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Radio Free Europe Celebrates 63 Years of Broadcasting

Balloons carrying information flew over the Iron Curtain’s censors.

Happy Fourth of July! As our nation recognizes its independence, Radio Free Europe celebrates its 63rd anniversary — on July 4, 1950, RFE broadcast their first program in Czechoslovakia.

Over the years, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have made their mark on history by consistently reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established, though the methods in which they have done so have evolved.

When faced with media restrictions, U.S. international broadcasters have consistently been on the forefront of innovation with regard to getting programs to media restrictive environments.

One example from the archives: Between 1951-1956, news was delivered over the Iron Curtain by high altitude balloons. More than 500,000 balloons carried leaflets and other printed materials over the Iron Curtain, to locations including Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. Access to media and information was tightly controlled, and the printed materials from RFE gave audiences a rare view of the outside world.

The technology used today to reach people around the world is much different from the balloons used in decades past. Citizens are able to interact and be involved with the news like never before thanks to new technological innovations, and RFE/RL has developed new ways of transmitting news around the world. For example, in Afghanistan RFE/RL has enjoyed great success with its interactive SMS service, which allows listeners to subscribe to breaking news alerts, access content via their mobile phones and upload user-generated text and video content to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. Through the interactive SMS service, Radio Azadi is in regular mobile contact with a quarter of a million Dari and Pashto language listeners.

Innovations such as this span the entirety of U.S. international media. The Broadcasting Board of Governors recently held an event, Innovating at the Speed of News, to showcase some of the ways that they reach people around the globe – ranging from anti-censorship technologies to innovative delivery methods to unique programming.

Through all of these innovations, one thing has remained constant: The critical role of broadcasters within the BBG network in providing balanced news and information to audiences who often lack it, and the essential role of U.S. international media as a model of free press.

John Houseman: First Director of VOA

John Houseman was a film and radio star whose 50-year media career included masterpieces in the golden age of film, the second golden age of television with “The Paper Chase” and one of the most famous radio broadcasts in American history, “The War of the Worlds.”

Lesser known in America, but even more important is that Houseman was the first director of the Voice of America. He didn’t make it to the Internet Age but his role in the creation of a news and information radio service directed at the people of the Axis countries left a lasting legacy at the now 71-year old VOA. Alan L. Heil, in Voice of America, describes Houseman as one of the early individuals “that forged the soul of Voice of America.”

But it wasn’t an easy job. The beginning of World War II didn’t go so well for the United States. The December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor led to the conquest of Burma, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Singapore as well as the near destruction of shipping in the Atlantic. Things looked bleak but VOA stood by its principles to tell foreign audiences the facts, honestly and objectively. At the 40th anniversary of Voice of America, Houseman himself remarked, “…we would have to report our reverses without weaseling. Only thus could we establish a reputation for honesty that we hoped would pay off on that distant but inevitable day when we would start reporting our own invasions and victories.”

Walter Roberts, now 97, who started work in 1942 for VOA’s Austrian service, agreed. He echoed the first VOA broadcast in an interview earlier this year: “The news may be good for us. It may be bad. But we shall always tell the truth. That was very important to all of us.”

That tradition lives on today.

“The journalistic integrity and reputation for honest reporting that John Houseman brought to the Voice of America as its first director in 1942 are part of the foundation upon which VOA was built,” said David Ensor, current Director of VOA, “and led to what it is today: one of the most widely respected international news organizations in the world.”

Though “War of the Worlds” lives on in radio legend while “The Paper Chase” only survives in the bargain bin of niche video stores, Voice of America is Houseman’s most important and most enduring legacy. Today VOA broadcasts accurate and reliable news to 134 million people in 45 languages, which makes it worthy of being called a masterpiece.

By Blake Stilwell

Finding the Date of VOA’s First Broadcast

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.

Walter Roberts also attended the 70th anniversary celebration in March of 2012. You can watch a video commemorating last year’s milestone on the VOA Public Relations website

By Roxanne Bauer

Happy birthday, Alhurra!

Alhurra interviews girl

Today, February 14, 2013, marks the 9th anniversary of Alhurra Television!

Alhurra broadcasts objective and accurate Arabic-language news and information to 22 countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to reporting on world events, Alhurra provides context and analysis to give viewers a broader understanding of the actions impacting the region. Alhurra also provides the comprehensive coverage from the United States drawing on dedicated correspondents at the White House, State Department, Congress, and Pentagon.

To learn more about some of Alhurra’s great programming, visit

VOA’s First Broadcasts: “The news may be good or bad, we shall tell you the truth”

Today BBG broadcasts reach an audience of 175 million in 59 languages in 100 countries, producing more than 4,100 hours of original programming each week.

Our broadcasts haven’t always been that widespread. The first transmission by a current BBG broadcaster was on February 1, 1942 when four Voice of America announcers introduced themselves and the news agency to listeners in Germany:

Following those words, the Voice of America has continued broadcasting, and has since been joined by other U.S. international media.

