The Voice of America began broadcasting in Estonian in 1951, just as the Cold War was heating up. This past February, the broadcasts ceased, a victim of budget realities and changing priorities at the U-S government’s international broadcasting agency. Today on New American Voices, the four members of the recently closed Estonian Service talk about the role VOA programs played in their native country.
When Ats Joorits came to Washington in 1997 he was an experienced journalist who had worked first in Estonian TV, and then in Swedish radio and television. He thought he would stay at VOA for only a year or two.
“It was a great opportunity to live in the United States of America, of course, and secondly, I wanted to be here because I wanted to have the chance to work in one of the world’s biggest news and media agencies. Seen from the distance it seemed even bigger and more powerful than it actually is when you’re already here.”
But he got hooked, and stayed. For Ats, one of the biggest satisfactions of his work at VOA was constantly having his finger on the pulse of what was happening in the world.
“I’ve always been a big fan of news. I’m news addicted, I’m always checking out newscasts and news channels and websites. So Voice of America offered me this wonderful opportunity to work with the news, because half of our show was always news. They were live, they were updated, they were accurate, and they were interesting for me to work with. And I think also news was important for our listeners. Especially news brought in the Estonian language but from the United States of America.”
The chief of VOA’s Estonian Service until its closing two months ago was Markus Larsson. He believes that the news and information the Voice of America provided, as well as the fact that the United States never officially recognized Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, were instrumental in the break-up of the Soviet Union.
“It kept up the belief that there is somebody bigger out there who really thinks about us and supports us – us meaning Estonians. This was the one biggest thing for Estonians, that the United States never recognized the occupation. If nothing else, talking about this fact, this was the greatest thing for the people over there. It was just one ray in the darkness. It gave them hope.”
Markus Larsson came to work at the Voice of America from the Estonian Broadcasting Company, where among other things he had produced history programs for young people. It was 1989, and the Iron Curtain was crumbling.
“It was a strange time, we really didn’t understand yet what’s really going on. And I honestly did not believe in the demise of the Soviet Union and the way it really happened later. It seemed to me the Russians were going to keep the Soviet Union together in some way – at least the Balts. They would never let the Baltics go. That was a very challenging and interesting time, and it was what made our work more interesting.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Voice of America fulfilled its mission by talking about the principles of democracy, about free enterprise and free speech. Even as the Estonian media became more independent and varied, Markus Larsson says, VOA still had an important role to play.
“Estonians were getting, via the Voice of America, really pretty much the whole picture about America, I would say. Our show was short, we had a half-hour live show every day, but I think we gave a pretty honest, wide deep, picture from America. Now the Estonian people don’t get that. You know, Estonian press is pretty free, they get all sorts of information. But I’m sorry to say it is biased. If in no other way, then something is not told. So we were trying – I mean the Voice of America – to give a really whole picture of things the way they are.”
The newest member of the Estonian Service team is Marika Urb, who joined VOA five years ago after a career in journalism in Estonia and later with the Finnish Broadcasting Company. She agrees with her colleagues that objective, unbiased news was VOA’s greatest contribution to its listeners. But she says that another important aspect of VOA programs was that it gave Estonians an insight into Americans, their life, their concerns.
“I think that one of the valuable things that we gave probably was – we tried to give also some human aspects, that America is not only about business and money, but the way people live here, the way they study, what problems they have. Because if you go to a human level, people can relate to that. I think we also gave that human touch.”
The fourth member of the Estonian Service team, Neeme Raud, joined VOA in 1992. He was only 22 at the time, but had already produced and edited programs for Estonian Radio and TV. In the mid-90s Neeme was dispatched to VOA’s New York office, from where he reported on events and co-hosted the daily Estonian-language program. He says VOA’s role changed drastically during his time on the job.
“The first 3-4 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Voice of America was really a primary provider of information about America and about the world and democracy and big issues. But then, when Estonian media got stronger, we really had a slight identity crisis. We were no longer the primary information source, but became a secondary source. And in order to find new listeners and new markets in Estonia, we started to change the sound of the programming, and it really became this Estonian-language American radio station, fast paced, and very colorful. It really worked in Estonia because we were so different from local radios. And we managed to capture the attention of younger listeners, though many older people still listened to us because the VOA brand name for them was very important. So we had this very interesting market penetration, and became really American radio in Estonia."
Although VOA’s Estonian Service has been closed, along with nine other services broadcasting to Eastern Europe, Neeme Raud says he is optimistic about VOA’s future.
“I really like the new avenues we’ve explored – the TV, the Internet. It’s been really exciting in VOA that this organization is becoming such a multi-media powerhouse.”
Neeme Raud – along with colleagues Markus Larsson, Ats Joorits and Marika Urb, all broadcasters all with VOA’s former Estonian Service.
English Feature #7-38571 Broadast April 26, 2004