Many foreign language speakers have come to work at the Voice of America to produce and broadcast radio programs to their native countries. Some have found themselves, after a few years, in very different jobs. Today on New American Voices, in our occasional series of profiles of VOA's multi-national broadcasters, we introduce you to Penelope Poulou.Originally a radio broadcaster in Greek, Ms. Poulou - known to her colleagues as Paulie - is now a reporter, interviewer, and writer of English-language material for radio, television and the Internet.
Penelope Poulou, a petite, energetic woman with a mop of dark hair, came to work in VOA's Greek Service in 1993, at a time when the service was adjusting to major changes in the media environment in Greece.
"The work we were doing was very interesting," says Penelope Poulou. "It was a very fast-paced time, we were just starting to work with affiliates, and we were transitioning ourselves from short-wave to FM, which was a very big deal. Our manager really succeeded in putting us on the map in this sense, so VOA became a well-respected broadcasting network in Athens."
The transition was not only in program delivery, Ms Poulou remembers. After the Cold War years, when many Greeks tended to view programs originating in the United States as propaganda, the Voice of America found a more receptive audience. It had a chance to reach people with programming that was no longer perceived to be taking sides. "It had to be interesting, and it had to show people what America was about beyond its political orientation," she says. "It had to show what the culture was, it had to try to draw people closer to the interesting elements that America has to bring, such as freedom of opinion, the openness, the opportunity, anything that goes beyond this cliché of 'democracy'. We had to tell them about arts, and finances, economy and medicine. And people were receptive of that."
Thanks to her background and education, Penelope Poulou had a knowledge of both Greece and America that helped her meet the programming challenges she describes. She grew up in a middle-class family in Athens with a father who was a linguist -- and, she says, insisted that she practice her English vocabulary skills on every occasion.She received her bachelor's degree from the American College in Greece, and then went to London to study for a Master's degree in history. Declining an offer to work for the BBC, she accepted a scholarship for post-graduate studies at Kent State University in the Midwestern state of Ohio.
Paulie Poulou says she remembers well her introduction to the United States. "I will never forget it, never forget it!," she says with feeling. " I came to Ohio from London, because I had stayed in London already for two years. So when I got the assistantship to Kent State, I never knew what I was going to find. Seeing the endless, vast areas which would include one house -- and to me beauty was a bustling city and people… That was my culture shock! Not so much that I came to America, it was what type of America I was coming to -- the Midwest is very different from Europe.
But the Midwesterners were very welcoming, Penelope says, and she ended up staying at Kent State University for six years, teaching and working towards a doctorate in history. But when the Voice of America offered her a job, she was happy to move to Washington.
As Penelope Poulou remembers it, "I was so poorly paid, that I was fed up. And I was just discovering that I was not exactly the recluse academic type, I wanted more. My dream was to do something about movies. As a matter of fact, my PhD dissertation was on movies." Working in the Greek Service, Penelope produced programs on movies whenever she could. But her main job was as reporter, translator, announcer and program host.
At the end of the1990s, Paulie took advantage of an opportunity to move to the unit preparing English-language material for VOA programs about life and society in America - something she had always wanted to do. And here she began writing a regular program on American movies.
"I love interviewing directors and actors, it's my thing," Paulie says. "It psyches me up! I love meeting up with them. It's an incredible high for me when I see an incredibly beautiful movie and I can meet the brain and the soul behind that movie in person.
Penelope has interviewed such prominent Hollywood stars and personalities as George Clooney, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Spacey, Peter Bogdanovich. In the past year, she has begun producing her movie features for VOA television as well. And she has become adept at preparing material for VOA's web page.
Penelope says she thoroughly enjoys working in multiple media. "Oh, I think it's wonderful," she says. "I think there are wonderful opportunities for VOA. Number one, we do not have sponsors' ads to rely on and have to appeal to individual needs of clients. That allows us a lot of leeway to express ourselves and show to the world what America is about. We can do that with radio, certainly. But the fact that we have the Internet to open up a totally different world to people who just click on their computers every morning -- it's amazing! We get hundreds of thousands of people! And then you've got the TV. It's beautiful. I mean, we're able to do interesting things and show the picture - and people want that. VOA is a large organization that can truly pull its weight. It can truly put a mark on the world, and it has done that."
Penelope Poulou, is a Voice of America professional - and movie maven - in Greek and English