We are often reminded of the privileges we enjoy as Americans, but here's one thing we can't do on native soil - tune in to Voice of America. The U.S. government radio station that was created as a propaganda tool during World War II was prohibited from broadcasting at home. In an interview that originally aired in 2003, Brooke talks to lifetime VOA staffer Alan Heil about his book Voice of America: A History.
INTERPRETER:This is a voice, speaking from America. Daily at this time we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That’s from one of the earliest broadcasts of Voice of America, launched 71 years ago. According to its website, it reaches a weekly audience of 134 million peoplein 43 languages. And its practitioners would probably resent the word “propaganda” ever being applied to its broadcasts.
Certainly, Alan Heil would. He worked there from 1962 to 1998, acting as foreign correspondent, chief of news and current affairs and deputy director of programs. Back then, VOA reached fewer people in more languages. We spoke to him ten years ago, after the publication of his book, Voice of America:A History. He agrees that it was created more to influence than to inform, but its journalists didn't always stick with the program.
ALAN HEIL:True, it was founded as a propaganda organization to counter Axis propaganda, particularly in Germany, but also in Japan, but you had at the very beginning among the pioneers, those who believed that the best policy was to tell the truth. I can remember the story of General Stillwell, for example, who said, "The Japanese gave us a hell of a beating in Burma."
Now, that became a matter of some contention, as you might imagine, between the policymakers in Washington and those broadcasting the news from the Voice of America, then in New York, but the VOA staff held its own. And later we learned, following World War II, from some of the Japanese who were interrogated about their listening experiences, that that made them really believe the Voice of America. Even in the early going, there were editors who stood behind the contract with the listeners to give them an honest accounting of the day's events.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You quote President Lyndon Johnson saying, "I know I can't affect the broadcast companies. I know they won't listen to me. I know they won't help me. But, god-damn-it, I have my own radio and I've got to make that work." And he was referring to the VOA and its coverage of Vietnam. Wouldn't you admit that sometimes the VOA has a problem reconciling its dual roles as both a government agency and an impartial news source?
ALAN HEIL: Well, John Chancellor said that the Voice is at the crossroads of journalism and diplomacy. I think, however, it's increasingly clear, and particularly in the 21st Century and in the post-9/11 period, that there is no substitute for a full and fair disclosure of events. I think that there is a hunger for the straight story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:How many languages is the VOA broadcast in?
ALAN HEIL:It's broadcast now in 54 languages.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And do you count Special English among them?
ALAN HEIL:Not really. Special English being a variant of Standard English, was designed back in 1959 to aid comprehension of those listeners for whom English was a second language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was an English that was composed of a 1500- word vocabulary.
ALAN HEIL:Quite correct, and slowly delivered, one thought per one sentence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And what could you convey in Special English?
ALAN HEIL:Oh, you would be remarkably surprised. If I may, I'd like to read from page 279 of the book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Please.
ALAN HEIL:“The absolutely marvelous poem sent to us by A.V.B. Mannon of Tamil Nadu in India, and he called it “An Ode to Special English.”
Hail thee, special English.
Thou art a virgin maiden, uncorrupted, simple, easy.
Ye rang a familiar tone to one and all,
Learned and wise, as much to the uninitiated.
Simple is beautiful.
No frills, no twists nor pretensions.
Ye wind your way to the heart to strike a familiar chord.
It's neither the king's nor the queen's,
But that of very common folk.
It is a symphony in prose.
Long live special English.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:[LAUGHS] You know, it, it reminds me of one of VOA's greatest contributions to world culture isn't in language at all but in music. I think that the most famous and, and certainly most beloved voice of the Voice of America is probably that of Willis Conover.
ALAN HEIL: Absolutely.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]]
He once made a visit to Moscow, got out into the great packed hall in the center of the city and all he said was the standard introduction to his signature program.
WILLIS CONOVER: Time for jazz, Willis Conover in Washington with the Voice of America Jazz Hour.
ALAN HEIL: And the hall burst into applause — this is at the height of the Cold War — and there was a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the VOA in China during Tiananmen Square.
ALAN HEIL:There's a fascinating story about one of the Chinese correspondents, Betty Tseu, who all she needed to do was to identify herself at the edge of this square of one million people, and suddenly the people would part like the waves of the Red Sea and usher her right up into the center in the platform where the pro-democracy demonstrators were holding forth during those very, very critical months leading up to June 3rd, 1989. The Voice was then jammed by the Chinese government.
ANNOUNCER:This is the Voice of America. The following program is in Chinese.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
ALAN HEIL:And then anyone listening to it can see the critical impact of jamming, on blocking information from the Chinese people.
[WOMAN SPEAKING IN CHINESE][STATIC/INTERFERENCE]
I think even the Chinese themselves conceded, before that martial law was imposed on that day in May of 1989, that the Voice probably had 60 million listeners. It was, I think, clear that its impact was historic, in 1989.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One last question, Mr. Heil. We have the BBC, we have CNN everywhere, we've got the Internet reaching into corners where even CNN can't reach. Why do we need the VOA?
ALAN HEIL:I would have to go and quote David Burke, who was the first chairman of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors, who said that CNN can be seen in hotel lobbies and in an industrialized society. It cannot be seen in refugee camps. The US simply has to have a voice, I believe, and that's a voice that reflects us. It's not a voice that's an official radio, as much as it is one that reflects America, an American optic, as a West African editor once put it.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Alan Heil, thank you very much.
ALAN HEIL:Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Alan Heil is the author of Voice of America: A History.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:Hello, everybody. And to all of you at Voice of America, congratulations on 70 years of extraordinary service. From that very first broadcast during World War II, and ever since, the Voice of America has been the voice of freedom. Long before we even talked about the power of public diplomacy, you made it your mission to help America communicate with the world, to show the true character of our country and the ideals and liberties for which we stand.