in the social media space. And in May 2015, the weekly Russian news program, Vesti Nedeli, showed that both Current Time and RFE/RL are clearly hitting nerves. The program rolled rhetoric typical in Russia media these days, the fascist smear. [Russian speaking]

John Lansing: That program is expected to grow even further into the next year and its digital team as you saw there is the fastest growing digital content proposition that we have in all of BBG. So back to the three or the five themes.

Number three are the spheres of influence that we must focus on. The BBG can't be everywhere and can't be all things to all people. We have to align our content and our resources to U.S. foreign policy interests and be in the areas that we are needed the most, in the areas that are the hardest in the world. That includes what we just saw in the Russian periphery and Russia, Iran, China – as China's influence can span as far as Africa and South America – Cuba, and covering violent extremism. CVE really holds, as we all know now no geographic boundary whatsoever, and is probably the most critical area for us to use our resources and likely one that will command the most strategic cooperation between our entities.

The fourth theme that frames our discussion at the BBG around budgeting and resources is enhancing the curation and acquisition of content. In other words, we can't produce everything originally when there's content available or that we commission or might do the job in a way that we just can't, whether that might be dissident voices, documenting so that we can bring their message out to the world. It also helps us to point our resources and create the kind of content that matters, like Current Time.

Then fifth, and I mentioned this in the very beginning, is really one that I hold myself accountable to and I will ask that our stakeholders hold us accountable to and that is impact. For a long time, the BBG, and there is nothing wrong with it, was measuring reach. Reach, by definition, is one person, one audience person viewing once per week. Our reach is an impressive number. It's 226 million. But reach doesn't tell you a whole lot. It just tells you something went out the broadcasting tower or radio tower or on the internet, but it doesn't tell you what happened as a result. So the thing that we're going to focus on more than anything is measuring the impact of our resource allocation and our content in these spheres of influence around the world.

So those are the five things: the dramatic shift of digital and social mobile; the creation of the U.S. International Media Coordinating Council for strategic cooperation; more curation, more acquisition of content; working in the most important of spheres around the world, the hardest places around the world; and then measuring our impact, not just our reach.

Now there are two additional areas of focus I'd like to talk to you about briefly and then I'll open the floor. The first is internet freedom. The BBG is involved in creating projects and programs and software to allow people to circumvent efforts by governments to censor the internet in places like China, Russian, Iran, all over the world really, Cuba. Many, many places. Our investment in that has yielded millions measured in the hundreds of millions new points of access on the internet through the software that we've been developing. Our investment in that in this current year is about $14 million and we're going to seek to add to that going forward. In the interest of what the BBG mission is -- to connect, inform and engage the world in support of democracy -- connect is an important part of that phrase. Allowing people to access the internet is something we see as part of our core mission.

The second, and I want to tell a quick story here, is something that VOA has currently done and done quite well and that's teaching people around the world how to speak English. Through various radio programs and TV programs. It is something that has been well regarded for a long time. But I was at a meeting in Kiev with the Minister of Information, and he told me that President Poroshenko had put him in charge of creating 100,000 new English speakers in the Ukraine in the year 2016. It's going to be a mantra for the Ukraine and he asked the VOA to help and of course we can and we will help. But as we look at speaking of English around the world, my vision for that is that we take it to the next 2.0 level.

How do we get digital, social media to help spread English learners and English teachers and create a viral speaking English effort within the Ukraine that will span beyond that after we invest our time and energy in learning how we can do that best there? There's no doubt about the connection, the linear connection, between the societies that are learning and speaking more English and the growth of their civil societies.

With that I will conclude, and I thank you once again. I'm happy to take any questions or comments whatsoever. Thank you.

Sim Farar: Thank you, John. [Applause] That was extremely informative. It is great to have you at the helm of BBG and they are very fortunate to have someone like you there. Thank you, John. We open up for some questions. Shawn, you had a question I believe.

Shawn Powers: Thank you. My name is Shawn Powers. I'm a professor at Georgia State University. I was a bit surprised that freedom of the press would not come up in any of the five plus two priority things mentioned. Can you maybe talk about how press freedom fits into those goals and those priorities?

