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VOA's Multicultural Background

Part of VOA's 60th Anniversary Year Coverage

The Voice of America broadcasts in 53 languages - only one of which is English. It's estimated that 80 percent of the 94 million people who connect with VOA on the radio, television, or Internet each week are hearing us in a language other than English.

VOA's very first broadcast, early one February morning in 1942 during the height of World War II, was not in America's native tongue.

It was in German. And because the U.S. Government's War Information Office, of which VOA was then a part, was reaching out to audiences in occupied nations, some of our early broadcasts were in Norwegian, Japanese, Dutch, Danish, Italian, even Icelandic. Some other languages no longer broadcast on VOA - like Amoy, Hakka, Malayalam, Oromo, Swatow, Tagalog, Tartar, and Telegu - you may not have even heard of. These days, if you're in the right place in the world at the right time - just to pick four languages starting with the letter "K" - you can hear us in Khmer, Korean, Kurdish, Kirundi-Kinyarwanda.

Because of shifting events that create so-called "hot spots" around the world, some language services have come, gone, and come back again. Alan Heil, a former VOA writer, foreign correspondent, and deputy director, cites the example of Farsi, the language of Iran. The Farsi Service was closed in 1970.

"And then in 1979, with the taking of the hostages and the fall of the Shah, there was tremendous pressure to again start up a Farsi service. But we had lost all of those listeners all of those years. I think it took probably four or five years for VOA again to become the most-listened-to international broadcaster in the Farsi language once it was started up again," Mr. Heil said.

Some language services have broadcast steadily since VOA's early days. Russian, for instance, signed on in February 1947, less than a year after Winston Churchill warned the world than an "iron curtain" had descended upon Eastern Europe.

"Listen, listen. New York speaking. You are listening to the first radio broadcast of the Voice of America in Russian," the broadcaster said. "The purpose of our broadcasts is to give listeners in the USSR a picture of American life in all its variety. We will show you some of our problems and then show you how we try to solve them," she said.

Like other language services, VOA Mandarin receives many phone calls and hundreds of letters from listeners each week. One man called VOA a lifeline in troubled times. "At the end of the 1970s, the Chinese people first openly expressed their desire for democracy and freedom. Since then, for many Chinese, VOA has become a necessity for their existence, especially since the 1986 student movement and the events of June 4, 1989 [at the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy riots]," he said.

Former Deputy Director Heil says VOA's language services have what he calls a "multiplier effect", because they are often at the scene of important events within their target countries, and send back reports that VOA's news division then distributes to other language services and English for relay to the world.

Most VOA language services, such as Albanian, offer music and other entertainment in addition to news. And David Binder, a former New York Times newspaper correspondent in Eastern Europe, says even small services like VOA Albanian fill an information void, as in 1990, when Albanians rose against a dictatorship of 46 years.

"These guys were THE source of information and provided not only an echo for what they were getting out of Albania, but were telling Albanians, including government people, what was really going on in this isolated country," Mr. Binder said.

Like VOA English, each language service is bound by the Voice of America Charter, a U.S. law that protects VOA from outside interference but that also requires us to cover world events comprehensively, accurately, and objectively. Mahmoud Zawawi, head of VOA's bureau in Amman, Jordan, says the Charter's influence was very much on his branch's mind during the Gulf War of 1991.

"For the first time, this crisis involved the United States against an Arab country, and it also split Arabs among themselves. So we had to be as objective in our coverage as possible in order to maintain our credibility. And we have evidence that our audience, particularly in the Gulf States, more than tripled during the crisis, which tells me that we were telling the story well, and we were telling the truth at all times," Mr. Zawawi said.

As media environments in some nations open to competitive FM and television broadcasting, VOA language services like Czech, Polish and other East European languages have ceased broadcasting on shortwave. Instead they send their stories by satellite to local stations, which replay them.

But VOA director Robert Reilly points out that societies in many parts of the world are still closed or have not yet developed strong radio and television environments. There, he says, VOA broadcasts in the local language, on shortwave, are vital.

"As foreign leaders have explained to me, people listen almost religiously. They disappear from the streets in their villages when they know VOA is coming on. When you hear from the Dalai Lama that we're the 'bread of the Tibetan people,' it's a wake-up call to us, should we ever become complacent about what it really means at the other end of these microphones," Director Reilly said.

The hallways at VOA's headquarters in Washington are filled with the rich sounds and colors of a truly international community. Robert Barry, a VOA deputy director in the late 1980s, says there's a yeasty stew of dialects and accents - and occasionally some ethnic tension - inside the walls of the language services.

"But sometimes it's that kind of yeast that it takes to make the audience rise. In other words, you have to have the kind of cultural understanding of your audience that only comes from being from that part of the world," Mr. Barry said.

Many VOA language-service broadcasters first had to learn to cope with a new culture when they arrived in the United States. Then they had to learn to cover their distant homelands while meeting the exacting standards of the VOA Charter. For them - and the rest of the Voice of America - today, mastering the technologies of television and the Internet is the latest challenge.