Broadcasting to Cuba:

Actions Are Needed to Improve Strategy and Operations

GAO-09-127: Published: Jan 22, 2009. Publicly Released: Feb 5, 2009.

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For more than two decades, the U.S. government has been broadcasting to Cuba to break the Cuban government's information blockade and promote democracy in Cuba. Over this period, questions have been raised regarding the quality and effectiveness of these broadcasts. GAO was asked to examine (1) the Office of Cuba Broadcasting's (OCB) broadcasting approach and what is known about its audience; (2) how the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)--which oversees U.S. government broadcasting--and OCB ensure compliance with journalistic principles; (3) steps taken to ensure adherence to domestic and international broadcasting laws, agreements, and standards; and (4) steps BBG and OCB have taken to address management challenges. GAO analyzed documentation related to strategic planning, audience research, oversight, and operations and interviewed officials from BBG, BBG's International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), OCB, State, and other agencies.

OCB broadcasts Radio and TV Marti through multiple transmission methodsthat face varying levels of jamming by the Cuban government. While there are no nationally representative data and some surveys of recent Cuban emigres suggest a larger audience, the best available research suggests that Radio and TV Marti's audience is small. Specifically, less than 2 percent of respondents to telephone surveys since 2003 reported tuning in to Radio or TV Marti during the past week. Despite the importance of audience research, we found minimal sharing of such research among available sources. Because of limitations in the audience research data, decisionmakers lack basic information to help assess the relative success or return on investment from each of OCB's transmission methods. BBG's IBB--which directly oversees OCB--has established an annual program review process that serves as the main mechanism for assessing OCB's compliance with journalistic standards. While IBB officials report that the quality of OCB programming has improved in recent years, IBB reviews since 2003 have recommended improving adherence to certain journalistic standards, particularly in the areas of balance and objectivity. IBB's process provides useful feedback, but we found weaknesses such as limited training and operational guidance for staff conducting the reviews. OCB and IBB have taken steps to ensure that U.S. broadcasting adheres to relevant laws and standards, but some concerns remain. To comply with U.S. law, they have taken steps to minimize the domestic dissemination of OCB programming; however, OCB broadcasts reach U.S. audiences in several ways, such as through the Internet. In addition, a commercial TV station contracted to broadcast OCB programming showed some inappropriate advertisements during OCB programs. Furthermore, an international body found that OCB's TV broadcasts cause harmful interference to Cuban broadcasts, but the U.S. government has not taken steps to address this issue. Despite some efforts by BBG and OCB, oversight entities have identified problems such as poor communication by OCB management and low employee morale. For example, OCB lacks formal mechanisms for communicating with or obtaining information from employees.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve OCB operations, the Board of Governors should direct IBB to develop guidance and take steps to ensure that political and other inappropriate advertisements are not shown during OCB broadcasts.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The IBB's Office of Contracts now puts a standard clause in every solicitation for satellite services that prohibits political or other inappropriate advertisements during broadcasts. It also states that all content should adhere to FCC requirements.

    Recommendation: To improve OCB operations, the Board of Governors should direct OCB to provide training to OCB staff regarding journalistic standards.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Broadcasting Board of Governors and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) took three actions: (1) In 2009, OCB employees received training on the Voice of America Charter and journalistic code. (2) In 2009, OCB contracted with a private contractor to provide additional media training. (3) OCB management has also sponsored a series of brown bag seminars on effective journalism.

    Recommendation: To improve OCB operations, the Broadcasting Board of Governors should direct IBB to enhance guidance and training for analysts performing program reviews.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of GAO's report, the Broadcasting Board of Governors concurred with GAO's recommendations. As a result, in April 2010, IBB provided a five day training course to enhance IBB program analysts' ability to review OCB programming. Also, in October 2010, IBB provided program analysts with amplified guidance that outlines six criteria analysts should use when conducting a program review.

    Recommendation: To assist decisionmakers and improve OCB's strategy, the Broadcasting Board of Governors should coordinate the sharing of information among U.S. agencies and grantees regarding audience research relating to Radio and TV Marti.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of July 2013, the BBD said that is only producing qualitative data related to Cuba broadcasting. BBG said that it does not generally share its qualitative reports outside of the agency, in part given their limited utility to other users.

    Recommendation: To assist decisionmakers and improve OCB's strategy, the Broadcasting Board of Governors should conduct an analysis of the relative success and return on investment of broadcasting to Cuba, showing the cost, nature of the audience, and challenges--such as jamming and competition--related to each of OCB's transmission methods. The analysis should also include comprehensive information regarding the media environment in Cuba to better understand the extent to which OCB broadcasts are attractive to Cubans.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to BBG, it has stopped conducting the telephone surveys discussed in GAO's 2009 report. As a result, BBG lacks quantitative data to assess the size of its audience in Cuba. Without such data, it is not possible for BBG to assess the relative success or return on investment for each of OCB's transmission methods.

    Recommendation: To improve OCB operations, the Board of Governors should direct OCB to establish formal mechanisms for disseminating information to and obtaining views from employees to help improve communication and morale.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to Broadcasting Board of Governors, in 2011, the new Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) Director and Station Manager have taken several actions, including holding frequent staff meetings, assigning the OCB Staff Director with responsibility for staying in touch with employees and fostering two-way communication with them, opening programming focus groups to managers, and maintaining an "open door" policy where employees can reach out to them at any time.

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