Washington, D.C., U.S.
International public broadcaster
February 1, 1942; 75 years ago (1942-02-01)
Broadcasting Board of Governors
Voice of America (VOA) is a United States government-funded multimedia news source and the official external broadcasting institution of the United States. VOA provides programming for broadcast on radio, television, and the Internet outside of the U.S., in English and some foreign languages. The VOA charter—signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford—requires VOA to "serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news" and "be accurate, objective and comprehensive".
- Current languages
- American private shortwave broadcasting before World War II
- World War II
- Cold War
- PostCold War
- Cuts in services
- SmithMundt Act
- VOA charter
- Two source rule
- Shortwave frequencies
- VOA Radiogram
- Transmission facilities
- Comparing VOA RFE RL RM to other broadcasters
- Mullah Omar interview
- Abdul Malik Rigi interview
- Tibetan protester interview
- Trump presidency concerns
The Voice of America headquarters is located at 330 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, D.C., 20237. The VOA is fully funded by the U.S. government; the Congress appropriates funds for it annually under the same budget for embassies and consulates. In 2016 the network reportedly had a taxpayer-funded annual budget of $218.5 million, 1000 people of personnel and reached 236.6 million people wordwide.
VOA radio and television broadcasts are distributed by satellite, cable and on FM, AM, and shortwave radio frequencies. They are streamed on individual language service websites, social media sites and mobile platforms. VOA has affiliate and contract agreements with radio and television stations and cable networks worldwide.
Some scholars and commentators consider Voice of America to be a form of propaganda, although this label is disputed by others. After the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, concerns have been raised about whether VOA will remain independent from him or be used by him to broadcast politicized views favorable to his administration.
The Voice of America website has five English language broadcasts as of 2014 (worldwide, Special English, Cambodia, Zimbabwe and Tibet). Additionally, the VOA website has versions in 42 foreign languages (radio programs are marked with an asterisk; TV programs with a plus symbol):
The number of languages varies according to the priorities of the United States Government and the world situation.
American private shortwave broadcasting before World War II
Before World War II, all American shortwave stations were in private hands. Known privately controlled shortwave networks included the National Broadcasting Company's International, or White Network, which broadcast in six languages, the Columbia Broadcasting System's Latin American international network, which consisted of 64 stations located in 18 different countries, and the Crosley Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, all of which had shortwave transmitters. Experimental programming began in the 1930s, but there were then fewer than 12 transmitters in operation.
In 1939, the Federal Communications Commission set the following policy:
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. Any program solely intended for, and directed to an audience in the continental United States does not meet the requirements for this service.
Washington observers felt this policy was to enforce the State Department's Good Neighbor Policy, but many broadcasters felt that this was an attempt to direct censorship.
In 1940, the Office of the Coordinator of Interamerican Affairs, a semi-independent agency of the U.S. State Department headed by Nelson Rockefeller, began operations. Shortwave signals to Latin America were regarded as vital to counter Nazi propaganda. Initially, the Office of Coordination of Information sent releases to each station, but this was seen as an inefficient means of transmitting news.
World War II
Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government's Office of the Coordinator of Information had already begun providing war news and commentary to the commercial American shortwave radio stations for use on a voluntary basis. Direct programming began approximately seven weeks after the United States's entry into World War II, with the first live broadcast to Germany, which was called Stimmen aus Amerika ("Voices from America") and was transmitted on February 1, 1942. It was introduced by "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and included the pledge: "Today, and every day from now on, we will be with you from America to talk about the war... The news may be good or bad for us – We will always tell you the truth." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, approved this broadcast, which then-Colonel William J. Donovan and playwright Robert E. Sherwood, the playwright who served as Roosevelt’s speech writer and information advisor, had recommended to him. It was Sherwood who actually coined the term "The Voice of America" to describe the shortwave network that began its transmissions on February 1, from 270 Madison Avenue in New York City.
The Office of War Information, when organized in the middle of 1942, officially took over VOA's operations. VOA reached an agreement with the British Broadcasting Corporation to share medium-wave transmitters in Britain, and expanded into Tunis in North Africa and Palermo and Bari, Italy as the Allies captured these territories. The OWI also set up the American Broadcasting Station in Europe.
Asian transmissions started with one transmitter in California in 1941; services were expanded by adding transmitters in Hawaii and, after recapture, the Philippines.
