Voice of America (VOA) is the official external broadcast institution of the United States federal government. It is one of five civilian U.S. international broadcasters working under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). VOA provides programming for broadcast on radio, TV and the internet outside of the U.S., in 43 languages. VOA produces about 1,500 hours of news and feature programming each week for an estimated global audience of 123 million people, “to promote freedom and democracy and to enhance understanding through multimedia communication of accurate, objective, and balanced news, information and other programming about America and the world to audiences overseas.” Its day-to-day operations are supported by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
A 1976 law signed by President Gerald Ford requires VOA to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” The VOA Charter states: “VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.” 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 more than 1,200 affiliate and contract agreements with radio and television stations and cable networks worldwide.
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 Bethany Relay Station operated from 1944 to 1994. Other former sites include California (Dixon, Delano), Hawaii, Okinawa, Liberia, Costa Rica, and Belize.
Currently, the 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. They do not use FCC-issued callsigns, as other radio stations on US soil are required by FCC rules.
The IBB also operates a transmission facility on São Tomé for the VoA.
The Voice of America is fully funded by the U.S. taxpayers. Congress appropriates funds annually. VOA’s FY 2010 budget estimate was $206.5 million.
The Voice of America currently broadcasts in 45 languages (TV marked with an asterisk):
The number of languages broadcast and the number of hours broadcast in each language vary according to the priorities of the United States Government and the world situation. In 2001, according to an International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) fact sheet, VOA broadcast in 53 languages, with 12 televised. For example, in July 2007, VOA added 30 minutes to its daily Somali radio broadcast, providing a full hour of live, up-to-the-minute news and information to listeners. VOA estimates it produces 1,500 hours of programming each week to an audience of 123 million
The Voice of America has been a part of several agencies:
From 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. The VOA was placed under the U.S. Information Agency in 1953. When the USIA was abolished in 1999, the VOA was placed under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (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.
Before World War II, all American shortwave stations were in private hands. The National Broadcasting Company’s International, or White Network, which broadcast in six languages, The Columbia Broadcasting System, whose Latin American international network consisted of 64 stations located in 18 different countries, as well as the Crosley Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, had shortwave transmitters. Experimental programming began in the 1930s. There were fewer than 12 transmitters, however.
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.
Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government’s Office of the Coordinator of Information began providing war news and commentary to the commercial American shortwave radio stations for use on a voluntary basis. Direct programming began shortly after the United States’ entry into the war. The first live broadcast to Germany, called Stimmen aus Amerika (“Voices from America”) took place on Feb 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.”
The Office of War Information took over VOA’s operations when it was formed in mid-1942. The 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 Russian 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 “Cold War Propaganda” by John B. Whitton. 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 the 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, the Voice of America installed a studio and relay facility aboard a converted U.S. Coast Guard cutter renamed Courier whose target audience was Russia and its allies. 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 the 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). In the 1980s, the USIA established the WORLDNET satellite television service, and in 2004 WORLDNET was merged into VOA.
During the 1950s and 1960s, VOA broadcast American jazz, which was highly popular worldwide. For example, a program aimed at South Africa in 1956 broadcast two hours nightly, along with special programs such as The Newport Jazz Festival. 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’ governments sponsored jamming of VOA broadcasts, which sometimes led critics to question the broadcasts’ actual impact. For example, in 1956, Poland stopped jamming VOA, but Bulgaria continued to jam the signal through the 1970s. and 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 the 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. Today, stations are offered the VOA Music Mix service.
In 1989, Voice of America expanded 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, the Voice of America became the first broadcast-news organization to offer continuously updated programs on the Internet. Content in English and 44 other languages is currently available online through a distributed network of commercial providers, using more than 20,000 servers across 71 countries. Since many listeners in Africa and other areas still receive much of their information via radio and have only limited access to computers, VOA continues to maintain regular shortwave-radio broadcasts.
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 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 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 for who committed suicide in political self-immolation. VOA denied any allegations of instigating self-immolations and demanded that the Chinese station retract its report.
Under § 501 of the Smith–Mundt Act of 1948, the Voice of America was forbidden to broadcast directly to American citizens until July 2013. The intent of the legislation was to protect the American public from propaganda actions by its own government. Although VOA does not broadcast domestically, Americans can access the programs through shortwave and streaming audio over the Internet.
All text, audio, and video material produced exclusively by the Voice of America is public domain.
Under the Eisenhower administration in 1959, VOA Director Harry 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.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan panel of eight private citizens appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate (the U.S. Secretary of State is an ex officio member of the Board), is the oversight body for official U.S. international broadcasts by both federal agencies and government-funded corporations. In addition to VOA, these include the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB, which includes Radio and TV Marti) and grantee corporations: the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN, which includes Radio Sawa and Al Hurra television in Arabic); Radio Farda (in Persian) for Iran; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, which are aimed at the ex-communist states and countries under oppressive regimes in Asia. In recent years, VOA has expanded its television coverage to many areas of the world. This governing body was established in 1993 to replace the Board for International Broadcasters, which was created in 1973 to manage broadcasting companies previously funded by the CIA.
