Home | Back to Reviews

"Voice of America: A History" by Alan L. Heil, Jr.

Reviewed by Richard A. D'Angelo, Wyomissing, PA, and Rob Wagner, Ringwood North, Victoria, Australia, the latter at http://members.tripod.com/~bpadula/voabook.html. Thanks to Rich D'Angelo for permission to reprint his review, which has also appeared in The NASWA Journal and in World DX Club "Contact" magazine.

This book is impressive! Based on preliminary information and the official press release describing the Voice of America, A History, I immediately recognized that this is a very comprehensive work would quickly become a "must read" for any / all shortwave radio listeners and historians. Once I obtained a copy, it was apparent that Voice of America, A History by Alan L. Heil, Jr. lived up to the early excitement. For avid fans of international shortwave broadcasting, radio historians, political junkies and Voice of America aficionados, the Voice of America, A History is required reading.

As a first job, Alan L. Heil, Jr. was employed as a journalist for the Newark Evening News in New Jersey in the mid-1950's. The author worked for the Voice of America ("VOA" or "the Voice") from 1962 until he retired in 1998 where he was able to observe the VOA closely. He held various positions at the Voice, including foreign correspondent, chief of News and Current Affairs, and deputy director of programs. Also, Heil has testify before Congress on issues pertaining to the VOA. His remarkable career puts him in a very unique position to chronicle the Voice's remarkable transformation from a fledgling shortwave propaganda organ during World War II to a global multimedia giant encompassing radio, the Internet, and 1,500 affiliated radio and television stations across the globe.

The Voice of America is the United States largest publicly funded broadcasting network, reaching more than 90 million people worldwide in over fifty languages. In attempting to be a first class news organization, the Voice faced obstacles unique to an organization that stands, as former director John Chancellor once observed, "at the crossroads of journalism and diplomacy." It was for this reason that many people perceived the Voice as an instrument of American propaganda. However, as a thirty-six year veteran of VOA and its numerous policy wars, Heil firmly believes that the Voice has always sought to deliver accurate, objective, and comprehensive news of the highest journalistic standard, news that reflected America's diversity and vitality, and that presents not only U.S. policies but also critical debate about those policies. The book recounts numerous stories of the VOA trying "to get it right" under the watchful eyes of career and political diplomats and the United States Information Agency trying to help shape the news.

Using transcripts of radio broadcasts and numerous personal anecdotes, Heil provides a front-row seat to the greatest events of the past sixty years, from the Cold War and Vietnam to Watergate and the Lewinsky scandals, from Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon to ethnic strife in the Balkans and Rwanda, and from the outbreak of HIV/AIDS to the terrorist attacks on September, 11, 2001. Also, Heil relates the story of a perennially underfunded organization struggling against the political pressures, congressional investigations, massive reorganizations, and leadership purges that have attempted to shape and control VOA programming.

The book captures the spirit of the Voice of America and its dedicated journalists, engineers and staff over more than 60 years. Blending perspectives of scores of professional international broadcasters and the loyal listeners, the book takes us through the good and bad years at the VOA since it's founding in 1942, some seventy-nine days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Voice of America is often perceived as America's official international broadcasting organization but, as the author notes, it is also America's town crier to the world. The book tells the story of America's Voice as seen through the eyes of the author. It explores the creation of the VOA Charter, which helped establish editorial independence although there have been significant battles over the years to maintain that independence.

Heil approaches his subject by examining the many facets of the Voice's history, focusing primarily on events that spanned the period from the 1960s forward. He begins by examining how the VOA witnessed and covered the dramatic developments in China in 1989 surrounding Tiananmen Square. Included in the discussion was the heroic announcement about the tragic events leading to Chinese army troops firing on the demonstrators by a Radio Beijing announcer in the English Service that ultimately lead to his arrest and "re-education." High drama with a broadcasters behind the scenes perspective.

