Voice of America (VOA) is an American international broadcaster. It is the largest and oldest U.S. funded international broadcaster. VOA produces digital, TV, and radio content in 47 languages which it distributes to affiliate stations around the globe. It is primarily viewed by foreign audiences, so VOA programming has an influence on public opinion abroad regarding the United States and its people.
VOA was established in 1942, and the VOA charter (Public Laws 94-350 and 103–415) was signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. VOA is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), an independent agency of the U.S. government. Funds are appropriated annually under the budget for embassies and consulates. In 2016, VOA broadcast an estimated 1,800 hours of radio and TV programming each week to approximately 236.6 million people worldwide with about 1,050 employees and a taxpayer-funded annual budget of US$218.5 million.
Before World War II, all American shortwave stations were in private hands. Privately controlled shortwave networks included the National Broadcasting Company's International Network (or White Network), which broadcast in six languages, the Columbia Broadcasting System's Latin American international network, which consisted of 64 stations located in 18 different countries, the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation in Cincinnati, Ohio, and General Electric which owned and operated WGEO and WGEA, both based in Schenectady, New York, and KGEI in San Francisco, all of which had shortwave transmitters. Experimental programming began in the 1930s, but there were fewer than 12 transmitters in operation. In 1939, the Federal Communications Commission set the following policy: A licensee of an international broadcast station shall render only an international broadcast service which will reflect the culture of this country and which will promote international goodwill, understanding and cooperation. Any program solely intended for, and directed to an audience in the continental United States does not meet the requirements for this service. This policy was intended to enforce the State Department's Good Neighbor Policy, but some broadcasters felt that it was an attempt to direct censorship. Shortwave signals to Latin America were regarded as vital to counter Nazi propaganda around 1940. Initially, the Office of Coordination of Information sent releases to each station, but this was seen as an inefficient means of transmitting news. The director of Latin American relations at the Columbia Broadcasting System was Edmund A. Chester, and he supervised the development of CBS's extensive "La Cadena de las Americas" radio network to improve broadcasting to South America during the 1940s. Also included among the cultural diplomacy programming on the Columbia Broadcasting System was the musical show Viva America (1942-1949) which featured the Pan American Orchestra and the artistry of several noted musicians from both North and South America, including Alfredo Antonini, Juan Arvizu, Eva Garza, Elsa Miranda, Nestor Mesta Chaires, Miguel Sandoval, John Serry Sr., and Terig Tucci. By 1945, broadcasts of the show were carried by 114 stations on CBS's "La Cadena de las Americas" network in 20 Latin American nations. These broadcasts proved to be highly successful in supporting President Franklin Roosevelt's policy of Pan-Americanism throughout South America during World War II.
Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government's Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI, in Washington) had already begun providing war news and commentary to the commercial American shortwave radio stations for use on a voluntary basis through its Foreign Information Service (FIS, in New York) headed by playwright Robert E. Sherwood, the playwright who served as president Roosevelt's speech writer and information advisor. Direct programming began a week after the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, with the first broadcast from the San Francisco office of the FIS via General Electric's KGEI transmitting to the Philippines in English (other languages followed). The next step was to broadcast to Germany, which was called Stimmen aus Amerika ("Voices from America") and was transmitted on February 1, 1942. It was introduced by "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and included the pledge: "Today, and every day from now on, we will be with you from America to talk about the war... The news may be good or bad for us – We will always tell you the truth." Roosevelt approved this broadcast, which then-Colonel William J. Donovan (COI) and Sherwood (FIS) had recommended to him. It was Sherwood who actually coined the term "The Voice of America" to describe the shortwave network that began its transmissions on February 1, from 270 Madison Avenue in New York City. The Office of War Information, when organized in the middle of 1942, officially took over VOA's operations. VOA reached an agreement with the British Broadcasting Corporation to share medium-wave transmitters in Britain, and expanded into Tunis in North Africa and Palermo and Bari, Italy as the Allies captured these territories. The OWI also set up the American Broadcasting Station in Europe. Asian transmissions started with one transmitter in California in 1941; services were expanded by adding transmitters in Hawaii and, after recapture, the Philippines. By the end of the war, VOA had 39 transmitters and provided service in 40 languages. Programming was broadcast from production centers in New York and San Francisco, with more than 1,000 programs originating from New York. Programming consisted of music, news, commentary, and relays of U.S. domestic programming, in addition to specialized VOA programming. About half of VOA's services, including the Arabic service, were discontinued in 1945. In late 1945, VOA was transferred to the Department of State.
