Ed Gursky, Operations Manager, VOA Music Mix, Washington, D.C.
By Jerry Vigil
The Voice of America is a government funded, international multimedia broadcasting service with a weekly audience of some 94 million people around the world. VOA broadcasts over 1000 hours of news, informational, educational, and cultural programs every week from its facility in Washington, D.C. The VOA employs more than 1200 people in the U.S. and overseas. One of those individuals is Ed Gursky, the Operations Manager for VOA Music Mix. Ed’s intriguing career has included programming, on-air, and production gigs at WKTQ and WWSW in Pittsburgh, and WPGC in Washington, D.C. as well as a stint with the FCC! This month, Ed sheds some light on that understated broadcasting monster known as the Voice of America.
JV: Didn’t the Voice of America start as a shortwave radio service, mainly as a source for news for people overseas during World War II? Give us a little history lesson and tell us what the VOA is up to these days.
Ed: Yes, that’s basically how it started. And I think it’s very interesting that you’re talking to me today when the big news story is the Marines in the Central Plaza in Baghdad where the people have just toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein. VOA has had this tradition of being a part of these sorts of events throughout history, whether it was our reporting of the gentleman standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall, things like that.
VOA was basically started in 1942 as a way to counter the disinformation that was being put forth by the propaganda machines in Japan and Germany and then later during the Cold War years, the propaganda that was put out by Radio Moscow and other arms of the Soviet Block. One of the big problems I think VOA has, especially nowadays, is there are just too many people in America who don’t know what it is. It has a very limited American constituency despite the job that it does of telling America’s story to the world.
JV: In the information you sent, it says that the VOA can’t be broadcast in the U.S., which probably doesn’t help with the constituency. Why can’t it be broadcast here?
Ed: It was part of an Act of Congress back in 1948 called the Smith-Mundt Act, which basically prohibited VOA from disseminating its programs in the United States. Then there was concern that we didn’t want it to be used as a disinformation arm, the way that some of the other international broadcasts around the world, especially those from enemies and opponents of the United States, were being used. That and the fact that the U.S. has its own free press that is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
JV: What is the VOA doing today?
Ed: At last count VOA was broadcasting not only worldwide in English but also in 53 or 54 other languages, although some of those are on the air as little as maybe an hour or a half-hour a day.
For years the delivery method for VOA programming was shortwave, and to a lesser extent medium wave, or what we call in the USA, “AM.” But as times have changed, technology has changed. We now have affiliates in many of these countries. We’re heard on FM. We’re also heard on direct satellite, and some of our programs are also streamed on-line on the Internet.
JV: So those of us in the U.S. actually can hear VOA, but only on the Internet.
Ed: Actually, people who have a shortwave radio can also hear VOA programs in the USA. We have a couple of big monster transmitting sites we call relay stations down in Greenville, North Carolina, some others on the west coast, and others overseas as well.
JV: Tell us how VOA Music Mix came to be.
Ed: In the mid-1980s, when VOA was under a government agency called the U.S. Information Agency, they did a research study in Western Europe. Now keep in mind that VOA shortwave broadcasts to Europe were ended in the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s, but they found among what they called the successor generation, or what we would refer to as “baby boomers,” those who were born after World War II, that there was very little knowledge of what the USA did to help rebuild Europe after World War II through the Marshall Plan and other things. And this extensive study also found that one of the best ways to talk to the Western Europeans of the successor generation about America was by basically putting on a program stream that greatly resembled a US radio station. The service was called VOA Europe, and it operated through a combination of VOA transmitters, local affiliates, and cable radio, which was very big in Europe and has been, going back to the time they signed on. And VOA Europe continued to expand into Africa and other parts of the world until the mid-1990s when Vice President Gore and his re-inventing government made the determination that there was no longer a need for VOA to broadcast to Western Europe. The funds were cut off and there were several efforts to privatize VOA Europe, but none of those succeeded.
So what was VOA Europe went away. And most of the employees were actually government contractors; they weren’t government staff. At the same time we still had a significant number of affiliate stations outside of Western Europe that were kind of depending on VOA for programming at certain parts of their day and weekends and stuff like that; and we didn’t want to let them go. So for roughly about two years we basically maintained a music stream, which was a hybrid Top 40/Hot AC format with minimal information and an hourly newscast. But at least it maintained the VOA presence.
Then in 1998 the current executive administration here at VOA made the decision to take the English shortwave broadcasts and our affiliate broadcasts over the satellite network and make it all news all the time, 24/7. And that was the birth of what is today called VOA News Now. Their website address is www.VOAnews.com.
But we have what we call a VOA Charter. It’s an Act of Congress. It basically has three platforms. One, that our news be objective and truthful; two, that we tell all parts of American culture; and three, that our broadcast include the official policy of the United States. Well there was some concern that if they took music off altogether, we would not be complying with the charter. So VOA Music Mix was born, which basically is a 24-hour a day 7 day a week satellite network that again is a hybrid mainstream CHR/Hot AC format. We have personalities on the air. For the lack of a better term, I would call it Casey Kasem radio because the content is very heavy on artists and lifestyle and entertainment information—far more than what you would hear on an American commercial station. And currently we have more than 150 affiliates in almost fifty countries.
JV: Is this also something that’s not permitted to be broadcast in the U.S.?
Ed: That’s correct. Although, again, we do stream on the Internet at www.VOAmusicmix.net.
JV: The facility you work in houses forty radio studios for VOA. Why so many? Is this to handle all the different language broadcasts and such?
