Barry Zorthian, 1920-2010

Tuesday, January 4th 2011

Since he passed away December 30, much has been written in tribute to Barry Zorthian’s stellar role as the chief U.S. diplomatic and military spokesman in Saigon in the mid-1960s. Much less heralded: his legendary and still significant contributions to U.S. civilian overseas broadcasting and public diplomacy generally.

Barry was a giant in the field. He was a key mover and shaker as program director and news director of VOA in the 1950s and early 1960s --- the decade of the Voice’s great renaissance following the McCarthy hearings. He was among the co-authors of the VOA Charter, which persists to this day as the navigational North Star, program-wise, of all our overseas broadcasts. The Charter (Public Law 94-350 and 103-415) is reflected, nearly verbatim, in the principles set out in law for the content of all the networks: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Middle East Broadcast Networks (MBN, Alhurra and Radio Sawa), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti), as well as the Voice.

In his heyday as VOA program director, Zorthian, the hard driving dynamo, was a famed multi-tasker. He dictated directives while on the phone and was often seen taking home a briefcase overflowing with wire copy at the end of his workday. He was known fondly in his prime as El Zorro. Among the most significant programming initiatives during his tenure: the creation of Press Conference USA and Issues in the News, weekend Voice panel programs with prominent American guests and journalists whose views have been heard by millions. These are the longest running radio programs ever, still on the air more than a half century later. The scope of Zorthian’s programming initiatives was awe-inspiring: there was American Theater of the Air, featuring radio dramas with acting talent such as Frederic March, Florence Eldridge and Rod Steiger. There was Forum: A Meeting of the Minds, radio talks by American thinkers and scientists made into booklets that were still being requested decades after the program ceased. And there was the creation in 1959 of VOA Special English, the slow paced limited vocabulary delivery that continues to this day. Over the years it has inspired millions --- including cadets at the Beijing Military Institute (China’s West Point)to advance their knowledge of the world’s principal language of diplomacy, commerce and the Internet while learning a lot about America and life in America, as well.

In his later years, Zorthian continued to be a significant force in U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. From 1990 to 1994, he was a member of the oversight body for RFE/RL, the Board for International Broadcasting. In the late 90s, he became president of the Public Diplomacy Foundation (predecessor of the Public Diplomacy Council) and served four years in that role before occupying a seat on the Council’s Board much of this past decade. Throughout, Barry’s savvy and quick wit kept spirits high among public diplomacy advocates during the depressing years after the 1999 abolition of the United States Information Agency.

In testimony last August before the recently reformed Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees all the networks, Zorthian continued to be an eloquent advocate of the wise use of all U.S.-funded networks in markets as appropriate (shortwave radio, FM relays, television, and websites as well as social media). While recognizing that times are tight fiscally and the demands of new media are changing with lightning speed, Zorthian urged a revival of VOA’s Worldwide English transmissions that have been severely cut since 2002.

Barry, the consummate international broadcast journalist and senior foreign service officer, remained loyal, to the end,.to a principle that encompassed his service in both roles. “If you have faith in the American concept and position,” he once said, “then you’ve got to believe that an objective picture serves the U.S. interest, simply because it is believable and portrays U.S. and world developments in balance. Tell it like it is,” this brilliant articulator of U.S. interests often counseled. In today’s digital world of many millions of one-on-one and one-to-many conversations, the Zorthian philosophy is as relevant as it was in 1948 when he covered the dark days of the Korean war as one of VOA’s first overseas correspondents. Well done, good and honest friend--- servant of publics the world over and bright beacon of truth.

Alan L. Heil Jr.

Board member

Summary: As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 125 million people in 44 languages.

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Author: Alan Heil

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