By the end of the war, VOA had 39 transmitters and provided service in 40 languages. Programming was broadcast from production centers in New York and San Francisco, with more than 1,000 programs originating from New York. Programming consisted of music, news, commentary, and relays of U.S. domestic programming, in addition to specialized VOA programming.
About half of VOA's services, including the Arabic service, were discontinued in 1945. In late 1945, VOA was transferred to the Department of State.
In 1947, VOA started broadcasting to the Soviet citizens in Russia under the pretext of countering "more harmful instances of Soviet propaganda directed against American leaders and policies" on the part of the internal Soviet Russian-language media, according to John B. Whitton's treatise, Cold War Propaganda. The Soviet Union responded by initiating electronic jamming of VOA broadcasts on April 24, 1949.
Charles W. Thayer headed VOA in 1948–49.
Over the next few years, the U.S. government debated the best role of Voice of America. The decision was made to use VOA broadcasts as a part of its foreign policy to fight the propaganda of the Soviet Union and other countries.
The Arabic service resumed on January 1, 1950, with a half-hour program. This program grew to 14.5 hours daily during the Suez Crisis of 1956, and was six hours a day by 1958.
In 1952, Voice of America installed a studio and relay facility aboard a converted U.S. Coast Guard cutter renamed Courier whose target audience was Soviet Union and other members of Warsaw Pact. The Courier was originally intended to become the first in a fleet of mobile, radio broadcasting ships (see offshore radio) that built upon U.S. Navy experience during WWII in using warships as floating broadcasting stations. However, the Courier eventually dropped anchor off the island of Rhodes, Greece with permission of the Greek government to avoid being branded as a pirate radio broadcasting ship. This VOA offshore station stayed on the air until the 1960s when facilities were eventually provided on land. The Courier supplied training to engineers who later worked on several of the European commercial offshore broadcasting stations of the 1950s and 1960s.
Control of VOA passed from the State Department to the U.S. Information Agency when the latter was established in 1953. to transmit worldwide, including to the countries behind the Iron Curtain and to the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Starting in the 1950s, VOA broadcast American jazz, with Willis Conover hosting a daily program from 1955 until 1996, which was highly popular worldwide drawing 30 million listeners at its peak. A program aimed at South Africa in 1956 broadcast two hours nightly, and special programs such as The Newport Jazz Festival were also trsnsmitted.This was done in association with tours by U.S. musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, sponsored by the State Department.
Throughout the Cold War, many of the targeted countries's governments sponsored jamming of VOA broadcasts, which sometimes led critics to question the broadcasts' actual impact. For example, in 1956, Polish People's Republic stopped jamming VOA transmissions, but People's Republic of Bulgaria continued to jam the signal through the 1970s. Chinese language VOA broadcasts were jammed beginning in 1956 and extending through 1976. However, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, interviews with participants in anti-Soviet movements verified the effectiveness of VOA broadcasts in transmitting information to socialist societies. The People's Republic of China diligently jams VOA broadcasts. Cuba has also been reported to interfere with VOA satellite transmissions to Iran from its Russian-built transmission site at Bejucal. David Jackson, former director of Voice of America, noted: "The North Korean government doesn't jam us, but they try to keep people from listening through intimidation or worse. But people figure out ways to listen despite the odds. They're very resourceful."
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, VOA covered some of the era's most important news, including Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and Neil Armstrong's first walk on the moon. During the Cuban missile crisis, VOA broadcast around-the-clock in Spanish.
In the early 1980s, VOA began a $1.3 billion rebuilding program to improve broadcast with better technical capabilities. Also in the 1980s, VOA also added a television service, as well as special regional programs to Cuba, Radio Martí and TV Martí. Cuba has consistently attempted to jam such broadcasts and has vociferously protested U.S. broadcasts directed at Cuba.
In September 1980, VOA started broadcasting to Afghanistan in Dari and in Pashto in 1982. At the same time, VOA started to broadcast U.S. government editorials, clearly separated from the programming by audio cues.
In 1985, VOA Europe was created as a special service in English that was relayed via satellite to AM, FM, and cable affiliates throughout Europe. With a contemporary format including live disc jockeys, the network presented top musical hits as well as VOA news and features of local interest (such as "EuroFax") 24 hours a day. VOA Europe was closed down without advance public notice in January, 1997 as a cost-cutting measure. It was followed by VOA Express, which from July 4, 1999 revamped into VOA Music Mix. Since November 1, 2014 stations are offered VOA1 (which is a rebranding of VOA Music Mix).
