Voice of America began broadcasting seventy years ago. For audiences in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain, the radio station was a glimmer of hope and support in the dim grayness of the communist regime. It continues to promote freedom, democracy and good radio journalism, although it hasn’t broadcast in the Czech Republic for eight years.
The FDR administration came up with the idea of an international news service for listeners in Europe in mid-1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, preparations for launching the service gained momentum, and it began transmitting from its New York studio the following February.
“The News May Be Good or Bad”
“Here speaks a voice from America. Every day at this time we will bring you the news about the war. The news may be good. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth,” the announcer William Hale told listeners in his first radiocast into the enemy, Germany. From the beginning, VOA staked its reputation on objective reporting. In addition to German, the station carried programs in French, Italian and English. In June 1942, it came under the control of the Office of War Information (OWI) and two years later was broadcasting in over 40 languages. During the Cold War, VOA continued to spread its message of democracy and liberty.
At the same time, it conveyed to audiences around the world the idea that living in America was great fun. Willis Conover (1920-1996) became a star of the station with his jazz-oriented playlists. For musicians, his program offered a unique perspective on the roots of contemporary music; for thousands of listeners, Conover’s name became synonymous with life in freedom.
In the 1950s, the station fell victim to the anticommunist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and its employees contended with false accusations of pro-communist sympathies. Televised investigations lasting several weeks nearly ruined the station. Later VOA became part of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), an official government organ. It moved its headquarters from New York to Washington in 1954.
For decades, Voice of America enraged Czechoslovakia’s communist regime by countering its propaganda with open commentary on taboo subjects: technological obsolescence in industry and agriculture, economic decline, scandals involving high-ranking functionaries, illegal detention of citizens and actors banned from television.
“Ivan Medek, Voice of America, Vienna”
VOA also publicized Charter 77’s petition drive and devoted airtime to issues concerning freedom of religion, artistic expression and association. It carried programs from the U.S. such as the travel essays of Martin Čermák (pseudonym of Ivo Ducháček) and Josef Škvorecký’s new book reviews.
The station broadcast to the former Czechoslovakia three hours a day, divided into morning and evening programs. Every evening during the 1980s, the popularized phrase “Ivan Medek, Voice of America, Vienna” could regularly be heard from apartment radios. Medek went on to become chancellor to Czech president Václav Havel. During World War II, other famous Czechs, such as Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec, also joined forces with Voice of America.
VOA broadcasts in 43 languages to approximately 141 million listeners every week. It is part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and, as a government station, is prohibited from broadcasting on U.S. territory.