The Case for an International Broadcasting CEO
Friday, July 20th 2012
Does the United States need an International Broadcasting Czar?
But if you ask if we need someone to serve as a full-time Chief Executive Officer for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), then I would say yes.
What’s the difference? A politically-appointed “czar” (which the current administration has used in several areas to supersede the traditional government hierarchy) has temporary but sweeping powers and influence. I think this would be not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. The heads of the U.S. international broadcasting entities – Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio & TV Marti, and the others – should be allowed to run their own agencies without being micro-managed by a higher boss. Any entity head who can’t be trusted to do that should be replaced with one who can.
A professional BBG CEO, on the other hand, could play a valuable role as a full-time representative for the part-time Board. He or she would serve as a single point of contact for the entity heads, and would have the power to make staffing and budgeting decisions without having to wait for a board meeting that could be weeks or even months away. Since the CEO would report directly to the Board, he would be responsible for knowing their policies as well as knowing what’s going on with the broadcasters. Even better, with a CEO in place, the Board could devote its attention during its periodic meetings to the big-picture decisions that Congress intended for it to oversee rather than get bogged down in the weeds of operational details that should be outside the purview of these part-time Board members. While every Board has included some members with professional experience in broadcasting and other media, the entity broadcasters would be even better served by a CEO at the top who was specifically chosen for his or her media and management skills.
Last January, the current Board recognized the need for such a position and voted unanimously to ask the president and Congress to pass legislation that would allow them to create it. Under the existing system, they have an executive director, who supervises the Board’s administrative support staff, and a presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed (i.e., political appointee) director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), but that position would be replaced by the CEO. I think eliminating the IBB post makes sense for several reasons, but one of the most compelling ones is the fact that, as it was originally created in the Rube Goldbergian org chart cobbled together by Congress in the 1990s, it did not have the authority over the so-called “surrogate” broadcasters (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV) that the current Board has assigned to it.
The Board has also asked Congress to give it sole authority to appoint the CEO, which would take away whatever influence the Senate had on the IBB director appointment in the past. Supporters of this change say that it would insulate the CEO post from political influence, but I’m not so sure. Given the fact that every Board is going to have a built-in majority of one vote favoring the president’s party, whichever party that may be, I believe a better solution would be to give the CEO position a career Senior Executive Service (SES) status that would have to be competitively posted and selected. The Board deserves a CEO that is accountable, but there is also obvious value in having a CEO who could provide institutional continuity while bridging changing political administrations. If every Board could appoint its own CEO, we could end up with a new one in every administration, which would leave international broadcasting with too many new people learning the ropes in their new jobs at the same time.
The broadcasters that are overseen by the BBG are facing unprecedented challenges these days, and the best of them have been nimble and willing to shake things up to get their news and information out to audiences around the world. To continue to do this in today’s constantly-evolving media environment, they need 24/7 support from a single chief executive – not nine part-time appointees – who can make fast, informed, and objective decisions. A fulltime professional CEO can be that person.