In 1947, VOA started broadcasting to the Soviet citizens in Russia under the pretext of countering "more harmful instances of Soviet propaganda directed against American leaders and policies" on the part of the internal Soviet Russian-language media, according to John B. Whitton's treatise, Cold War Propaganda. The Soviet Union responded by initiating electronic jamming of VOA broadcasts on April 24, 1949. Charles W. Thayer headed VOA in 1948–49. Over the next few years, the U.S. government debated the best role of Voice of America. The decision was made to use VOA broadcasts as a part of its foreign policy to fight the propaganda of the Soviet Union and other countries. The Arabic service resumed on January 1, 1950, with a half-hour program. This program grew to 14.5 hours daily during the Suez Crisis of 1956, and was six hours a day by 1958. In 1952 – 1960, Voice of America used a converted U.S. Coast Guard cutter Courier as a first mobile broadcasting ship. The Courier was also used to train personnel who later worked in European commercial stations. Control of VOA passed from the State Department to the U.S. Information Agency when the latter was established in 1953 to transmit worldwide, including to the countries behind the Iron Curtain and to the People's Republic of China (PRC). Starting in the 1950s, VOA broadcast American jazz on Voice of America Jazz Hour from 1955 until 2003. Hosted for most of that period by Willis Conover, the program had 30 million listeners at its peak. A program aimed at South Africa in 1956 broadcast two hours nightly, and special programs such as The Newport Jazz Festival were also transmitted. This was done in association with tours by U.S. musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, sponsored by the State Department. From August 1952 through May 1953, Billy Brown, a high school senior in Westchester County, New York, had a Monday night program in which he shared everyday happenings in Yorktown Heights, New York. Brown's program ended due to its popularity: his "chatty narratives" attracted so much fan mail, VOA couldn't afford the $500 a month in clerical and postage costs required to respond to listeners' letters. Throughout the Cold War, many of the targeted countries' governments sponsored jamming of VOA broadcasts, which sometimes led critics to question the broadcasts' actual impact. For example, in 1956, Polish People's Republic stopped jamming VOA transmissions, but People's Republic of Bulgaria continued to jam the signal through the 1970s. Chinese language VOA broadcasts were jammed beginning in 1956 and extending through 1976. However, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, interviews with participants in anti-Soviet movements verified the effectiveness of VOA broadcasts in transmitting information to socialist societies. The People's Republic of China diligently jams VOA broadcasts. Cuba has also been reported to interfere with VOA satellite transmissions to Iran from its Russian-built transmission site at Bejucal. David Jackson, former director of Voice of America, noted: "The North Korean government doesn't jam us, but they try to keep people from listening through intimidation or worse. But people figure out ways to listen despite the odds. They're very resourceful." Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, VOA covered some of the era's most important news, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech and Neil Armstrong's 1969 first walk on the Moon. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, VOA broadcast around-the-clock in Spanish. In the early 1980s, VOA began a $1.3 billion rebuilding program to improve broadcast with better technical capabilities. Also in the 1980s, VOA also added a television service, as well as special regional programs to Cuba, Radio Martí and TV Martí. Cuba has consistently attempted to jam such broadcasts and has vociferously protested U.S. broadcasts directed at Cuba. In September 1980, VOA started broadcasting to Afghanistan in Dari and in Pashto in 1982. In 1985, VOA Europe was created as a special service in English that was relayed via satellite to AM, FM, and cable affiliates throughout Europe. With a contemporary format including live disc jockeys, the network presented top musical hits as well as VOA news and features of local interest (such as "EuroFax") 24 hours a day. VOA Europe was closed down without advance public notice in January 1997 as a cost-cutting measure. It was followed by VOA Express, which from July 4, 1999 revamped into VOA Music Mix. Since November 1, 2014 stations are offered VOA1 (which is a rebranding of VOA Music Mix). In 1989, Voice of America expanded its Mandarin and Cantonese programming to reach the millions of Chinese and inform the country about the pro-democracy movement within the country, including the demonstration in Tiananmen Square. Starting in 1990, the U.S. consolidated its international broadcasting efforts, with the establishment of the Bureau of Broadcasting.
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With the breakup of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, VOA added many additional language services to reach those areas. This decade was marked by the additions of Tibetan, Kurdish (to Iran and Iraq), Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Macedonian, and Rwanda-Rundi language services. In 1993, the Clinton administration advised cutting funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as it was felt post-Cold War information and influence was not needed in Europe. This plan was not well received, and he then proposed the compromise of the International Broadcasting Act. The Broadcasting Board of Governors was established and took control from the Board for International Broadcasters which previously oversaw funding for RFE/RL. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the International Broadcasting Act into law. This law established the International Broadcasting Bureau as a part of the U.S. Information Agency and created the Broadcasting Board of Governors with oversight authority. In 1998, the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act was signed into law and mandated that BBG become an independent federal agency as of October 1, 1999. This act also abolished the U.S.I.A. and merged most of its functions with those of the State Department. In 1994, Voice of America became the first broadcast-news organization to offer continuously updated programs on the Internet.
The Arabic Service was abolished in 2002 and replaced by a new radio service, called the Middle East Radio Network or Radio Sawa, with an initial budget of $22 million. Radio Sawa offered mostly Western and Middle Eastern popular songs with periodic brief news bulletins. Today, the network has expanded to television with Alhurra and to various social media and websites. On May 16, 2004; Worldnet, a satellite television service, was merged into the VOA network. Radio programs in Russian ended in July 2008. In September 2008, VOA eliminated the Hindi language service after 53 years. Broadcasts in Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian and Bosnian also ended. These reductions were part of American efforts to concentrate more resources to broadcast to the Muslim world. In September 2010, VOA began its radio broadcasts in Sudan. As U.S. interests in South Sudan have grown, there is a desire to provide people with free information. In 2013, VOA ended foreign language transmissions on shortwave and medium wave to Albania, Georgia, Iran and Latin America; as well as English language broadcasts to the Middle East and Afghanistan. The movement was done due to budget cuts. On July 1, 2014, VOA cut most of its shortwave transmissions in English to Asia. Shortwave broadcasts in Azerbaijani, Bengali, Khmer, Kurdish, Lao, and Uzbek were dropped too. On August 11, 2014, the Greek service ended after 72 years on air.