Voice of America (VOA) is a multilingual international broadcasting service funded by the US government, which, since its creation in 1942, has played an important role in projecting American news, culture, and policy to the world.
The US government was slow to begin international broadcasting. While Soviet Russia had been transmitting to the world since 1927, the United States left such activity to a few religious stations. The outbreak of World War II changed this. In February 1942 federally funded broadcasts began from New York in German, French, and Italian under the collective name of Voice of America. More languages soon followed. The first VOA broadcast set the tone with the announcer declaring in German: “The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.” Overseen by the Office of War Information, VOA sparked controversy when it repeated criticism of US foreign policy, but it was considered effective enough to survive into the postwar period as an adjunct of the State Department.
While postwar funding was initially hard to come by, the ubiquity of Soviet propaganda soon convinced Capitol Hill that the US needed a permanent international information machine including shortwave radio. The authorizing legislation came in 1948. In 1953 the Eisenhower administration placed VOA within the United States Information Agency (USIA) a new agency for what would eventually be dubbed “public diplomacy.” At the same time VOA moved from New York to Washington, DC to quiet McCarthyite claims that the station was running a radical foreign policy of its own.
From the outset VOA’s output was strongly influenced by the ethics of domestic American journalism. The station’s broadcasters worked to present the news in a balanced way. The Eisenhower administration recognized the prime value of credibility and in 1960 authorized a Voice of America charter to require the Voice both to reflect American policy and broadcast all sides of a story. VOA was helped in its journalistic mission by the existence of a parallel network of ostensibly independent stations broadcasting to the Eastern bloc, known as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and actually funded by the CIA. VOA took the role of the good cop while RFE/RL played propaganda hardball. Had VOA been America’s only voice it is likely that the pressure on them to transmit propaganda would have been even more intense than they were. Even so, while the charter strengthened the hand of the journalists at VOA it was not enough by itself to deter politically motivated attempts to skew the Voice’s output. Political pressure during the Watergate scandal and the closing years of the Vietnam War prompted a bipartisan move to write the VOA charter into law in 1976.
Besides news, VOA output always included cultural programming. Its most famous program was the Music USA Jazz Hour, hosted by Willis Conover, which ran from 1956 to Conover’s death in 1996. The show was an immense hit with audiences in eastern Europe. Conover saw jazz as a musical expression of American democracy. VOA also carried features, drama, commentary and broadcast some of its English-language programming as “Special English,” a system that used a limited vocabulary delivered at dictation speed for those with only a beginner’s grasp of the language.
As the Cold War progressed the Voice pulled back from its European languages and added more Asian and African content, typically maintaining 46 or so different languages. VOA built an audience generally reckoned in excess of 100,000 per week. Refugees from the communist world consistently affirmed its value while further evidence of its effectiveness could be found in the counter-measures deployed by its enemies, including jamming across the Soviet bloc and China.
In the 1980s VOA entered a period of modernization and controversy. While some Reagan administration appointees sought to increase the political content of the Voice and expand the use of editorials on the air, journalists fought a rearguard action to protect their charter. VOA began to move away from shortwave, seeking out FM affiliates to rebroadcast its material. In the 1990s the Voice redoubled its quest for FM affiliates and began broadcasting television programs, starting with its Mandarin and Farsi services. Under the leadership of director Geoffrey Cowan, the VOA greatly expanded its use of call-in formats, a shift characterized by Cowan as “from monologue to dialogue.” The Voice swiftly recognized the value of the Internet and launched language streams in all its broadcast languages. As post-Cold War budget cuts bit, some of these replaced the on-air version.
The 1990s saw two major bureaucratic shifts. First, in 1994, VOA came into the same stable as RFE/RL – the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) – which required a pooling of engineering resources. Then, in 1999, as USIA disappeared into an expanded State Department, VOA and the wider IBB became subject to a new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). While the BBG was designed to keep out political influence, VOA managers soon complained that the structure had actually locked in the influence of particular board members.
The global “war on terror” sparked familiar tussles over alleged attempts to skew VOA. The Voice embraced new technology (including feeds in several languages to personal data devices), and increasingly used television, but resources remained scarce. The BBG launched several major initiatives, including new radio and TV services in Arabic, outside the VOA structure. The Voice paid the price in budget cuts, culminating in a budget for fiscal year 2008 that eliminated most English-language programming. At the time of writing the future of the Voice seems increasingly in doubt.
- Alexandre, L. (1988). The Voice of America: From détente to the Reagan doctrine. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Cull, N. J. (in press). American propaganda and public diplomacy, 1945–1989: The United States Information Agency and the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Heil, A. L., Jr. (2003). Voice of America: A history. New York: Columbia University Press.