The U.S. government set up Voice of America in 1942. On its first day, news was beamed into Nazi-controlled lands, christened with these words:
"Our voices are coming to you from New York, across the Atlantic Ocean to London — from where they are relayed to you in Germany."
Since then, the VOA has continued to cover the news, warts and all — including the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the impeachment of President Clinton — for listeners across the globe.
But big changes may be in store. The White House wants to boost VOA's satellite television programming to Iran, Afghanistan and Venezuela. But it would come with a cost.
The budget proposed by the Bush administration would eliminate almost all English-language shortwave radio broadcasts. The proposal would also cut broadcasts in Greek, Turkish, Thai, Hindi and several other languages. English-language broadcasts to Africa would not be affected, nor would a limited, simplified service for listeners in some regions who do not have a strong command of English.
Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the presidentially appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors, says English-language radio service has fallen victim to shrinking listenership for shortwave broadcasts at a time when dollars are tight.
Tomlinson and the board oversee the VOA and other international broadcasters owned by the U.S. government.
"There's no question the post-Katrina budget has forced us to take steps that we're not thrilled about having to take,” Tomlinson says.
Yet the administration would actually increase overall spending on the VOA. With Tomlinson's guidance, VOA intends to create new satellite TV shows in trouble spots such as Afghanistan, Iran and Venezuela.
"It is simply a matter of priorities," Tomlinson says. "If you have to choose between broadcasting in English to Iran or Persian to Iran, you go Persian. You go with the native language."
The president's budget is not cast in stone. Congress often amends it. Aides to key lawmakers say they have not yet focused on spending levels for the VOA.
NPR interviewed a half-dozen veterans of Voice of America for this story. They say the English-language newsroom is the core of the broadcaster's news service.
Dan Robinson has worked for Voice of America for 27 years and is now its congressional correspondent. And he says the symbolism of eliminating English is devastating.
"This is the language of the world," Robinson says. "For VOA to do away with that — for the board to make a decision like that — is just unthinkable," Robinson says.
Robinson says part of VOA's heritage is its ability to broadcast straight news, not propaganda.
"The Voice of America has provided a valuable service — and a journalistic service reflecting the standards of American journalism to the world," Robinson says.
These aren't the first cuts at the agency. VOA's Arab language services were replaced several years ago by Al Hurra television and Radio Sawa. They are owned by the government, but aren't part of the VOA.
Last year, some critics contended VOA's leadership was putting pressure on its journalists to reflect favorably on the Bush administration — a claim VOA rejected.
Sandy Ungar was the director of the Voice of America from 1999 to 2001. He says the proposed cuts are part of a shift away from a perspective that values objective journalism.
"The broadcasting board of governors and the Bush administration are eliminating the heart and soul of the Voice of America," Ungar says. "It would be better if they would just say that they intend to destroy the Voice of America, and be honest about it."
Ungar points to other international broadcasters — and governments — that are increasing English-language news programming.
"It is as if to say that we as a country and as a political culture prefer that people around the world not get their news from the United States in English," Ungar says. "We prefer they get it from Al-Jazeera, China, Russia, France, Australia — all sorts of people who are broadcasting in English."
NPR asked Voice of America Director David Jackson for interviews several times, but he declined to comment.
But his boss, Kenneth Tomlinson, says the VOA is belatedly embracing new technology.
“At Voice of America, we’re going to look at expanding our satellite television broadcasting,” says Tomlinson, the board chairman. “Satellite television is to the future what shortwave is to the past. And, we also plan to focus on the Internet because again, this is the future.”