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VOA: 65 Years and Counting

This weekend [Saturday, February 24], the Voice of America will quietly observe a milestone. While many here in the United States see turning 65 years old as a time to retire, the Voice of America plans to continue working well into the 21st century.

February 24, 1942 -- a shortwave broadcast from the United States to Nazi-occupied Europe told listeners that America would tell them the truth. That first VOA broadcast in German was soon followed by others in French, Italian and English. And by the war's end, VOA was on-the-air in nearly 25 languages.

News and Culture

But our Cold War broadcasts were more than just news and information to those struggling for freedom. Some of VOA's most popular programs have been music - - particularly America's unique art form - - jazz.

Throughout the 1960s, VOA reported on the changing American scene -- from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War to breakthroughs in science and technology.

Alan Shepherd's brief flight in 1961 was only the beginning. Eight years later, more than 615-million people -- a record never equaled in the history of broadcasting -- listened to VOA and astronaut Neil Armstrong from the surface of the moon.

Since the beginning, VOA's reporting has been guided by the standards of a free press -- to be accurate, objective and comprehensive. These values -- along with our mission to present a balanced and comprehensive view of America and its policies -- were enshrined in the VOA Charter, which became law in 1976.

And through the decades, listeners have tuned to the Voice of America in times of hope and tragedy. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Voice of America has grown to 45 languages on radio and the Internet. And many of our programs are now on television.

A Time of Change

Twenty-eight hours a week of Persian TV via satellite and 30 minutes a day of Somali radio to Africa are among our newest initiatives. It's all part of a changing VOA, which for many is controversial.

The Bush administration's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would end VOA radio broadcasts in several languages -- including Cantonese, Russian, Uzbek and worldwide English.

"Those simply reflect budget realities," says VOA Director, Dan Austin. "If we had the money, I would love to do it all. But these are tight budget times for any agency of this government, so we have to set our priorities. And I think reaching out to key regions in the language that people there understand and speak most frequently has to be the first priority."

"Could the U.S. spend more on government-funded international broadcasting? I think the answer is, 'Absolutely, yes,'" says Bruce Gregory, Director of the Public Diplomacy Institute at The George Washington University. He adds there's still a need for many VOA radio broadcasts, including worldwide English.

"If you're on at good times, with good signals and niche programming that meets audiences needs, absolutely. If you're meeting a niche need for news and information about America, then keep at it," says Gregory.

On Being a VOA Journalist

Over the years, the Voice of America has drawn on the talents of thousands people from around the world. In order to gain a better understanding of what we're about, I asked some of my colleagues why they wanted to be a VOA journalist.

"You look at all of this information [you have access to in Washington] and you compare it to what the Thais are learning," says Nittaya Maphungphong, Chief of the Thai Service. "And then you go in there [to the studio] at 6:00 in the morning and you get a chance to tell them what's going on at this end of the world. And you feel so honored."

"For me and for other journalists in Haiti, the Voice of America was the standard of excellence in broadcasting. And I always wanted to be a part of that," says Ronald Cesar, a broadcaster for VOA's Creole Service.

"I grew up listening to VOA Russian during the Soviet times. And I had this idea of the Voice of America being an open, free, fair, objective and democratic source of information. And for a young journalist from a very media oppressed environment, this was a great opportunity for me," says Navbahor Imamova of VOA's Uzbek Service.

As for me . . . I was an American Fulbright Scholar in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. As I witnessed communism firsthand, I -- like so many others -- depended on VOA as a reliable source of news and information about America and the world. And for nearly two decades, it has been an honor to be a part of that tradition.

And while the languages and mediums we broadcast in may change, the Voice of America's mission continues . . . 65 years and counting.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.