John Lansing: Absolutely. Press freedom is our mission. It is the underlying mission of the BBG, to bring open free professional journalism and freedom of the press to every part of the world where we can have that influence. We do that by demonstrating what a free press does and what a free press looks like. We do it to connect people to the internet. We do it through our programs and projects online to help people speak English and learn about freedom of the press. The mission of the BBG, the foundational purpose of it is to spread freedom for the press and create more civil societies.

Sim Farar: Any other questions, please. Hello, Stacy.

Stacy Hope: Hi, my name's Stacy Hope. I'm from the Helsinki Commission. I want to follow up on Shawn’s question actually, specifically regarding what happened with Khadija Ismayilova. I was just curious what steps have been taken from your perspective?

John Lansing: I welcome your help. RFE/RL Baku Bureau was shut down by the government. I mean, I think we had 19 journalists and four are now back in Prague. Any help you provide would be greatly welcomed.

Sim Farar: Adam, do you have a question? Please stand up. Thank you.

Audience Member: [Unintelligible]

John Lansing: There will be. We're working right now. It's one of these programs, our internet freedom program, the success is getting ahead of our governance of it, and so as we speak today and at our upcoming board meeting in December, we'll be presenting a framework and a governance for internet freedom and establishing a single point of contact so that when we're reviewing incoming program opportunities that we may be funding and then monitoring those programs on a going forward basis. So more on that by the end of the month.

Sim Farar: Any other questions, please. Alright. Please go ahead and stand up and state your name.

Matt Clark: Good morning, my name is Matt Clark. I work for an international non-profit that's based here in D.C. and we do a lot of global engagement work across public, private and social sector partnerships, and I'm particularly interested the fifth thing you mentioned about measuring impact instead of reach. I wonder what's metrics you're going to put around similar sorts of things?

John Lansing: And we can follow up more with you as well. But we're developing a model, an impact research model at the BBG with 27 different points of potential impact a good journalist can have. Some of it is measureable for social media, through the sharing of a post, a video, or the creation of a log, or somebody who takes action as a result.

Katherine Brown: I have a follow-up question.

Sim Farar: State your name, please.

Katherine Brown: [Laughter] Katherine Brown, executive director of the commission. More on the impact model. So happy to hear that's your fifth point. Can you expand more on the resources you're going to have available to be able to scale that up to the level that it needs to happen? Because, we know it's happening piece-meal right now. So can you expand more?

John Lansing: Yeah, one of my disappointments coming in, Katherine, is that I looked back in time at our research budget. We're a $720 million agency and our research five years ago was $10 million, which by itself was probably half of what it should be. Then over time it had actually whittled down to something like $4 million. I'm very optimistic that our increase for research will go through, although I can't speak to that as I stand here today. My intent is to add and build up our research budget so that we can support and fund the kind of, you know the kind of qualitative research you need to really get at impact. You can't really just get that with qualitative.

Katherine Brown: Thank you.

Audience Member: [Unintelligible]

John Lansing: So Current Time is in Eastern Europe on the Russian periphery and it is expanding increasingly by providing unbiased anti-propaganda information for people who are otherwise blocked from it. Our measurement will be the growth of users and then how those users use that information sharing with one another, creating communities, creating political or other institutional change based on the information they are getting through that they otherwise wouldn't have.

Sim Farar: Any other questions? I have a few questions. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Audience Member: [Unintelligible]

John Lansing: Well, thank you. The terrible attacks in Paris are an example. We had, for example, a Persian VOA reporter in Paris when that happened and so we were immediately able to light up all five networks with a live feed with a VOA reporter on the ground in Paris. It really strikes me that with the violent extremism growing without any real boundaries, that our networks really need to be most cooperative on how we cover that, whether it pops up anywhere in the world and how we can cooperate by sharing resources or getting ahead of us.