In 1989, Voice of America expanded its Mandarin and Cantonese programming to reach the millions of Chinese and inform the country, accurately about the pro-democracy movement within the country, including the demonstration in Tiananmen Square.
Starting in 1990, the U.S. consolidated its international broadcasting efforts, with the establishment of the Bureau of Broadcasting.
With the breakup of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, VOA added many additional language services to reach those areas. This decade was marked by the additions of Tibetan, Kurdish (to Iran and Iraq), Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Macedonian, and Rwanda-Rundi language services.
In 1993, the Clinton administration advised cutting funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as it was felt post-Cold War information and influence was not needed in Europe. This plan was not well received, and he then proposed the compromise of the International Broadcasting Act. The Broadcasting Board of Governors was established and took control from the Board for International Broadcasters which previously oversaw funding for RFE/RL.
In 1994, President Clinton signed the International Broadcasting Act into law. This law established the International Broadcasting Bureau as a part of the U.S. Information Agency and created the Broadcasting Board of Governors with oversight authority. In 1998, the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act was signed into law and mandated that BBG become an independent federal agency as of October 1, 1999. This act also abolished the U.S.I.A. and merged most of its functions with those of the State Department.
In 1994, Voice of America became the first broadcast-news organization to offer continuously updated programs on the Internet.
Cuts in services
The Arabic Service was abolished in 2002 and replaced by a new radio service, called the Middle East Radio Network or Radio Sawa, with an initial budget of $22 million. Radio Sawa offered mostly Western and Middle Eastern popular songs with periodic brief news bulletins.
In May 16, 2004; Worldnet, a satellite television service, was merged into the VOA network.
On September 2008, VOA eliminated the Hindi language service after 53 years. Previously, radio programs in Russian were gone off the air in July. The same fate happened to broadcasts in Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian and Bosnian. These reductions were part of American efforts to concentrate more resources to broadcast to the Muslim world.
In September 2010, VOA launched its radio broadcasts in Sudan. As U.S. interests in South Sudan have grown, there is a desire to provide people with free information.
In 2013, VOA finished foreign language transmissions on shortwave and medium wave to Albania, Georgia, Iran and Latin America; as well as English language broadcasts to the Middle East and Afghanistan. The movement was done due to budget cuts.
On 1 July 2014, VOA cut most of its shortwave transmissions in English to Asia. Shortwave broadcasts in Azerbaijani, Bengali, Khmer, Kurdish, Lao, and Uzbek were dropped too. On 11 August 2014, the Greek service ended after 72 years on air.
Voice of America has been a part of several agencies. From its founding in 1942 to 1945, it was part of the Office of War Information, and then from 1945 to 1953 as a function of the State Department. VOA was placed under the U.S. Information Agency in 1953. When the USIA was abolished in 1999, VOA was placed under the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, which is an autonomous U.S. government agency, with bipartisan membership. The Secretary of State has a seat on the BBG. The BBG was established as a buffer to protect VOA and other U.S.-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasters from political interference. It replaced the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB) that oversaw the funding and operation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a branch of VOA.
Under § 501 of the Smith–Mundt Act of 1948, Voice of America was forbidden to broadcast directly to American citizens until July 2013 when it was repealed in the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013. The intent of the legislation in 1948 was to protect the American public from propaganda actions by its own government.
Under the Eisenhower administration in 1959, VOA Director Henry Loomis commissioned a formal statement of principles to protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization's mission, and was issued by Director George V. Allen as a directive in 1960 and was endorsed in 1962 by USIA director Edward R. Murrow. On July 12, 1976, the principles were signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford. It reads:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts. 1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive. 2. 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. 3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
According to former VOA correspondent Alan Heil, the internal policy of VOA News is that any story broadcast must have two independently corroborating sources or have a staff correspondent actually witness an event.
Voice of America's central newsroom has hundreds of journalists and dozens of full-time domestic and overseas correspondents, who are employees of the U.S. government or paid contractors. They are augmented by hundreds of contract correspondents and stringers throughout the world, who file in English or in one of VOA's other radio and television broadcast languages.
In late 2005, VOA shifted some of its central-news operation to Hong Kong where contracted writers worked from a "virtual" office with counterparts on the overnight shift in Washington, D.C., but this operation was shut down in early 2008.
