RFE/RL: Broadcasting in the Age of Austerity
By Benjamin Cunningham
October 26, 2011
Living in Prague was never part of the plan for new Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Steven Korn.
But neither was his previous stint in Atlanta, for that matter.
“I got a postcard from my father while I was in law school, when he was on a business trip to Atlanta,” said Korn, a New York native. “He had never done it before or since, and it said ‘Nice city.’ ”
Upon graduation, Korn took a job at an Atlanta law firm, one that happened to represent media mogul Ted Turner, the founder of CNN.
“After about five years, they asked me to start the legal department, which I did,” said Korn, who went on to become a top CNN executive before stepping down in 2001.
“I had been at the launch of CNN June 1, 1981,” Korn says. “The last thing I did as an employee was go to the 20th anniversary party.”
A semi-retirement and a decade or so serving corporate and charitable boards followed, as did a spell leading a “turnaround” at a legal newspaper based in Atlanta.
Then, as is seemingly the practice for Korn, the unexpected happened again.
“I was sitting waiting for a tee time, minding my own business, and the phone rang,” Korn says.
That call came in April from a friend at the executive search firm Spencer Stuart. By early June, Korn had been named to the top post at RFE/RL by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the U.S. government-financed RFE/RL.
It is hard not to notice how Korn’s business-heavy résumé differs from his predecessor at RFE/RL, Jeff Gedmin, who came from an academic, public intellectual mold.
Perhaps the BBG might have had an eye on U.S. government budget troubles as they looked for RFE/RL’s next leader?
“They might have. I don’t know,” Korn says. “Sometimes you go from one end to the other.”
Whatever the board’s motivations, Korn has clearly taken restructuring the multi platform media group that employs some 1,700 people as a top priority.
“The first things I am intent on doing is making sure we have the right structure,” he said. “I am not convinced we are using the money as good as we could be. … We have insufficient funds allocated to travel, for example.”
RFE/RL’s budget for the fiscal year 2012 is some $92 million, and amid what are likely to be major spending cuts by the U.S. government in the years ahead, it seems prudent to ask whether that money is worth it for U.S. taxpayers in an age of austerity
“Our budget is not even a rounding error in the entire U.S. budget. If everything else is fixed, and we are down to the last $92 million, and it is between Radio Free Europe and fixing a pothole, I will live with that choice,” Korn says.
“One B-1 bomber costs $268 million. I’d rather that we make the world a better place through soft power than hard power.”
It indeed seems that organizational changes are ahead for RFE/RL and other Washington financed broadcasters. Deloitte consulting has been brought on by the BBG to advise how RFE/ RL could share costs with similar broadcasters like Radio Free Asia.
“There are separate legal departments and so on; to me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense and takes away from what we can spend on our mission,” Korn says.
Asked to summarize that aforementioned mission, Korn says it is “bringing free press and unbiased information to people in countries where they don’t have it.”
While the BBG is meant to provide a buffer between the U.S. Congress and RFE/RL and prevent broadcasts from being influenced by politics, critics— including leaders in many of the 21 countries where RFE/RL broadcasts — nonetheless charge the organization and its journalists are merely a tool of U.S. foreign policy.
While conceding that U.S. government would not fund RFE/RL if it didn’t provide some benefits, Korn adamantly rejects such claims.
“In a broad sense, that is of course true, but it is sort of an enlightened self-interest point of view,” Korn says. “The ability to let people make up their own mind based on accurate information is an unqualified good thing in the world. … That is also consistent with the broad interests of the United States.”