The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections by Walter Roberts

American Diplomacy has several interesting articles this month, including a historical review by Walter Roberts, The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections:

Beginning in 1937, the failure of the Executive Branch to reach a decision regarding the establishment of a governmental radio station led to a shift in initiative from the Department of State to Congress. Gregory calls it “a change that was marked by the introduction in both the House and the Senate of several bills.” Their sponsors, in particular Congressman Emmanuel Celler (D- NY), argued that every other nation was prepared to see that the world understands its point of view – yet the U. S.  was at the mercy of the propaganda of other countries without the ability to present its own position. The year was 1937 and German-Nazi and Italian-Fascist propaganda were in full swing.

The Congressional sponsors of a government short wave station found themselves fiercely opposed by the private broadcasters of this country. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) passed a resolution in June 1937 opposing any governmental international radio station. Within the Executive Branch there was no unanimity and the President was not willing to support the establishment of a government radio station.  The plan died in early 1940.

Referring to the years before World War II, Walter wrote:

Why did these private broadcasters transmit programs in foreign languages when there was little or no financial benefit to them? Reading the literature of the time, it is evident that adopting a more cooperative attitude played a role.  The private broadcasters had for years adamantly opposed the creation of a governmentally owned short wave broadcasting station and they wanted to prove that they could adequately represent the United States in the area of international broadcasting without any assistance from the U. S.  Government.

The private broadcasters’ tune would change after the war. In 1946, the private broadcasters supported the continuation of VOA. The president of the Columbia Broadcasting System said VOA was “one of the best ways of enhancing and maintaining the prestige” of the US” while the chairman of General Electric, owner of the National Broadcasting Corporation, urged the service be continued, at least on an interim basis until a careful study was conducted. The following year, Congress explored privatizing government broadcasting but CBS and NBC, who combined were producing about 42% of VOA’s output, including programming and transcripts, testified that private business could not afford the international broadcast part of the program. (The Associated Press, who loudly objected to the US government – but not Russian, British, or French government – broadcasting, declined invitations to appear at the same hearing.)

Walter’s article is informative and timely when America’s private broadcasters are in retreat.