What Is Voice Of America? This international broadcasting organization has been operating since World War Two. Created during the war as a way to counter Nazi propaganda, the agency broadcasts in more than 40 languages and the Voice of America (VOA) official site boasts a weekly audience estimated at over 280 million.
From humble beginnings as a shortwave radio broadcaster, today’s VOA broadcasts include thousands of hours of radio and television programming as well as digital content.
VOA listeners can access Voice Of America programming via satellite, cable, FM, medium-wave radio, and on a 2,500-station network.
A Brief History Of Voice Of America
In 2017, VOA celebrated a 75-year history that officially began in 1942, but has its roots a few years earlier thanks to a 1939 policy established by the Federal Communications Commission which includes procedures for licensing international broadcast stations:
“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.” Programming aimed only at stateside audiences was not deemed suitable for meeting such requirements.
Before America was drawn into World War Two thanks to the attack on Pearl Harbor, American news and commentary had been provided to commercial American broadcasters for (voluntary) use via the official Foreign Information Service (FIS) headquartered in New York.
FIS programming began in 1941 after Pearl Harbor, and even before the agency was known as Voice Of America it began broadcasting in Germany in early 1942. The program beamed into Germany was called Stimmen aus Amerika (“Voices from America”) and eventually, Voice Of America stuck.
At War’s End
As the American war effort grew, so did VOA and by the end of the conflict there were some 39 transmitters broadcasting VOA programming in 40 languages. At the end of the war effort, however, the need for VOA in its wartime context was significantly reduced; by 1945 roughly half of the broadcasts had been cancelled.
But the Cold War would see VOA broadcasting to Russia with an eye on countering Soviet propaganda. Soviet Union radio jamming started in 1949. VOA was starting to be viewed by government officials as a foreign policy tool–that purpose would include the re-activation of VOA Arabic programming which had been run during the war but cancelled at war’s end.
That service resumed in 1950 with brief programming that would steadily increase until there were roughly six hours a day in Arabic by 1958.
More Changes For VOA
1953 was a significant year–that was also the same year jurisdiction of VOA was changed from the State Department to the U.S. Information Agency. At this time VOA began transmitting worldwide, including the People’s Republic of China and the Iron Curtain. Many foreign governments actively jammed VOA broadcasts. Since then many programs have come and gone, and VOA broadcasts have changed, been cut, or otherwise modified.
The Russian VOA broadcasts ended in 2008, which was the same year the agency cut Hindi language broadcasts after some 53 years of service. Programs were broadcast to Sudan in 2010, but more cuts would follow–Iran and Latin America just to name two cuts made due to budgetary constraints.
There are no longer any shortwave transmissions in English to Asia, and in 2014 the Greek service ended after more than 70 years. Today VOA is a part of the United States Agency For Global Media, described as a government agency responsible for all U.S. international broadcasting that is not part of the U.S. military.
The VOA Mission Today
In contemporary times, Voice of America describes itself as a multimedia international broadcaster providing products in 47 languages on multiple platforms. The agency’s official site pledges to “deliver comprehensive, timely truthful information. The VOA will continue to broadcast the sounds of freedom and serve as a beacon of hope for its audience around the world.”
One of the main “planks” in the VOA platform is something known as the VOA Firewall, which was included in the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994. This firewall “prohibits interference by any U.S. government official in the objective, independent reporting of news.” This was designed to protect both journalists and the content they create, from political interference.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 “maintained the longstanding statutory firewall,” but the overall VOA mission is informed by the Voice Of America Charter, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
The VOA marching orders, so to speak, include the following directives:
- VOA must serve as a “consistently reliable and authoritative source of news”
- VOA news must be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive”
- VOA represents America, but not “any single segment of American society.” The agency strives for a “balanced and comprehensive projection” of “significant American thought”
- VOA discusses the policies of the United States and presents “responsible discussions and opinion on these policies”
VOA has strict rules about sourcing and attributing stories including a requirement that “whenever possible,” on-the-record sources should be used. Unnamed sources must have first-hand knowledge of the story being reported on. There are prohibitions against plagiarism, an emphasis on accuracy in reporting, even at the expense of speed.
VOA policies also include a strong position on attempts by “foreign and domestic special interest groups:” using VOA programming and other resources “as platforms for their own views.” VOA policy states that no matter what medium is used, “the views of a single party must be challenged if alternative opinions are unrepresented.”
At the end of the day, Voice of America is still operating with the intent to present a “comprehensive account” of America as well as other aspects of the global community but with the goal of avoiding the appearance of partisanship. It’s all designed to allow VOA to act as an example of how a broadcasting agency can be viewed as the embodiment of a free press.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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