As the Voice of America moves to become a multi-media operation, VOA’s broadcasters have also had to diversify their skills to encompass television and the Internet as well as radio. Today on New American Voices, in our occasional series of profiles of the men and women from many countries and cultures who work at VOA, you’ll meet Sandra Lemaire, long a radio personality in the Creole service and now one of VOA’s web desk editors.
When Voice of America decided to launch its Creole Service in 1986, Sandra Lemaire was the first person the service hired to work as a broadcaster in that language. The irony was that growing up in Haiti, she had been forbidden to speak Creole.
“At home we had to speak French, we couldn’t speak Creole because it was considered rude and that’s what you speak to your maids, etcetera. I heard my parents talking in it, but if I said something I was punished, so... I usually tried not to do that!”
Sandra Lemaire’s father was a popular radio and TV journalist in Port au Prince – in fact, says Sandra, he was the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier’s favorite broadcaster. While this protected him from the wantonness of the authorities at the time, many of his friends and colleagues were not so lucky. Finally, when Sandra was four, her father could stand the killings and repression no longer, and decided to leave the country with his family for the United States. Nevertheless, Sandra retains only sunny memories of her childhood in Haiti.
“In Haiti it’s a big tradition on Sundays to be with the family, and have dinner, and go to the beach. So I remember going to the beach and driving through the countryside. It’s mountainous, so there’s rolling hills, and I remember looking out the window and seeing the people, and they were far away, so I thought they were little people, and that we were like giants…”
After emigrating to the U.S., Sandra Lemaire grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where her father found a job as a translator for the U.S. Information Agency, then VOA’s parent agency. When she was in her teens, Papa Doc’s son and successor, known as Baby Doc, appealed to her father to return to Haiti to head up a new national television station. In the end Mr. Lemaire consented and went, while the rest of the family stayed in Washington so that the children could continue their American education. Sandra visited her father in Haiti during school vacations.
“Every summer I’d go to visit him, and during the winter, and running the station and seeing how the station ran and everything I thought, oh, this I would really love to do. So that’s how I got interested in TV and radio.”
This interest led Ms Lemaire to major in journalism, along with French, in college. After graduation she landed a job with National Public Radio, where she had the opportunity to work with some of the foremost names in broadcast journalism. When the Voice of America advertised for bilingual journalists to staff its new Creole service, Ms Lemaire’s father encouraged her to apply, and even worked with her to hone her Creole language skills.
From the beginning, the Creole programs had a special style, characterized by a lively pace, original features like a weekly news round-up in verse, and distinctive radio personalities. One of these was Sandra Dominique, as she was known on the air.
“To open up the show I would say, ...Bonsoir...’" (She gives opening sentence in Creole ending with VOA jingle.)
Although – or perhaps because – there is a high illiteracy rate in Haiti, the audience response to VOA’s Creole-language programs was enthusiastic. The service received tons of mail, Sandra Lemaire says, and whenever she visited Haiti she was mobbed by fans and treated as a star. But she says the programs’ purpose was a very serious one.
“Starting out, our mission was really to inform people about what was going on in Haiti, and about the government and what it was doing, about democracy and how it works, about health issues, about agricultural issues – all kinds of information that could make them better citizens, could foster a better society.”
Despite her belief in the importance of the work she and the Creole service were doing, three years ago Sandra Lemaire decided that 15 years on the job were enough, and moved to the VOA’s web desk, which was just beginning operations. She says she wanted to do something different, and to work in the English language for a change.
“What I like most about working on the web desk now is that it gives you a really good perspective on what Voice of America does … Because basically our task is to post the news that the news writers write and the correspondents, as well as the text of the features. We turn them into web articles and we add a different dimension by adding pictures to the text and adding an audio track. So because I have to read everything that people produce and then post it on the web, it gives me a really good idea of what we’re doing, and we’re doing tremendous things...”
In her spare time Sandra Lemaire is a sports enthusiast, and has taken up marathon running. She’s already participated in five marathons, and now on weekends and each evening after work, she trains intensively for her next big run -- this autumn, in the Chicago marathon.