The author takes us through the early years as the VOA struggled to get it right. The first dozen years, the Voice merely survived before being morphed into an international broadcaster struggling to build a solid reputation. The Cuban missile crisis was an interesting time with the Voice coverage providing the bad news while the policy dominated Radio Swan providing imaginary success stories consistent with the existing US Government policies about the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Some of the interesting programming discussion featured a favorite of mine, Music USA hosted by jazz-world icon Willis Conover. The program was launched as the Voice was moved to Washington in 1954. During a career that spanned more than four decades, Conover built a huge following overseas with his mellow voice, simple syntax and slow delivery. Before his death in 1966, he recorded more than 10,000 programs. A good portion of Chapter 13, entitled Music: The Universal Language, is about the impact Conover had on the VOA listening public.

The median of shortwave radio was the primary communications vehicle for the Voice of America in the early days. Chapter 5 is devoted to the Voice's engineers at its remote shortwave relay stations around the world. The interesting story of losing Liberia but gaining São Tomé as a relay site is disclosed including the technical issues surrounding the development of such a location. Serious shortwave listeners will appreciate the problems and the solutions of providing reliable service to Africa.

Two pivotal years in VOA history are discussed in Chapter 10. The first, 1969, was the year of Neil Armstrong's famous walk on the moon. More people listened to this event live through VOA than any other station thanks, in part, to relay feeds of the Voice by other international broadcasters. Twenty years later, 1989, would prove the value of the VOA once again as coverage of the cascading events in Eastern Europe, highlighted with the collapse of the Berlin wall, again signified the importance of the Voice of America.

Finally, Heil examines the challenges facing the Voice of America in advancing the free flow of information around the world. He places a high priority on rebuilding the newsroom staff, which declined from 62 to 49 between 1999 and 2001, because audience research indicates that accurate, reliable news are important factors in building listenership among international broadcasters. He discusses the decline of shortwave in Europe, Japan, Australia, the Middle East and most of the Americas because of technology. Nevertheless, he strongly believes that shortwave radio "will remain dominant for some years to come in Africa and in areas of East, South and Central Asia." He calls for more money if international broadcasters are to meet the demand for news and information noting that shortwave and medium wave service will continue to be important despite other technologies such as FM, TV and Internet.

The Voice of America, A History is far from light reading. It is a very comprehensive and thorough examination of the Voice of America from humble beginnings to an organization seeking and obtaining a reasonable amount of editorial independence. The main text of the book is over 450 pages. There are four separate appendices, the VOA Journalist Code dated April 12, 1995, Key Legislation affecting VOA, Tables and Charts, and Statements by Presidents. Also, there are extensive Notes, a comprehensive Glossary of terms, a wide-ranging Bibliography and a helpful Index. The author takes us through the years with an abundance of stories about the events that shaped America's international broadcasting voice.

This recently released, in-depth history of the VOA from its founding until its sixtieth anniversary is a vivid portrait of the people who made it great, depicting a news network that has overcome enormous challenges to steadfastly and faithfully report the most important news stories of our time. Columbia University Press publishes the 540 page, hardcover Voice of America, A History. The book measures 1.40 x 9.18 x 6.34 inches and has a cover price of US$37.50 or £26.00. It is available from Amazon.com and Borders for the cover price. Barnes and Noble carries the book for US$30.00 but you need to add extra for shipping and taxes.

After reading Voice of America, A History by Alan L. Heil, Jr. the reader walks away with a better appreciation of the issues that international broadcasters face in delivering their message and the tools utilized to carry out that mission. Reaching millions of people of diverse ethnic, cultural, language and religious backgrounds is a very complex situation to deal with in any case. However, put that combination of complications into the caldron of the international stage while under a political microscope at home and you have a fascinating read. Alan Heil witnessed a lot of history during his tenure at the Voice of America and his ability to relate what he saw and experienced in this book makes for interesting reading. I can highly recommend getting a copy of Heil's Voice of America, A History. If you have an interest in the Voice of America as a station, or the shortwave broadcasting industry, you will enjoy Heil's perspective accumulated during his long international broadcasting career. This book belongs in the personal library of all international shortwave broadcasting radio enthusiasts.