The United States spends over half a billion dollars every year on international broadcasting. Of that, $90 million are spent on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, two stations that successfully breached the Iron Curtain, providing quality information and journalism to citizens in the former Soviet Union since the 1950’s. Today, they are still engaging with publics via radio in the former Soviet countries, as well as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recently in Russia, however, millions may have lost a reliable source of news.
RFE/RL capitalized on the countries’ media dependency: in the absence of reliable media, they became the go-to source for news in the region, filling a gap that contributed greatly to U.S. public diplomacy. Although funded by the U.S. government, the stations are independently run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is at the center of a controversy over mismanagement. The stations have been traditionally associated with good journalism by producing objective news.
In the wake of recent measures taken by Vladimir Putin’s government, such as the ban on USAID’s operations in the country, and the enforcement of a media law restricting foreign ownership of broadcast outlets, Radio Liberty has shifted its strategy significantly. In the Moscow office, staff was reduced to almost half as RL has begun to emphasize digital platforms instead of air-waves to spread its content.
This was due, in part, by the new media law in Russia that prohibited the station to operate AM broadcasts, thus losing its license, which was met with little to no push-back by the U.S. Government or the radio’s management. But the growing trend of digital platforms and social media use has inspired an overhaul in strategy that may prove unsuccessful.
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are available in 21 countries, 28 languages, reaching an audience of 24 million people each week. And although 47% of Russians currently have internet access, a large chunk remains excluded. By shifting operations to broadcast online, Radio Liberty will be missing an opportunity to speak to more than half of the Russian populace, who continue to be in need of unbiased sources of information.
Earlier in the week, ASP published a report on The Challenges of the Internet and Social Media in Public Diplomacy, highlighting a discussion on the true efficacy of digital platforms. One size does not fit all, and as the report points out, there is a great number of countries and people who do not have the level of access to online tools as experienced in the U.S. Public diplomacy efforts need to be tailored to its target audiences if they are to be successful in any concrete manner. In this case, part of RL’s traditional public still relies on the radio as a primary source for news.
Since its founding, RFE/RL has consistently come under attack from past Soviet and Russian governments. Focusing most of its broadcast online may not be the best idea, since its digital platform could be susceptible to attacks, which would have been much harder to carry out over the air-waves. In this process, the firing of journalists by the radio’s management has been met with protest and hurt the station’s credibility. The attempt to regain relevance is legitimate but doing so, using online tools, without taking into account the effects on a well-regarded brand and on the actual audience may backfire instead.