Voice of America is the largest US international broadcaster, providing news and information in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of 236.6 million people. Although the agency was initially created as a tool for spreading the American view around the world, its journalists haven't always stuck with the program. In this segment originally recorded in 2003, Brooke speaks with Alan Heil, author of the book VOA: A History, who worked at the VOA from 1962 to 1998.
Sentimental Journey (Instrumental) by Hal McIntyre & His Orchestra
ANNOUNCER: 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 74 years ago. 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. I spoke to him in 2003, when my voice was apparently much higher, after the publication of his book, Voice of America: A History. He concedes that the outlet was launched more to influence than to inform, but its journalists, he said, 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. But 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, goddamnit, 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 a 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, and also the idea was, in the main, one thought per one sentence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what could you convey to the world 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.
[BAND 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.
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 LANGUAGE/STATIC NOISE/JAMMING SOUNDS]
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 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.
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 UP & UNDER]
That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Paige Cowett. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari and Leah Feder, and our show was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.