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A Voice from Behind the Scenes - 2002-08-05


NANCY SMART, VOA ENGLISH FEATURES EDITOR

A radio station is much more than the on-air people the audience knows –- the announcers, disc jockeys, newsreaders and program hosts. In addition to the personalities at the microphone, many professionals work to put together the radio programs listeners enjoy. One of these professionals at the Voice of America is Nancy Smart, whose career at VOA ranged from news writer to special events organizer to senior features editor.

In her thirty-five years with the Voice of America, Nancy Smart has helped bring to our international audience some of the major stories of our time. She was working in the VOA newsroom when President Nixon’s supporters broke into the headquarters of the Democratic Party in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, triggering a political crisis that ended in the resignation of the President of the United States.

“I ran the Watergate coverage. That dragged on for a long time, as you know. We really fought very hard to be open and honest and straightforward. The Watergate coverage really did establish us as an independent news organization, and I think that was very valuable.”

In the 1980s, Nancy Smart became the chief of a unit called “Special Events”, which organized coverage of major newsworthy events both in the United States and abroad. Every four years, for example, her unit made sure that VOA reporters had all they needed to cover the pre-election political conventions.

“Someone has to organize all the facilities you need to take a multi-lingual group of broadcasters and support staff to a different city. So it means workspace and skybox space and hotel rooms and lines and telephones and all the things you need to broadcast.”

The Special Events unit was also responsible for making all the arrangements for VOA reporters covering the Olympics. Ms Smart says that coverage of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, for instance, although a complicated matter, went smoothly.

“We had a big team there, I think we had 20, 22 people, lots of language broadcasters, several English-language writers and reporters, and four technicians. They really went way out of their way to be good to us, the Voice of America. We were in the radio-TV center, which meant that we had access to all the sound, all the pictures, and we had lots of credentials to go to the venues. It was great.”

Another highlight of Nancy Smart’s activities as special events director was coverage of space shuttle flights at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Nancy recalls the time she rented a helicopter to take the reporters to the space center, knowing from experience that heavy car traffic would make it impossible for the reporters to reach the launch site in time.

“He landed this helicopter in the motel parking lot where we were staying. He only took about five people at a time and he shuttled us over. There was a helipad right at the press site at the Kennedy Space Center, so he shuttled us over to the helipad and we got there in plenty of time, thank you.”

For the past eight years or so, Nancy Smart has been a senior editor, editing many of the radio features broadcast in English and translated into VOA’s 52 other languages. Looking back on her career, she says there are a couple of things that give her a real sense of satisfaction.

“Sometimes doing the big jobs. In some ways, just doing the big jobs, and knowing that they’re done well, and that they’ve been successful. And another thing, the second thing that I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction from –which is an interesting thing for me to say, because I’m really a dreadful teacher – is working with writers and developing them and seeing them come along.”

Nancy Smart says she got into journalism for a simple reason – she wanted to live in New York City. After graduating from prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts with a degree in government, the best job offer she got was with the Associated Press news organization in New York City. Eventually she quit, because at the time the opportunities for women with the AP wire service were quite limited. On joining the Voice of America in the late 60s, Nancy Smart found the situation only somewhat better.

“They were very good, up to a certain point. There were lots of women in the newsroom, lots of copy editors were women. There were no correspondents who were women, and you could not get on English air as a woman. In fact that was a major battle we fought later, in the 80s.”

In her years at VOA, Ms Smart says she has seen much progress – including in the opportunities available to women.

“I think one of the big things that’s happened – although there’s still very much of a glass ceiling – is that women do better now than they did. Women are now treated more fairly, I think, and given more opportunities, and that’s a tremendous improvement. Technically, of course, what’s happened in thirty years is unbelievable, you know. Just the changes from the days of teletype machines rattling in the background, and typewriters, to what we have today. Just incredible, what’s happened.”

Regarding VOA’s future, Ms Smart says she hopes the Voice doesn’t lose sight of its core mission in its efforts to reach new, younger audiences. She believes the international audience still has certain needs and expectations from VOA programs.

“I think, really, what we’ve always given them, which is unbiased news and an explanation of what we believe, what the American government thinks, and an explanation of what life is like in this country. I think the three legs of the charter are what we still should be doing. If you think in terms of Afghanistan, and the Balkans, and a lot of Africa, China, Iran where access to information is limited, we still have a very big role to play – and that’s what we should be doing.”

After 35 years with Voice of America Nancy Smart is retiring, to spend time on her farm near Washington and train the horses that she rides in 160-kilometer endurance races.

English Feature # 7-36598 Broadcast August 12, 2002

Note: Nancy Smart retired from Voice of America in 2002.

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