Many Voice of America announcers, such as Willis Conover, host of Jazz USA, Pat Gates, host of the Breakfast Show in the 1960s, and Judy Massa, noted country music expert and host of Country Music U.S.A., became worldwide celebrities, although not necessarily in the United States.
The Voice of America headquarters is located at 330 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC, 20237, U.S.
The Voice of America’s Urdu-language program Khabron Se Aage (Beyond the Headlines) is telecast in Pakistan by Express News. Earlier The Voice of America’s Urdu was telecast by GEO News, VOA’s affiliate and one of the country’s most popular stations. Voice of America pays an undisclosed amount of money to GEO TV to telecast its broadcast but in spite of this arrangement has been forced to take off many of its programs on numerous occasions due to conflicts with the GEO TV management. This half-hour program features reports on politics, social issues, science, sports, culture, entertainment, and other issues of interest to Pakistanis as seen by the US government.
In 1996, the U.S.’s international radio output consisted of 992 hours per week by VOA, 667 hpw by RFE/RL, and 162 hpw by Radio Marti.
Source: International Broadcast Audience Research, June 1996
The list includes about a quarter of the world’s external broadcasters whose output is both publicly funded and worldwide. Among those excluded are Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea and various international commercial and religious stations.
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 the VOA’s 44 other radio broadcast languages, 25 of which are also broadcast on television.
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.
Many of the radio and television broadcasts are available through VOA’s website.
While VOA was, until 2013, prohibited by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 from broadcasting within the U.S., people in the U.S. are able to hear the hourly newscasts online. These are provided in 5-minute clips every hour from their website.
Voice of America relays and simulcasts on Radio Australia for digital radio.
In Focus is a 30-minute daily TV magazine that brings information about Africa, the United States, and the world to viewers across Africa. It is scheduled Monday through Friday. In Focus features interviews with newsmakers, analysts, American and African government officials and everyday citizens presenting a variety of opinions on issues affecting the African continent. The program showcases stories about Africa, Diaspora topics, African-American interests and immigration, pop culture, box office hits, music, sports, and highlights from Hollywood round out the program. Contributor Linord Moudou reports on timely and practical health news and has conversations with doctors and expertise on African health issues including malaria, meningitis, measles and polio.
Straight Talk Africa is an international call-in talk show hosted by Shaka Ssali which airs on Wednesdays. Shaka and his guests discuss topics of special interest to Africans, including politics, economic development, press freedom, health, social issues and conflict resolution.
The Link is VOA’s weekly look at breaking trends on the Internet. The program examines up and coming trends and ideas online.
Money in Motion is a program that looks at business stories from around the world that have global effects. The program is scheduled for Fridays.
Going Green is a program that explores the new trends and technologies in environmental science and services. It is scheduled daily.
VOA produces news, human interest, and short fiction in Special English, which is spoken more slowly and with a smaller vocabulary than regular programming, so it is easier for intermediate learners to understand.
This is a Voice of America program, started in 2012, which broadcasts digital text and images via shortwave radiograms. This digital stream can be decoded with software of the Fldigi family.
Effective July 1, 2014, VOA cut most of its shortwave transmissions to East Asia and South Asia and reduced transmission time available for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia.
Various sources consider Voice of America an instrument of the United States’ propaganda campaigns.
The Cuban government and allied critics have suggested that the U.S. government violates national sovereignty by broadcasting to their countries, despite Cuba’s own broadcasts to the US and elsewhere. This argument has been used to justify open attempts by the Cuban government to jam VOA broadcasts, as well as respond with equally powerful shortwave transmissions of English-language political broadcasts and communiques directed at the United States. Time interval signals identical to those used by Radio Havana Cuba have also been detected in coded numbers station broadcasts that are allegedly linked to espionage activity in the U.S.
news media have reported that VOA has for years been paying mainstream media journalists to appear on VOA shows, although such practices are relatively common worldwide for media programs. According to El Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald, these include: David Lightman, the Hartford Courant’s Washington bureau chief; Tom DeFrank, head of the New York Daily News’ Washington office; Helle Dale, a former director of the opinion pages of the Washington Times; and Georgie Anne Geyer, a nationally syndicated columnist.
In response, spokesmen for the Broadcasting Board of Governors told the newspaper El Nuevo Herald that such payments do not pose a conflict of interest. “For decades, for many years, some of the most respectable journalists in the country have received payments to participate in programs of the Voice of America,” one of the spokesmen, Larry Hart, told El Nuevo Herald.
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 VOA’s editorial independence from its governors. The 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.
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.
In January 2008, Ethiopia was accused of jamming the VOA Amharic and Oromifa programs. The government denied the accusations claiming technical difficulties as the cause of radio disruptions.