Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Gene Pell on VOA’s Mission in 1983

Cold War Radio Museum; via TL

Pell image from

In 1983, Gene Pell, former Moscow correspondent for NBC News, was Voice of America’s (VOA) Deputy Associate Director for Broadcasting (Programs) under VOA Director Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. Gene Pell, had joined VOA as director of news and current affairs in 1982. He later served as VOA Director from June 1985 to October 1985 before taking the job of President of Munich-based Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL).

Former VOA Polish Service director Ted Lipien remembered Gene Pell as a journalist and VOA director who had resisted what appeared to be a subtle and indirect attempt by the State Department to discourage the service from conducting telephone interviews with Poland’s opposition figure Lech Walesa in the mid-1980s. Lipien also praised Gene Pell for providing the service with additional resources to expand its radio broadcasts and news coverage to Poland.

The service reached Walesa for the first time by phone in 1985 after the Solidarity trade union leader had been freed from detention following the communist regime’s imposition of martial law in Poland four years earlier but still remained under secret police surveillance. After the phone interview was aired, the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw raised doubts whether VOA could be certain that they were interviewing Lech Walesa. But former Polish Radio broadcaster Piotr Mroczyk who conducted the interview had been earlier one of Walesa’s advisors in Poland. There was no doubt that the person being interviewed by phone in Gdansk was the Solidarity leader. Gene Pell told the Polish Service to be careful but did not forbid conducting further phone interviews with Walesa and other opposition figures in Poland. For several years, the service broadcast such interviews almost on a daily basis and greatly expanded its audience in Poland. Piotr Mroczyk later left VOA to became director of RFE’s Polish Service.
In a statement which appeared in the 1983 VOA Handbook before he replaced Ken Tomlinson as VOA Director, Gene Pell outlined the history of the Voice of America and its goals in the 1980s.

Gene Pell – 1983


Ours was only a small Voice when it was first heard on February 24, 1942. Its first words were in German. They were contained in a short, fifteen minute broadcast that originated from a small studio in New York City. The words contained a pledge that has guided our efforts ever since — a pledge to broadcast the truth, whether the news be good or bad.

Today ours is a powerful Voice, broadcasting 150 hours of programming each day in more than forty languages. It is a Voice that reaches more than 100 million listeners each week in every region of the world. It is a Voice still dedicated to that fundamental principle — the truth.

Our role and our mandate are defined in a Charter approved by the Congress and signed into law by President Gerald Ford on July 12, 1976. That Charter requires that we: serve as a consistently reliable source of accurate, objective and comprehensive news; present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions; and, present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively along with responsible discussion and opinion on those policies.

The Voice of America was born in crisis and on numerous occasions in its history has been called upon to respond to crisis. What began in one language in 1942 has expanded to 42 languages today. What was started by a handful of dedicated individuals in New York City more than four decades ago has become a world-wide institution served by almost 2,500 professional men and women.

Our history is one of growth and creativity. In the last quarter-century alone innovations have included: establishment of global English language broadcasts; programming for Africa; the building of a worldwide contingent of VOA correspondents; construction of a huge transmitter complex in Greenville, North Carolina; and the introduction of Special English, a limited vocabulary, slow-paced delivery which has helped millions of listeners make the transition from their mother tongue to VOA standard English broadcasts.

VOA has refined and expanded its live coverage of such events as the American political conventions, the Olympics and World Cup competitions, and the United States space program. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, the British and Australian Broadcasting Corporations joined the VOA network. The combined listenership to our live broadcast that day was estimated at nearly 800 million people.

More recently we have provided our worldwide audience accurate, comprehensive and objective news accounts of the war in Vietnam, the constitutional crisis surrounding the Watergate affair, the fall of the monarchy in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the birth and subsequent crushing of the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the destruction of a Korean airliner by Soviet missiles.

These and many other events have caused us to expand our broadcast hours, add new language services, and in many instances strain our resources. It is a source of enormous pride to all of us that VOA employees rise to every such occasion. Their dedication and professionalism is readily evident in the willingness to work ten and twelve hour days, six and seven days a week; to do whatever is required to accomplish our mission.

We are now in our fifth decade of broadcasting. We face both opportunities and challenges. Much of our physical plant is outmoded and inadequate to our needs. Much of our technical equipment is antiquated. Our broadcast signal to many parts of the world is weak. Many of our services are understaffed. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this administration, from President Reagan on down, has made a firm commitment to modernize and upgrade the Voice of America. That commitment has already yielded important results. New positions have been approved and professionals are being recruited to fill them. New studios are being constructed and existing facilities will soon be renovated. New equipment is on order and more will be forthcoming. A mammoth program to upgrade our transmitter and relay sites is under way.

In those respects, the future is indeed bright, not just for those of us who serve at the Voice of America, but for those whom we serve with our broadcasts. In many parts of the world tens of millions hunger for that which we are pledged to provide — the truth.

Gene Pell

Deputy Associate Director for Broadcasting (Programs)

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