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VOA Russian Service Celebrates 70 Years


FILE - A group of State Department announcers huddle around the microphone after the initial shortwave broadcast in Russian to Russia from New York City, Feb. 17, 1947.

"Hello, this is New York calling." The words, in Russian, hit Russian airwaves on Feb. 17, 1947 — the first Russian broadcast of the Voice of America.

The broadcasts were an integral part of the United States' propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union, which was seen as the new threat once World War II was over in 1945.

VOA, which began during the war as a way to convey American news and policies to occupied areas, told its Russian listeners it was meant to "give listeners in the USSR a picture of life in America." Like its other services, VOA's Russian service meant to give its audience the "pure and unadulterated truth" about life beyond Soviet borders.

News, music, human interest

The first programs contained a mix of news, music and human interest stories, with programs skewing more and more toward music, particularly jazz, a distinctly American musical innovation that gained considerable popularity in Russia and elsewhere overseas.

VOA broadcasts by jazz expert Willis Conover, known as Voice of America Jazz Hour, were especially popular. Conover also helped produce jazz concerts at the White House and is credited with helping to desegregate Washington, D.C., jazz clubs.

FILE - VOA jazz broadcaster Willis Conover interviews the legendary Louis Armstrong.
FILE - VOA jazz broadcaster Willis Conover interviews the legendary Louis Armstrong.

But the Soviet government fought back. In April 1947, just over two months after the broadcasts started, the Soviets began jamming the radio signal electronically.

Critics of VOA complained that the signal interference made it very difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the American broadcasts.

Elez Biberaj, chief of VOA's Eurasia division, said the Soviet efforts to block VOA's influence went even farther than that.

"Russians caught listening to VOA faced various forms of punishment, including imprisonment," Biberaj said.

Regardless, defectors from the Soviet Union, as well as Western embassies in Moscow and travelers who visited the area, reported that the VOA broadcasts were well-received by their Russian audience.

"For decades," Biberaj said, "VOA served as an outlet for Russian dissent and provided an alternative source for the flow of information and ideas, helped discredit the official Communist propaganda, and encouraged democratic elements. There is ample evidence that demonstrates the impact of VOA's Russian broadcasts and the important role that these broadcasts played in the demise of Communism."

VOA continued to play an important role in the region after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Biberaj said while Russia made significant progress on the road to democracy in the 1990s, it has since slid backward with media largely under state control, and the suspicious deaths of journalists and human rights activists.

"The lack of truly alternative voices in the media has had serious consequences for the democratization of the Russian society," Biberaj said. "And it is here that VOA comes into play, filling an important vacuum by serving as an alternative voice and meeting the audience's informational needs."

Programming changes

In 2008, VOA was denied placement on Russia's media outlets, so the online service was expanded. It now reaches its Russian-speaking audience with video streaming, social media products, expert blogs, and user-generated content and feedback. In addition to that, Biberaj said, VOA increased its Russian-language television programming.

As a result, VOA's Russian service now reaches 3.1 percent of Russian adults each week, and the number of adults who consider VOA's content "trustworthy" grew from 56 percent in 2015 to 65 percent in 2016. Last year VOA's Russian website registered nearly 15 million visits.

"The Russian service debunks the Kremlin's strident anti-American propaganda with fact-based content; offers in-depth coverage of issues vital to U.S. national interests; gives an accurate and comprehensive portrait of America and its policies and institutions; and targets potential change agents in Russia," Biberaj said.

Those agents include "opposition figures, business leaders with a strong stake in integrating Russia into the global economy," he said, "and the many Russians — now largely silent — who favor putting Russia back on a path that embraces democracy, civil society, and rule of law, and respect for human rights."