How VOA’s Communications World Started

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, for the following guest post:


Dan Robinson

How VOA’s Communications World Started

by Dan Robinson

NOTE: This exclusive is being published simultaneously with the North American Shortwave Association (NASWA) journal in its March 2022 edition.

Voice of America recently observed its 80th birthday. Readers may recall that in the mid-1980’s into the 2000s, VOA broadcast a program about communications, but which was in fact designed specifically for shortwave listeners.

Communications World as it was known owed its existence to my efforts in the late 1970’s and into the early 1980’s to persuade VOA managers to put such a program on the air, The story is told in detail here for the first time.

In a SWL career that began in the late 1960’s, I was an enthusiastic consumer of DX programs broadcast by stations at the time, from Radio Netherlands to HCJB and others. I always wondered why VOA wasn’t among them, and I was determined to make some progress on this.

First steps came in 1975 as I was attending The American University and began making contacts at VOA in downtown Washington, DC. This would become a multi-year effort to induce VOA to re-start a DX’ing program. I say “re-start” because I would later learn that VOA once had such a program, but aimed at radio amateurs.

These early efforts included at one point a meeting with the head of a major think tank on K Street in Washington. I can only imagine their reaction when two college age kids (I was accompanied by ace DX’er Taylor “Pitt” McNeil) arrived seeking help in selling a federal agency on a hobbyist show.

I never learned whether anything came from that meeting. In my final two college years, I interned with ABC News, where I observed network operations, including the evening news with Frank Reynolds, and also interned with local station WASH-FM.

By 1979, my contacts at VOA had led me to part-time work in its English to Africa, Worldwide English, and central news divisions. In 1980, I was formally sworn in as a full-time VOA news writer. My objective was to become a VOA foreign correspondent, which I would achieve in 1983. But putting VOA back on the board, so to speak, with a SWL program remained high on my priority list.

A pilot for the show needed to be produced. It needed a name. What came to mind was something containing the word communications, to have wider appeal. So, there it was: the VOA Communications Magazine.

My time in VOA’s central news operation included work on all three shifts over 24 hours. On the side, I set about putting together a script for VOA Communications Magazine – conceptualizing what elements would go into it. By 1983 – just before I departed for Nairobi as VOA’s new East Africa correspondent – we were ready to record the pilot.

The show began by recognizing World Communications Year, and a message noting that we would cover SW hobby news, international broadcasting developments, satellites and computers, news about receivers and antennas, along with letters from listeners.

WRNO New Orleans had gone on the air on shortwave. I thought that would make an interesting segment. Shortwave broadcasting had not yet started its downward slide. Stations remained on the air in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Transmitter manufacturers still had customers. New stations were coming on air.

I served as host of the Communications Magazine pilot. Bob Arnold, who was doing science reporting for VOA at the time, voiced a roundup of broadcasting news. Included were some of my personal recordings, including Voice of Kenya and Radio Mozambique.

In the news, Kenya was reported planning international broadcasting (we now know this never happened). Ghana was expanding domestic radio. The U.S. was helping Liberia expand rural radio. We noted ELBC and ELWA, and played a recording of ELWA.

Iran was installing what were expected to be the world’s most powerful transmitters. There was news from Singapore, and a recording of Radio Singapore. Malaysia planned two 500 kw transmitters. I noted existing domestic Malaysian stations, and included a recording of Radio Malaysia Sarawak.

Arnold reported on the explosion of the production, distribution and storage of information, including an interview with Wilson Dizard, then with Georgetown University.

Dipping into the mailbag I read letters and reception reports from VOA listeners in Denmark, Sweden (one of whom used a Grundig 3400 receiver), Australia (who used a Panasonic RF-2800), and Japan (who used a Kenwood R-1000).

My interview with Joseph Costello of WRNO concluded the pilot, and began with a recording I had made of a WRNO test transmission. Costello pointed to “a couple of thousand pieces of mail per month,” and surprising response from New Zealand and Australia, though WRNO’s signal was beamed northward.

Private shortwave stations were granted to reflect the culture and lifestyle of the United States, Costello said. By partially simulcasting WRNO-FM, listeners heard about life in New Orleans, with coverage of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and progress reports on Mardi Gras. WRNO was considering a morning Spanish service beamed to central and south America

Doug Flodin of Drake-Chenault discussed the purpose of KYOI. And we reported on other shortwave broadcasters preparing to go to air, including Radio Miami International, and KNLS from Alaska.

Based on my pilot for VOA Communications Magazine, VOA green lighted what would become Communications World, hosted first by Gene Reich, who later would join Worldspace, the satellite radio pioneer that filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and later by Kim Elliott.

This is the first time I have told the in depth story of how Communications World came into being, which likely never would have existed had it not been for my efforts to bring this kind of program to Voice of America. The full 1983 pilot for Communications World is available on the Internet Archive and below:

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4 thoughts on “How VOA’s Communications World Started

  1. Rich McVicar

    Great stuff, Dan! Sprinkled with wonderful recording bites. I never knew you were the one who got this off the ground. Is Pitt still around? That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.

    Reply
  2. Mark Fahey

    Wooo! This article expands my knowledge into both KYOI and Worldspace – I was an eager consumer of both!

    Just as a side comment – I have a massive amount of recorded Worldspace content on hard disks here, and it seems as if my content is one of the few if only archives of their programming. I used a BPL Diva receiver and the recordings are broadcast quality – ie exactly the quality received from the Worldspace AsiaStar satellite. Some recording were made in India where I was working at the time, others were made at my home base in Eastern Australia where I used the receiver puck antenna at the focal point of a 3 meter dish to receive the AsiaStar satellite far outside of its intended footprint.

    Worldspace’s technology became what was adopted for the later launch of XM Satellite Radio in the USA and the studio in Silver Spring MD was where number of the Worldspace channels originated from. Pioneering channel such as BOB (alternative rock) overtime morphed into what is now heard as Sirius XM’s First Wave and Lithium. Richard Blade who is heard to this day on First Wave was the main drawcard presenter on Worldspace’s BOB.

    If anyone is interested in grabbing recordings then don’t hesitate to ask me – I guess I have close to 100 hours of the various channels recorded. The recording would seem to be quite unique as none have appeared on YouTube or other places on the internet.

    On my old website Satdirectory you will find an article with photos detailing my out of footprint reception of Worldspace – I don’t think I can insert a direct URL here (?) – basically in Google type “Satdirectory Worldspace Listen Outside The Footprint” and you will find the article.

    Reply
  3. Jock Elliott

    Well done, Dan! It’s always interesting and fascinating to get the inside scoop on how things really happened.

    Cheers, Jock

    Reply

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