  • Radio Free Europe was founded in 1950 and initially broadcast to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Three years later, Radio Liberty began broadcasting to the Soviet Union in Russian and 15 other national languages. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty began their joint broadcasts in 1975.    These new broadcasts included transmissions to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1975.
  • Radio Free Asia was incorporated on March 11, 1996. It broadcasts to The People’s Republic of China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, Tibet and Vietnam and operates ten unique, interactive websites, nine in Asian languages.

Covering Inauguration Day

                                  VOA’s  Jim Malone covers the 2013 Presidential Inauguration

Jim Malone, a National Correspondent for VOA who has covered his share of U.S. presidential inaugurations, says the quadrennial swearing-in ceremonies have global importance because they “put America’s best face forward and affirm American democracy.”

Coverage of inaugurations, Malone says, can show the world how democracy works. They are moments in which the “country pauses and recognizes the vote that has occurred. No matter what, every four years this country has seen a peaceful transition of power. That is a strong symbol of democracy. It shows it can be done.”

Malone first covered the second inauguration of former President Ronald Reagan in 1985 as an on-air anchor for VOA’s English to Africa Service. Later, in 1993, he started to regularly report on inaugurations from Washington, D.C. and has been an active reporter on the political beat ever since.

One of Malone’s most memorable experiences came in 1997 at the second inauguration of former President Bill Clinton.  He recalls that it displayed ‘grassroots America’ as hometown high school bands and people from Clinton’s past were invited to the inaugural parade.

“A national mosaic filed past the White House” that day, he remembers.

While Malone sees inaugurations as a way to present American ideals, he also recognizes that they can be challenging news stories. Malone insists that it is VOA’s responsibility to tell the story of the United States in a fair and balanced way, and this often includes explanations of American history and institutions.

With this in mind, Malone also acknowledges that not all inaugurations have the same historical weight. “I don’t think I can remember a more exciting inaugural time than four years ago. The country was experiencing changes that spoke to its history and to its racial tensions.”

This year, he reports, the crowd was less emotional as the nation’s expectations were tempered with the realization that politics is tough and change comes slowly.  This is the case with most second-term inaugurations, but Malone believes that it was especially true this time around because the US is emerging from a “rough period” and “sharp divisions remain.”

However, Malone remains hopeful that the inauguration can provide some benefit because it is less partisan than other political events, and organizers try to be inclusive of all Americans. Inaugurations, according to Malone, are “for everybody.  They are a time to celebrate and can be seen as a symbolic moment of healing.”

Read more about how all BBG broadcasters were covering the inauguration here.

By Roxanne Bauer

October 22, 1962 – U.S. International Broadcasting Covers the Cuban Missile Crisis

Fred Schiele, Hamid Khosrovi, Jose (Pepe) Perez Del Rio prepare for a broadcast during the Cuban Missile Cris

Fifty years ago on October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy made an alarming announcement to the world: The Soviets possessed nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of striking the United States.

The western world erupted into a frenzy, and VOA veteran and former Spanish Service senior producer Hamid Khosrovi watched as the events unfolded before his very eyes.

The now retired producer, who dedicated 51 years of his life serving VOA, was thrust into overdrive during this critical period.

“We were fully staffed 24/7. They started me from 9 p.m. to 11 a.m.,” recalled Khosrovi. “We had a producer on duty. Even at 11 a.m. when I was supposed to leave, I could not until someone came.”

As the crisis unfolded, news agencies across the country scrambled to gather any information pertinent to the crisis and VOA and Radio Liberty were no exceptions.

“With the world threatened with nuclear Armageddon, the United States had no better national informational vehicle than VOA to reach as many people — and leaders of influence — instantaneously and globally,” said former VOA Deputy Director Alan Heil.

In addition, Radio Liberty broadcast Russian-language newscasts to Soviet forces in Cuba using U.S. commercial A.M. transmitters, noted Woodrow Wilson Center Senior Scholar Ross Johnson.

Gene Sosin, who worked for Radio Liberty in New York, recounted how tense the situation was.

“Those days were tense for everyone in our country, and in particular for those of us who were responsible for communicating with the Soviet audience,” Sosin said, adding that the Kremlin’s reactions to Radio Liberty’s broadcasts were a good indicator that the message was getting through.

Meanwhile, VOA anxiously awaited any news from the American government and other sources, and when they received word, went on the air immediately.

“[We] put out any announcements from the White House or State Department. Sometimes we quoted newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post. If our division chief saw anything useful we would translate and broadcast it,” said Khosrovi.

VOA also interviewed various Latin American ambassadors to give perspective to the Crisis.
When news of the crisis was sparse, VOA drew upon what Khosrovi recalled was a “huge musical disk” to fill the airwaves.

Although the work proved difficult and the hours long, veterans like Khosrovi, Heil, and Sosin served the agency during one of the most critical periods of American history. The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis set the stage for U.S. international broadcasters as important mediums for delivering accurate and balanced news to countries with unreliable media.

In honor of the Cuban Missile Crisis’ 50th anniversary, T.V. /Radio Marti recently aired a three part series with an emphasis on the release of new information and documents, as well as CIA reports about Fidel Castro’s psychological profile.

For more information, check out the series on  Martí Noticias

By Paulina Kosturos