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Author defends importance of publicly funded Voice of America

December 17, 2003|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Nazi Germany used radio to broadcast its propaganda up to and through World War II. In reaction, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a U.S. counterpart that would reach deep into the Axis-held countries.

The Voice of America was launched Feb. 24, 1942, just 79 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On that day, Voice of America announcer William Harlan Hale, speaking in German, told the inaugural audience, "The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth."

Today, nearly 62 years later, Voice of America reaches more than 90 million listeners in more than 50 languages, but is not broadcast in the United States.

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Just about anything anyone wants to know about the Voice of America can be found in "Voice of America - A History," by Alan L. Heil Jr.

Heil was in town Tuesday night to promote his book and to address about 65 members of the Antietam Radio Association at its annual Christmas and awards banquet at the Mountain Gate Family Restaurant.

Heil retired as deputy director of Voice of America in 1998 after 36 years with the network. He started as a reporter trainee and worked his way up including a stint as a Middle East correspondent and later chief of the network's New York bureau.

"It's the nation's largest publicly funded, international broadcasting network," Heil said. Voice of America has more than 1,000 employees, including 23 reporters covering news overseas and a similar number covering news in the United States. It also has hundreds of correspondents around the world. It broadcasts through 1,500 stations, he said.

"This year, Congress appropriated $168 million for Voice of America," he said.

The network's headquarters are in Washington, D.C. Heil lives in Mount Vernon, Va.

"Because of the marketplace of ideas in the world today, Voice of America is needed more now than anytime in its history," he said.

"The Islamic world has a need for information on how democracy works, the struggle against terrorism and the danger of nuclear proliferation," he said. "It's necessary for the United States to have a publicly supported voice."

Heil said Voice of America is aimed at a different audience, one that doesn't understand the context or background of the news as Americans do.

He answers critics who say Voice of America broadcasts propaganda by telling how its correspondents reported the capture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Within hours of his capture, Voice of America reporters were on the scene interviewing Iraqi citizens on how they felt about the incident. Some were glad he was caught, others were angry. Voice of America reported their comments as told, without opinion, Heil said.

Heil's book came out in July. So far, he said, he's sold about 1,600 copies.

The Antietam Radio Association has about 85 members from the Tri-State area, said Herman Niedzielski, its president.

It was founded in 1952 by a group of local ham radio operators who wanted to exchange ideas and build their own transmitters. The members meet twice a month.

Hams, as they call themselves, can be spotted by the tall radio antennas that rise from their vehicles. The parking lot of the Mountain Gate restaurant bristled with them Tuesday night.

Members have their own radio call signs and communicate with each other around the world. There are an estimated 1.2 million hobbyists worldwide.

Niedzielski said club members get involved in civic activities and serve during local natural disasters. They set up their equipment to assist local emergency services units during Tropical Storm Isabel. They can be found helping out with communications with major events like the JFK 50-Mile Ultramarathon in Washington County in November, he said.

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