Saturday, February 6, 2010

America's "Voice

Despite intense jamming by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War, and unabashed political assaults within the U.S. government over the years, the Voice of America has survived.

Alas, while the broadcasting service is a mere shadow of its former self, VOA continues to span the globe in 45 languages, reaching an audience that they estimate at about 130 million people every week. To serve that audience, VOA uses shortwave, FM, medium wave AM broadcasts, the Internet, and television.

Long-time international broadcaster Alan Heil, Jr., who toiled in the vineyards of VOA from 1962 until 1998, has written Voice of America – A History, and it’s a masterful history of an important American institution. While little known within U.S. borders because of the Smith-Mundt Act (yep, that’s South Dakota’s own Karl Mundt), the Voice of American has been a beacon of information and hope for millions of people around the world since it was created in 1942.

The Heil book introduces us to VOA by providing a fascinating narrative about its role in providing news and information to some 60 million Chinese during the tumultuous 1989 uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The VOA delivered news that the Chinese citizens couldn’t get from their own government. It’s a compelling story that hooks the reader right away.

Then Heil escorts readers back to the origin of the VOA in 1942, when its first broadcasts in German pledged to listeners in Europe, “We bring you voices from America. Today, and daily from now on, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good for us. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.”

And that has been a guiding light for VOA for nearly seven decades.

Heil sorts out the continuing struggle to “get it straight” during the early journalistic years of VOA. He provides insightful stories of correspondents doing their jobs from Cairo and Beijing to Munich and Moscow. He adds some touching stories about the many talented immigrants who escaped from dire political and economic circumstances to find a home at the Voice of America. There’s an inside look at the abiding struggle for a VOA charter and independence – a firewall from political influence.

While the bulk of the book focuses upon news and information services at VOA, Heil also pays tribute to the value of music and cultural programs. He acknowledges the plight of many VOA broadcasters: they are well known around the world, but unknown at home. The late Willis Conover (at right), long-time producer and host of “Music USA” jazz programs was a real celebrity around the globe, but virtually unknown in the United States.

Alan Heil's book takes the reader right up to the turn of the century (it was published in 2003). It’s extremely well documented, but it reads every bit as easily as a good novel. Alas, its final chapter, “Conclusion,” leaves the reader with some anxiety about the future of VOA.

And rightfully so.

By 2010, we find a complicated menagerie of bureaucracies – each pitted against the other – fighting for missions and funding from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). It’s the 9-member BBG that tries to oversee not only the Voice of America, but a group of so-called “surrogate” broadcasters – also funded by U.S. taxpayers. English and many foreign language broadcasts have been chopped from the VOA schedule. Some of those foreign broadcasts, like Arabic, were moved to the surrogate agencies: Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Radio and TV Marti broadcasts to Cuba in Spanish.

As nearly as we can tell, the BBG has allowed itself to be mired in day-to-day operations, rather than focusing upon policy and planning. Some of the services seem bent on luring only a young audience, thus we find a real dominance of music and youth-oriented programming – at the expense of news and information programming.

We were taken by a quotation Heil offered by our former public broadcasting colleague and one-time VOA Director, Mary Bitterman, who said, “It is not the organizational structure which permits creativity and integrity, but the character of the people involved in oversight.”

Alan Heil’s book offers a rare glimpse of both the organizational structures – and the people – who have shaped the Voice of America.

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