We were hoping to show a tape here, but we weren't able to on a program called Delusional Paradise produced by MBN, which are a series of half-hour documentaries that explore the life of families in Iraq that lost a fighter to ISIS and the impact it has on those families left behind when they find out that fighter has been "murdered." That series, when shown at one of our ICC meetings, immediately all the entities said can we run that. So that's something that had happened four months ago. So that series is now running on broadcast outlets on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. So this is an example of the entities sharing and creating greater impact.

Sim Farar: Yes, please.

Audience Member: [Unintelligible]

John Lansing: MBN. The social media will be a major part of our investment for MBN, particularly in Iraq. Creating communities of moderate Islamic citizens, particularly younger, more connected, wireless and mobile, and allowing them to share information among themselves, not just always hearing from the broadcaster, enabling them to carry our message and share it among themselves. That would be a dynamic definition of impact for us.

Sim Farar: Any other questions? Please.

Audience Member: [Unintelligible]

John Lansing: So the diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba are important and positive in my view. Our lane in that is a free press and an open press. And to the extent that there are reforms in Cuba that make press freedom something that’s more available to any of the citizens, if not more of the citizens, if there’s internet access is made more available. Then we’ll see our role perhaps diminish. As it stands today, it has almost been exactly a year since the opening, there’s been no negative harm done in terms of opening the press freedom for internet access. Our mission really remains the same.

Sim Farar: Any other questions? Please.

Audience Member: First of all, I want to applaud the creation of the council. I think the best practice. Building off of that model, do you have any preliminary ideas for recommendations of how we can ensure cooperation between the entities?

John Lansing: We were just talking about this yesterday. It’s very important for us to understand the priorities of U.S. foreign policy through the State Department and the NSC, and in fact that defines our theatre of operations, if you will, and allows us to concentrate our resources in the areas where we can have greatest impact through the strategic cooperation of our entities working in line with State.

Sim Farar: Any other new questions? I have a couple questions, John. First I’d like to say, thank you. And how does the State Department and BBG work together?

John Lansing: Great questions. So you may or may not know that the Secretary of State, represented by the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, sits on our board. It’s hard to say that any board member at the BBG is any more influential than the other or the chair. But if there were one it would be Rick Stengel. Number one, he’s obviously a well-known and highly respected former journalist, and someone I rely on as much as a mentor as a board member. But also he represents the State Department. Then as mentioned earlier, I think it’s incumbent on us to build a bridge with the State Department. There is a firewall, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for firewalls. So that’s not a concern for me. We are a journalism outfit. Our journalism has to be professional and independent. Because if it isn’t, we don’t have credibility and if we don’t have credibility, then we have nothing. In order to be effective as an independent and credible journalistic organization and agency, I think we have to understand priorities and concerns of our sister agencies so that we have the best use of our resources to be as impactful as we can. That’s on us to reach out. In the position I sit in, I’m both the firewall but I’m also the conduit, to make sure we understand.

Sim Farar: That was very informative and very, very fresh. I’m going to turn the meeting over now to Chairman Hybl for his concluding remarks.

Bill Hybl: Thank you, John. I think we all appreciate your candor and the fact that you really can be concise with your answers. That is very good. Your leadership at the BBG and certainly in public diplomacy is greatly appreciated.

The Commission is happy to close out 2015 with several white papers and reports, including the Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting, and our report with the Meridian International Center on strengthening public diplomacy personnel, “Getting the People Part Right II,” in addition to our white paper, “Public Diplomacy at Risk” on the disturbing closing of our American Spaces. We’ve also continued to focus much of our efforts on the improving the capacity of research and evaluation of public diplomacy and broadcasting activities at both agencies.

We are part of the omnibus bill for reauthorization --

Katherine Brown: We don’t know that yet.

Bill Hybl: We hope we’re part of the omnibus bill for reauthorization. [Laughter] I like the way I put it the first time though. So, it’s our intention to have a series of forums in 2016 and we certainly look forward to any suggestions you may have. Please let Katherine Brown to Chris Hensman know of any topics that you think would be appropriate for us. Please continue to communicate with the Commission. We appreciate you being here and John, again, thanks. We’re adjourned. Thank you. [Applause]