Dr. Walter Roberts explains his investigation into VOA’s anniversary date
“It has always interested me how VOA originally celebrated February 24 as the anniversary date. No one could tell me how that date was selected.”
Dr. Walter Roberts, one of Voice of America’s early staff members (now in his mid-90s and still going strong) can recall the first broadcast in VOA’s history from New York City in 1942. In an interview, he stated that he remembered the first VOA broadcast occurred earlier than the 24th of February.
After his retirement, Roberts decided to research the actual anniversary. He started by looking for a recording of the first broadcast, which he recalled was in German, but was dissatisfied with the copy he received.
“After I listened to the recording, it sounded to me not correct so I went further in my research,” recalls Roberts. The original broadcast, he knew, started with the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the copy he received did not start that way, but started with the US National Anthem.
His efforts were rewarded when he decided to ask the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which transmitted VOA broadcasts on BBC medium wave transmitters, if they could determine the date of the first VOA broadcast.
“The BBC archives”, Roberts said, “produced a January 1942 memorandum that stated that American broadcasts would start on February 1st in three languages: German, French and Italian. It also listed the time these broadcasts would be received in London from New York and when they would be rebroadcast by the BBC to Germany, France and Italy.”
His research was later confirmed by Chris Kern, a former chief of the VOA Computer Services Division and, later, Director of the Office of Computing Services, who investigated the correct date of the anniversary by researching the National Archives in College Park in Maryland. Kern actually found the original VOA German scripts which confirmed that the first VOA broadcast was transmitted on February 1st, 1942. Roberts added that further confirmation came through the assistance of Mike Gray, then the head of the VOA library, who discovered that early VOA recordings were stored in the Library of Congress. He was able to find the actual recording of the Febraury1st VOA German broadcast. It was dated February 1, 1942.
“I was connected with the enterprise. That I know exactly when and how it all began is very satisfying,” said Roberts.
To this day, he is unaware of how February 24 became known as the anniversary before his research in 2009 set the record straight. Roberts asserts that it is critical to understand how VOA fits within the larger historical developments of the time. “These broadcasts undoubtedly played a role in the successful pursuit of the war,” he said.
He adds “On the occasion of VOA’s 70th anniversary I said that The Voice of America continues and will continue to be an important part of American public diplomacy whose role in the conduct of American foreign policy has become vital in today’s information age.”
A longer, more detailed account of Walter Robert’s investigation is available in two articles he wrote for the University of North Carolina’s American Diplomacy website.
Walter Roberts was previously interviewed in conjunction with VOA’s 70th anniversary in 2012 and his video can be seen on Inside VOA.
By Roxanne Bauer