By December 2014, the number of transmitters and frequencies used by VOA had been greatly reduced. VOA still uses shortwave transmissions to cover some areas of Africa and Asia. Shortwave broadcasts are still done in these languages: Afaan Oromoo, Amharic, Cantonese, Chinese, English, Indonesian, Korean and Swahili.
VOA Radiogram is an experimental Voice of America program, started in 2012, which broadcasts digital text and images via shortwave radiograms. This digital stream can be decoded using a basic AM shortwave receiver and freely downloadable software of the Fldigi family. This software is available for Windows, Apple (OSX), Linux, and FreeBSD systems.
The broadcasts can also be decoded using the free TIVAR app from the Google Play store using any Android device.
The mode used most often on VOA Radiogram, for both text and images, is MFSK32, but other modes are occasionally transmitted.
One of VOA's radio transmitter facilities was originally based on a 625-acre (2.53 km2) site in Union Township (now West Chester Township) in Butler County, Ohio, near Cincinnati. The site is now a recreational park with a lake, lodge, dog park, and Voice of America museum. The Bethany Relay Station operated from 1944 to 1994. Other former sites include California (Dixon, Delano), Hawaii, Okinawa, (Monrovia) Liberia, Costa Rica, Belize, and at least two in Greece.
Currently, VOA and the IBB continue to operate shortwave radio transmitters and antenna farms at one site in the United States, close to Greenville, North Carolina, "Site B." They do not use FCC-issued callsigns, since they are overseen by the NTIA, which is the Federal Government equivalent of the FCC (which regulates state government and public & private communications) and they operate under different rules. The IBB also operates a transmission facility on São Tomé and (Tinang) Philippines for VOA.
Comparing VOA-RFE-RL-RM to other broadcasters
In 1996, the U.S.'s international radio output consisted of 992 hours per week (hpw) by VOA, 667 hpw by RFE/RL, and 162 hpw by Radio Marti.
For comparison with other international broadcasters, see: External program hours
Mullah Omar interview
In late September 2001, VOA aired a report that contained brief excerpts of an interview with then Taliban leader Mullah Omar Mohammad, along with segments from President Bush's post-9/11 speech to Congress, an expert in Islam from Georgetown University, and comments by the foreign minister of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. State Department officials including Richard Armitage and others argued that the report amounted to giving terrorists a platform to express their views. In response, reporters and editors argued for the VOA's editorial independence from its governors. VOA received praise from press organizations for its protests, and the following year in 2002, it won the University of Oregon's Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.
Abdul Malik Rigi interview
On April 2, 2007, Abdul Malik Rigi, the leader of Jundullah, a militant group with possible links to al-Qaeda, appeared on Voice of America's Persian service. VOA introduced Rigi as "the leader of popular Iranian resistance movement." The interview resulted in public condemnation by the Iranian-American community, as well as the Iranian government. Jundullah is a Sunni Islamist militant organization that has been linked to numerous attacks on civilians, such as the 2009 Zahedan explosion.
Tibetan protester interview
In February 2013, a documentary released by China Central Television interviewed a Tibetan self-immolator who failed to kill himself. The interviewee said he was motivated by Voice of America's broadcasts of commemorations of people who committed suicide in political self-immolation. VOA denied any allegations of instigating self-immolations and demanded that the Chinese station retract its report.
Trump presidency concerns
After the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, several tweets by Voice of America (one of which was later removed) seemed to support the widely criticized statements by White House press secretary Sean Spicer about the crowd size and biased media coverage. This first raised concerns over possible attempts by Trump to politicize the state-funded agency. This amplified already growing propaganda concerns over recent decisions to replace the Broadcasting Board of Governors with a President-appointed CEO as well as allowing the VOA to broadcast to American audiences. Trump sent two of his political aides, Matthew Ciepielowski and Matthew Schuck, to the agency to aid its current CEO in the transition to the Trump administration. Criticism was raised over Trump's choice of aides; Schuck was a staff writer for the right-wing website the Daily Surge until April 2015, while Ciepielowski was a field director at the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. VOA officials responded with assurances that they would not become "Trump TV". BBG head John F. Lansing told NPR that it would be illegal for the administration to tell VOA what to broadcast, while VOA director Amanda Bennett stressed that while "government-funded", the agency is not "government-run".