Comments on VOA Broadcasting History
Comment by Jim Fearing:
Walter Roberts article, “The Voice of America-Origins and Recollections II” recounts new information surrounding the February 1942 beginnings of the New York phase of U.S. international broadcasting.
One missing piece is the role of The Crosley Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Of the national engineering and broadcasting concerns like RCA, GE, Westinghouse and CBS; Crosley was the only one with experience in high power broadcasting, having operated its flagship station, WLW, at one million watts since the 1930’s. WLW was the largest commercial station that ever existed in the United States to this day.
In May of 1940, Crosley inaugurated broadcasts from a shortwave station with the call letters of WLWO. WLWO was licensed as a commercial short wave station to broadcast into South America in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. But WLWO had some unusual characteristics that made its true nature something different than commercial radio. It had a 75,000-watt transmitter, 50 percent above its licensed limit and the largest shortwave transmitter operating in the nation at the time…
At the National VOA Museum of Broadcasting* in Cincinnati, we have seen postcards from happy listeners from South America. However, WLWO also received postcards from Portugal as early as the end of 1940 and Switzerland in November 1941, reinforcing (the notion) that WLWO had a series of antenna trained on Europe from 1940 on. (T) here are also postcards from England in early 1941.
(T) he most interesting feature of WLWO was that it had no advertising staff at all. This fact was confirmed in an interview with former Crosley staffer Blanche Underwood... Yet WLWO carried advertising.
Robert Pirsein’s Ph.D. dissertation, also referenced by Mr. Roberts, recounts how the financing of stations like WLWO worked. Money came from Nelson Rockefeller’s CIAA (Office of the Co-coordinator of Inter-American Affairs). Money also came via President Roosevelt. In meetings with heads of industry, FDR would suggest to them that as a part of their contribution to the coming war effort they should buy advertising on WLWO and the other stations also involved. So WLWO broadcast advertisements for domestic American products. The post cards from listeners in Europe and South America talk about the advertisements, and note that the products are not sold in the countries the broadcasts were heard in. By August 1941 money also came from the COI, forerunner of the OSS. WLWO’s employees were instructed to tell people, if asked, that they worked at WLW, period. The ‘O’ was never admitted to in public. WLWO’s commercial status was a cover story; it was entirely supported by the U.S. government, one way or another.
To answer the question about who made the first broadcast of the Voice of America, one might begin by defining what the Voice of America was in 1942. The answer usually given is that the Voice of America was the informal name of the radio operation of the Office of War Information Overseas Branch (OWIOB), located in New York. However, Executive Order 9182 established the Office of War Information on June 13, 1942. So up until June 13, 1942, what was the Voice of America? If we take the June 13, 1942 date as the formal beginning of the OWIOB, but we know broadcasts were made before that, when did the broadcasts begin? Researching that turns up conflicting citations; some of which may be intentional disinformation due to the needs of fighting a war and dealing with a sometimes-hostile Congress. However, most citations note that the CIAA and the COI began broadcasting in 1941. Evidence in Cincinnati demonstrates clearly the broadcasts in Spanish, Portuguese, and English began in 1940 via WLWO. At some point the CIAA and the COI began using intelligence supplied by the British Security Coordination (a division of MI6 located in New York City), and WLWO also began to broadcast in German, French and Italian. Again, those languages were broadcast from Cincinnati via WLWO on fixed antenna built specifically to cover Europe beginning in August of 1941.
Another missing piece in the article is the role of VOA broadcaster Robert Bauer. The only German language writer and broadcaster WLWO ever had was Bauer. He began broadcasting into Germany from Cincinnati in August 1941. By the time the Office of War Information was established, he had already been broadcasting on behalf of the United States into Germany for eleven months, six of which were from Cincinnati. So the notion of who made the first VOA broadcast into Germany on behalf of the United States would seem to be answered: it was Robert Bauer, and he made that broadcast from Cincinnati in August of 1941.
Mr. Fearing is principal with Fearing and Hagenauer Architects, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio and a former president of the West Chester Twp. (Ohio) Historical Society.
The objective of my article was to clarify the birth date of the Voice of America (VOA) in view of newly found documents in the National Archives and of recently discovered VOA recordings in the Library of Congress. We now know that the U.S. Government, at the highest level, decided after Pearl Harbor that it would undertake broadcasting internationally. The United States agency in charge was the Coordinator of Information (COI) and the COI’s Foreign Information Service (FIS) initiated, on February 1, 1942, broadcasts in German, French and Italian. Since the U. S. Government did not own short-wave transmitters, the broadcasts were transmitted by radiotelephone to London and relayed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). These broadcasts were introduced as Voice of America, a term coined by Robert Sherwood. Head of FIS, in January 1942.
Commercial companies, such as NBC, Westinghouse, General Electric, Crosley and others owned shortwave transmitters. Indeed, several of these companies started as early as the nineteen thirties to broadcast in foreign languages. In 1938, NBC, Westinghouse and General Electric pooled their resources and established two networks – one for Europe and one for Latin America. The “RCA Review” of July 1938 cites NBC’s outlet in Bound Brook, N.J.(W3XL) as relaying five daily broadcasts in German and lists the air times of these transmissions. According to Mr. Fearing’s letter, the Crosley Corporation inaugurated its short-wave transmitter (WLWO) in 1940 and added German broadcasts in 1941, three years after NBC, Westinghouse and GE had coordinated their German and other foreign language broadcasts.
When, in February 1942, VOA needed to supplement its BBC relay transmissions with direct short-wave broadcasts, it had to lease privately owned transmitters to relay the New York produced programs. Crosley not only had the most powerful American short-wave transmitter in Bethany, Ohio, but its owner Powel Crosley, Jr. was a very cooperative lease negotiator. By the end of 1942 all American short-wave transmitters were leased to the US Government as a wartime measure. As mentioned in my previous article in American Diplomacy on the Voice of America **, VOA built one of its own transmitters (200kw) in Bethany where the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting is located.