VOA's 60th Anniversary
February Twenty-Fourth marks the sixtieth anniversary of the first broadcast on the Voice of America. This year, VOA will be honoring its past and looking forward to its future. I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Steve Ember. The history of the Voice of America is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
The world has changed much since the first VOA broadcast sixty years ago. When listeners first heard VOA on that February day in Nineteen-Forty-Two, the United States had recently entered World War Two. The country was fighting against Germany and Japan. At the time, Germany was broadcasting radio programs to gain international support for its position.
American officials believed they should answer the German broadcasts with the truth about world events. The first VOA broadcast was a short report in the German language. It began with these words: "Here speak voices from America. Everyday at this time we will bring you the news of the war. The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth."
That first broadcast was prepared by just a few people working in three small offices in New York City. Within a week, other VOA announcers were broadcasting in Italian, French and English.
Since then, the Voice of America has expanded to include more than one-thousand employees. They produce more than one-thousand hours of programs every week. VOA broadcasts in fifty-three languages.VOA uses satellites to send its broadcasts around the world. Radio stations in Asia, Europe and Latin America are broadcasting VOA programs over F-M and medium-wave frequencies.
As many as ninety-one million people around the world listen to the Voice of America each week. People can also hear programs and read stories on the Internet Web site, w-w-w-dot-voanews-dot-com. VOA also produces television programs that are broadcast by satellite.
However, VOA almost did not survive beyond World War Two. When the war ended in Nineteen-Forty-Five, some Americans felt that VOA's purpose also had ended. Many members of Congress believed a government radio service was not needed in peacetime.
Before anyone took steps to close the agency, however, a new development took place. The United States and the Soviet Union – former allies – became enemies.
Many American politicians saw a new need for the Voice of America. They wanted to reach listeners in the Soviet Union, which had no independent press. In Nineteen-Forty-Seven, VOA began broadcasting programs in the Russian language.
In those early years, VOA also began adding something new to its broadcasts: music. In Nineteen-Fifty-Five, music expert Willis Conover broadcast his first jazz show on the program called "Music U-S-A." American jazz was not permitted in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at that time. Willis Conover's programs became hugely popular.
In fact, many observers believe he helped create an important jazz movement in eastern Europe. For forty years, he brought the jazz music of performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to millions of listeners.
In Nineteen-Fifty-Nine, VOA added another new kind of program to its broadcasts. VOA officials knew that many listeners understood some English. But the listeners did not know enough to completely understand normal English-language broadcasts. So, VOA officials invented a simpler kind of English. It uses about one-thousand-five-hundred words. And, it is spoken slowly. Of course, you are listening to it now: Special English.
VOA has reported many major news events during the past sixty years. For example, in July of Nineteen-Sixty-Nine, four-hundred-fifty-million people listened as an American space vehicle landed on the moon. VOA broadcast the words of Astronaut Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the surface of the moon.
As the years passed, VOA continued to provide news of major events. In August, Nineteen-Ninety-One, VOA Russian language broadcasters reported the attempted ouster of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. On December Thirty-First, VOA reported ceremonies marking the end of the Soviet Union. Reporters told the story from Red Square in Moscow.
In Nineteen-Ninety-Four, VOA became the first international broadcaster to offer its material on the Internet. VOA also started its first telephone call-in program, Talk to America." The program presents experts discussing important issues. People around the world call the program and ask questions or give their comments.
Also in Nineteen-Ninety-Four, the Mandarin Chinese language service launched "China Forum." It was VOA's first radio and television program broadcast at the same time. The program is broadcast by satellite, shortwave and medium-wave radio to people in China.
In Nineteen-Ninety-Eight, VOA joined an international effort to end the disease polio. VOA broadcast to Africa, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East in sixteen languages. Reported new cases of polio in affected countries dropped ninety-nine percent by Two-Thousand-One.
Today, VOA "News Now" broadcasters present the latest news and information in English twenty-four hours a day. News Now includes reports from VOA correspondents in the United States and around the world. It also includes stories about sports, science, business and entertainment.
Last September, VOA told the world about the terrorist attacks on the United States. Reporters provided news from the targeted areas in New York City and near Washington, D.C. They followed the recovery efforts at the World Trade Center and the Defense Department headquarters. The Dari and Pashto language services of VOA are continuing to report to Afghanistan during the current war on terrorism.
A major test for VOA news came during the Watergate political crisis. Watergate was the series of events that led President Richard Nixon to resign in Nineteen-Seventy-Four. For months, VOA broadcast all the news about charges of illegal campaign activities by White House officials. Some Administration officials objected to the broadcasts.
Later, there were demands for a clear legal statement of what VOA's purpose should be. Congress answered by writing a new law. President Gerald Ford signed it in Nineteen-Seventy-Six.
The law contains a statement of what the Voice of America must do. The statement has three parts. First, it says, VOA will present news that is truthful, fair and complete. Second, VOA will present a balanced picture of all sides of American life. And third, VOA will present the policies of the United States government, as well as opinions supporting and opposing those policies.
Official policies are broadcast in short messages called "editorials." Writers in an office separate from the newsroom produce the editorials.
However, the law did not end debate about the purpose of VOA. The debate continues today, as VOA reports about the war on terrorism. Some people say VOA should not broadcast stories containing material critical of the United States. Other people say listeners would reject pro-government programs as propaganda. And they say such programs would violate the law that says programs must be truthful and balanced.
During sixty years of broadcasting, people in many countries have written to VOA to tell how it has affected their lives. For example, a farmer in China says VOA agriculture programs helped him learn what crops to plant. He says his harvests have improved. A woman born in India says she learned English by listening to VOA. She was able to continue her education with this increased language ability. She became a doctor.
For years, the military government of Burma has restricted the activities of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. One of the freedoms Aung San Suu Kyi has demanded is her right to listen to the Voice of America.
This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.