by Philip Brown
Editor’s note: Created in 1942 as a U.S. government broadcasting effort to combat Nazi propaganda, VOA is now part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. VOA provides news, information, and cultural programming to worldwide audiences in more than 40 languages.
Throughout the barrage of news over the past year —the pandemic, the presidential election and transition, race relations, climate change, environmental disasters —the Voice of America also made headlines.
While multiple reports of outside interference may not have commanded the attention of the general public, they always interested me, partly because of the potential damage to VOA’s well-deserved reputation for objectivity but also because of the soft spot I have in my heart for the institution.
My first-ever Washington DC job was in 1964 as a 23-year old summer intern at the Voice of America. I had spent the previous summer as a volunteer (Operation Crossroads Africa) in Nigeria; I had quite a bit of journalism experience and I fit in well as a news writer on the Africa desk, a small cadre of individuals who would pull copy off wire service tickers and other sources and adapt it for broadcasts to Africa.
The 1960’s were a period of change and upheaval in Africa; everywhere from Ghana to Congo to Rhodesia, there were headlines. The newsroom was a miniature United Nations with various language services. It was a great learning experience and I truly provided a useful service. And big picture, I was also constantly reminded of—and became a true believer in—VOA’s charter:
- VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
- VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
- VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
Married and finished with my graduate studies, I returned to the Africa desk the following summer and worked at VOA until entering the Foreign Service in December 1965. It was exciting to meet the new Director, ex-NBC newsman John Chancellor. He was to VOA what Edward R. Murrow had been to the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) — a full-fledged newsman committed to truth and objectivity.
When asked for my Foreign Service assignment preferences, I said Africa — which did not leave me with much competition from colleagues looking to serve in Europe. I was assigned as a Junior Officer Trainee in Dakar and eventually spent a total of six years in Senegal, Cameroon (both Douala and Yaoundé), and Algeria.
During these years, we relied on shortwave VOA (and the BBC) broadcasts to keep us informed. It was a reliable source of information, both in dark times (the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy) and the exciting moments (Apollo landing on the moon). Especially in Douala, we were keenly interested in reports on the civil war in the Biafra region of neighboring Nigeria.
VOA embedded itself in my memory bank in other ways. One was a visit to Dakar by the late ethnomusicologist Leo Sarkisian. Based in Liberia, Sarkisian became a household name on the continent through his “Music Time in Africa” broadcasts on VOA. Less known was that Sarkisian was also a skilled portrait painter. When we organized an exhibit of his paintings in Dakar, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
By the 1970’s, the world’s attention had shifted from Africa to the Soviet Union and I asked for an assignment to Moscow. Again, there was very little competition for this hardship post and I got my wish. In fact, between 1977 and 1990, including six years at Embassy Moscow, first as Press Attaché and secondly as Public Affairs Officer, the Soviet Union was the highlight of my Foreign Service experience.
While there were perhaps a few more news sources in Moscow than we had in Africa in the 1960’s, we were nevertheless reminded both directly and indirectly of the invaluable role of VOA and of Radio Liberty. Whether it was American hostages in Iran, the 1980 presidential election, or the shooting of President Reagan, VOA was our go-to source for accurate reporting.
We could hear VOA in English but the Russian-language broadcasts (still exclusively using shortwave) were jammed. Ditto Radio Liberty. But jamming was concentrated in urban areas so when we traveled to areas like Central Asia (Tashkent) or the Caucasus (Tbilisi), one of our assignments was to see if we could hear VOA Russian (or one of the other many languages in which VOA broadcast). Sometimes accompanied by a VOA monitor, I would sit in a public area like a park and try to tune in VOA.
Peter Straus, Jimmy Carter’s appointee as VOA Director, visited in 1977 but was not allowed to meet with Soviet authorities. But we did assemble a group of American and other journalists in our apartment for an animated dinner conversation with him.
The mood was much changed by my second Moscow tour in the later 1980’s. Soviets could openly listen to and cite VOA English as a source of information and opinion. I was in Armenia in November 1989, when VOA reported the breach of the Berlin Wall.
And then one day, amidst the Gorbachev reforms, VOA Russian could be heard loud and clear in Moscow. Without warning, jamming had ended. We sent an “Immediate” cable to Washington with the important news. Russia’s halt to jamming VOA was an important confidence-building measure.
More changes ensued: VOA received accreditation for its first Moscow correspondent and they sent a great fellow named Andre DeNesnera. Andre was a fluent Russian speaker and a delightful guy. To my knowledge, he was the first Western correspondent to report the death of Andrei Sakharov.
VOA Director Richard Carlson was given a visa and met with Soviet officials. We also took him to meet some of our Jewish refusenik friends. These were people whose fate was often reported by VOA Russian.
After I retired, I became a licensed Washington DC Tour Guide and would occasionally do city tours for State Department-hosted International Visitors. If the group included individuals from the former Soviet Union, I always made it a point after we looked at the Capitol and headed down Independence Avenue to call attention to VOA headquarters.
For these individuals, “Golos Ameriki” was as much a landmark as any other site in Washington. They wanted to go in and quite often, they would do so later to meet some of the people whose names they had come to know over the years.
On several occasions in recent years, I have escorted groups of State Department-hosted International Visitors, usually journalists, on their visits to VOA. In every case, the visitors seek out VOA reporters from the various language services, often someone they know personally or whose voice they recognize.
Times have changed. My overseas recollections were in a pre-Internet, pre-CNN, pre-social media era. Shortwave broadcasting is a relic. But VOA and its sister services still have a large worldwide audience. The size of that audience reflects trust in its objectivity and honesty — in contrast to so many other international broadcasting services.
Trump-era anguish at VOA’s honest, objective reporting is not unprecedented; over the years members of Congress and other administrations have called for more controls on VOA reporting. I will continue to follow the back-and-forth but not as a neutral observer. VOA occupies a special place in my memory bank and I’m biased in its favor.
Phil Brown served from 1965 to 1996 as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Agency, including six years in the Soviet Union, first as Press Attaché and later as Public Affairs Officer. He held the rank of Minister-Counselor at the time of his retirement. Phil also served as Press Attaché in Paris and as Director of the Regional Program Office in Vienna. Early in his career, he had cultural affairs assignments in Senegal, Cameroon and Algeria. In Washington, he served as Director of USIA’s Foreign Press Centers from 1991 to 1994. From 1990 to 1991, he was USIA’s Murrow Fellow at the Fletcher School in Medford (MA). He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.