A History
by Alan L. Heil, Jr.

Columbia University Press, New York, 2003
538 pages, available only in hardback edition



Rob Wagner
Ringwood North, Victoria

January 2004

Having been involved in SWL activities in one way another for over 34 years, I have often listened to the Voice of America during that period. This giant of an international broadcaster certainly fills an important role for the United States Government through the communication of factual reporting and high journalistic reputation.

In recent times, however, I've had the feeling that the good old VOA hasn't been quite as unbiased as it used to be. Nothing like the right-wing conservative nonsense that FOX News puts out, mind you. But still, I have detected a stronger US Government line than used to be the case.

This is a marvellous book! And Alan has had to tread the fine line between listing dry historical facts and making the book something that encourages the reader to keep turning the pages.

For instance, the first chapter give a rather pacy and exciting account of the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in May and June of 1989.

The author offers perspectives from both journalists on the ground in Beijing and the decision-making of VOA officials back in Washington. It seems that many of the thousands of Chinese protesters who crammed into the Square were getting their reliable and up-to-date news from radios all tuned to the VOA.

Heil also quotes a statement from one very brave Radio Beijing announcer who broadcast what was probably that station's only truthful announcement about the massacre soon after the event. He was later sent away by the Party Officials for "reeducation".

The author worked for The Voice from 1962 until he retired in 1998. He held various positions including foreign correspondent, chief of News and Current Affairs, and deputy director of programs.

And so, it was with keen interest that I began reading Alan Heil's excellent history of the Voice of America.

It appears that VOA has, like many international broadcasters, struggled with limited funding for its operations. This was often apparent in the early years, and Heil's history spends some time on giving a view of how VOA staff coped with cramped facilities and old technology.

The organization has also struggled to maintain journalistic integrity, endeavoring to provide fair and balanced reporting at all times, generally under great pressure from government officials. Heil often addresses this throughout the book.

Of particular interest to me as a long-time radio enthusiast were the chapters on the establishment of transmitter relay stations and how the broadcaster coped with the jamming of its broadcasts.

Starting with Greenville, North Carolina, Heil gives a vivid description of what it's like to be a rigger on one of the largest curtain antenna arrays in the world. In the 1960s, relay stations started to sprout like mushrooms in some of the very remote locations such as Liberia, Botswana and northern Costa Rica.

The 1980s saw the construction of high powered relay sites in the Philippines and Thailand, and Heil talks about the importance of the mediumwave outlets that complemented these high frequency shortwave stations.

There is a brilliant account of the attack on the Monrovia Relay Station at the hands of Charles Taylor's rebels in early 1990. American supervisors were forced to return home while local Liberian employees heroically tried to keep the station on air. At the same time, some 20,000 terrified civilians fleeing the civil war were encamped on the relay station property. They managed to keep the station going for 14 weeks. During that time, Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels entered the compound and harassed refugees and station employees, and it was clear that some of the rebels were unhappy about how the VOA was reporting the civil war in Liberia. Eventually, the rebels closed the station, ordered the local VOA staff to flee, and went about trashing the $17 million installation.

An equally fascinating story surrounds the building and opening of the Sao Tome relay facility. The President of the Republic had heard about the destruction of the Liberian transmitters and simply asked "Well, why don't they come here?" The site chosen was an old radio installation, long abandoned by the Portuguese, and had not been used for fifteen years. Constructing and operating the Sao Tome facility was filled with hardships. Nearly every American stationed there has had malaria at least once. About 10 percent of the Sao Tome staff has the disease.

The lengths that Soviet citizens would go to cope with jamming in order to hear broadcasts is also discussed in this book. For example, Dr. Yelena Bonner, wife of dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, was reported to have sat in Gorgy Park with her husband, their portable radio and a note pad, listening to the news. They would switch shortwave frequencies and write down phrases, getting bits and pieces because they were so heavily jammed. Then they would listen to rebroadcasts later that night and fit all the pieces together to learn what was happening.

There is also a story of a Russian jamming station which blocked VOA broadcasts for some forty years until it finally ceased operations in May 1987. This station was described as a being like a family enterprise, being run much like a lighthouse in other parts of the world. It's superintendents were a man, a woman and an aged mongrel dog. Later on, after the fall of the Soviet Empire, the station began relaying VOA Russian programming to hundreds of thousands of listeners!

The book also has some wonderful quotes from actual VOA news reports, written by journalists and VOA reporters around the world. Highlighted here are reports from the USS Midway, off the coast of Vietnam in 1975 during evacuation from the U. S. Embassy in Saigon, the invasion of Kuwait in 1991, and from a Refugee Camp in Macedonia in 1999.

Later, the book deals with the reporting of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. There are descriptions of the news reports as they went to air, plus the dilemmas facing VOA officials in making sure that they kept to the broadcaster's Charter and Journalistic Code.

If you are looking for an insight into one of the two big international broadcasters (the other one being the BBC), then this book is quite illuminating. It is well written, keeps the reader enthralled by recounting interesting stories and moments in the history of The Voice, and is a fascinating account of the amazing people who operate behind the scenes of the Voice of America.

Note: This article is a Special Publication of the Electronic DX Press. It is Copyright, and may not be further reproduced or quoted without the specific permission of the author, who may be contacted at this E-mail address: news(at)edxp.org