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From Budapest to VOA's Studios - 2004-04-20

The Voice of America closed ten of its Eastern European language services this past February, ending an important part of its 62-year-old mission. New American Voices is featuring some of the VOA broadcasters who worked in these services -- men and women who dedicated their professional lives to bringing reliable, accurate and objective news to radio listeners in their former homelands. Today, Steve Varsa, formerly with the Hungarian Service recalls highlights of his 30-year career at VOA.

Istvan Varsa, known to his colleagues as Steve, had a clear, simple goal when he joined the Voice of America soon after graduating from college.

“At first, I was just too young, and I didn’t realize the political implications, although I knew that the VOA was a very effective channel through which gradual political changes could be accomplished in Hungary. All I was trying to do was present the United States as I have known it to be, and the guiding principle was always to gain friends through radio for the United States, and a better understanding by Hungarians of what the United States stands for.”

Istvan Varsa grew up in Budapest, in Communist Hungary. He was 12 years old at the time of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

“That was the first time I saw victims of war. I actually saw dead Russian soldiers, unburied then, as yet, and bodies of Hungarian freedom fighters. I cannot erase those memories.”

Five years later, he overcame many obstacles to immigrate to the United States. In Washington, he finished high school and eventually graduated from Catholic University with a degree in economics and foreign trade. But his real love was soccer. He wanted to be a professional soccer player, and was a candidate for the 1972 U.S. Olympic soccer team until a knee injury dashed his hopes for a career in sports. But it was soccer that led Steve Varsa to broadcasting.

“My name was rather prominently featured in the local press, and VOA’s Hungarian sportscaster tracked me down and invited me for an interview, which I gave in the Hungarian language, of course. And then they asked me whether I would be interested in reading news on Saturdays and Sundays. And admittedly, aside from my athletic aspirations, I did have an idol in Hungary, a famous Hungarian sportscaster, and I thought – well, this is a golden opportunity, let’s see whether I could maybe step into his shoes.”

As a Hungarian service broadcaster, Steve Varsa became an accomplished writer, reporter and program host -— and was able to pursue his interest in sports.

“I covered several Olympic Games, World Cups, world Track and Field championships, and several years later – 20 years later – at an event I met that idol of mine, that Hungarian sportscaster, who told me, ‘I know who you are, because we have been listening to the Voice of America’, and congratulated me. That was a very satisfying moment.”

Istvan Varsa believes the the Voice of America and other international broadcasters to Eastern Europe played a major role in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“It is, in my opinion, the Voice of America’s greatest accomplishment, that for my days, when I came on, and the Polish Solidarity movement was being formed, and then Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic becoming NATO members, that is VOA’s grandest achievement.”

The end of the Cold War and the opening of Eastern Europe to the West provided opportunities for broadcasters that had not been available before.

“I traveled to Hungary repeatedly on official VOA assignments, and those trips stand out as my best broadcasting days, among them VOA’s first-ever live Hungarian broadcast from Hungary, when the older Mr. Bush, President George Herbert Walker Bush, visited Hungary in September of 1989. That stands out as possibly the best broadcast I ever made.”

The opening of Eastern Europe also opened contacts between broadcasters and their listeners.

“The contact with the listeners became much more open and embraced by both sides when we came to the years that the communist regime began to crumble. And we had between 1991 and 1996 a most successful period, when we had a live call-in show that made VOA an item, really and truly an item in Hungary.”

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Steve Varsa saw major changes in VOA’s broadcasts to Hungary, and to most of the countries of Eastern Europe. As domestic media in those countries expanded and information became much more accessible, Voice of America curtailed its broadcasts on short wave and medium wave, and turned instead to sending programs to local FM stations for rebroadcast, and providing information via the Internet.

“The principle objective of VOA has not changed, and should not change. But the interests, the focus and the tastes of the listeners may have. Different times, different era, new century, new technology.”

Despite new approaches to reaching audiences in Eastern Europe, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, citing budgetary concerns and changing priorities, decided to end broadcasts to the region, including Hungary. Steve Varsa retired. But looking back on his career as a broadcaster, Steve says he is immensely proud of the work he and his colleagues did at VOA.

“Just the other day we had a discussion, and the conclusion is – this is the best job one could ever have.”

English Feature #7-38551 Broadcast April 19, 2004