Ed: That’s correct. There’s an old story at VOA where we’d say we used to chase the sun. Because of propagation and other technical matters, many of these foreign language broadcasts would be on in the morning, what we call a “breakfast show,” and then again later on in the day after everybody has come home and had dinner and then again later in the evening. And when you have 53 services—and I don’t know what the maximum number we have on the air at any one given time—there can be quite a demand for studios.
The VOA headquarters building here in Washington is directly across the street from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and maybe two blocks diagonally down Capitol Hill from the U.S. Capitol Building. The building itself covers a city block and it’s just fascinating. You can walk from one end of the building to the other and quite possibly hear conversations in a half a dozen different languages along the way.
JV: Are the studios all pretty much identical?
Ed: We have what we call a core area of nineteen studios, sort of in a horseshoe shape on one side of the building, and those were basically all designed the same. VOA originally was located in New York, but because of the goings on of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s it was relocated to Washington. We took over a building which actually had been constructed in the late 1930s as part of one of the Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies. These studios were first built then were upgraded, many of them in the 1960s and then again in the late 1980s. And there are now plans being drawn up to renovate them again to bring them into the digital age.
Right now we’re in the process of moving from what was one of the first digital studios in Washington — put together by the folks at VOA Europe in 1993, which operates off an RCS Master Control system — into two new digital studios, which will include RCS Master Control version fifteen. We’re about ready to launch that in the next few weeks. Our house-wide audio distribution system is Dalet, which we also do editing on and then transfer it over to RCS. But for our music network programming we rely solely on RCS.
JV: What does your job entail?
Ed: I oversee the music network, and in this age of consolidation there’s not much I don’t do. I serve as the Program Director, the Operation’s Manager, the Production Director, which also includes imaging, and Music Director, scheduling the music. I also host a weekly 60-minute classic rock show, which is broadcast both on our network and VOA News Now, and I also served as script editor and probably a bunch of other things as I put out fires here and there. The job gets a lot of hats, but it’s also very rewarding at the end of the day to look back and see everything you’ve done.
JV: How many people work under you?
Ed: The Music Mix staff is actually a total, including myself, of five people. We do have another three or four feature writers and program hosts that are part of the music programs branch, and VOA sort of fits in the hierarchy that way.
JV: You’re also the voice on a lot of the imaging, is that correct?
Ed: Correct. I’ve been doing that since about 1995.
JV: How did you get started in radio?
Ed: After college, back in 1968, I got my first class license and wound up replacing an automation system that handled the all night show and the top forty station here in Washington. And to show you how full circle it’s gone, here we are today using digital automation and voice tracking. Although basically our reason for using it is it provides us with a 24/7 stream with only three staff announcers.
JV: How did you get into VOA?
Ed: In 1977 I was working in Pittsburgh, programming a station up there. I had made the usual radio knock-around — a year here, eighteen months there, a couple years there, so on and so forth. Basically I got tired of living and dying by Arbitron results. Quite often there were factors beyond my control. I was at the third Radio & Records Convention in 1977 in Dallas, Texas, and I attended one of the sessions that was sort of a forum and debate between communications attorney Jason Shrinsky and Arthur L. Ginsburg, who at that point in time was the Deputy Chief of the FCC’s Complaints and Compliance Division. And I noticed a disconnect in that legal people couldn’t understand what the radio professionals were talking about and vice versa, but I could. And in a way I kind of wanted to get back to Washington, my home town.
So after the session was over I approached him and said, “Look, I’m not an attorney. I’m not a degreed engineer. But I have these years of experience in radio, and I understand what’s going on here. Would there be anything I could do at the Commission for you?” And he kind of looked at me and said, “Well of course! You know how radio stations cheat.” The whole process took about a year and a half, but I was finally able to go to work for the FCC and return to Washington in 1979.
Another little bit of history. In 1972 RKO General was going to take its AM classical station here, WGMS, and make it Top Forty, like most of its other owned stations at the time. At the time, I was finishing up college and I applied. Paul Drew was going to be the Program Director, and he hired me to be the Music Director. Well, the thing about living in Washington is that, regardless of where you’re from, your congressman or your senator is only a phone call or fax away. Now keep in mind that it was 1972. FM penetration wasn’t that big yet, and these people here in Washington were just incensed that this company was going to take classical music off of AM radio. And one of the reasons that RKO wanted to do it was they wanted to comply with the non-simulcast rules that the Commission had in place. Well, at the same time, because of some problems with RKO’s parent company, General Tire & Rubber, RKO had a couple of TV stations whose renewals were in Administration Hearing before the FCC for possible revocation, and the last thing they wanted was more problems. So the FCC made them a unique deal, like if you apply for a waiver of the simulcast rule, we’ll give it to you. And RKO said, “Done.” So after about four weeks the format was aborted and I went and finished college.
Now we jump forward to the mid-80s. I’d been at the FCC for about five and a half years and I get a call from Paul Drew. He and I kept in touch over the years. He’d been approached by the Reagan Administration to be the Director of Radio Marti, which was the government’s radio service targeted to Cuba, and he needed someone who knew radio and knew the government. So I left the FCC and came over to Radio Marti. And after it got on the air and subsequently Paul went back to California, I came over to VOA, which was really nice because that gave me the opportunity to be involved day in and day out with radio and have the security of a government job, something I think a lot of people can relate to and envy today. I can’t tell you how many people, when I went to work for the FCC in 1979, said, “What are you doing that for?” Now they call and say, “Are there any jobs down there?”
JV: What’s a typical day like for you?
Ed: Never the same. It basically depends on the day of the week. And because I never know what sort of surprises are going to come up, it is a constant battle to try to look ahead and work ahead a bit. But I always try and make sure that the first thing I get out of the way is the music log so our staff can go ahead and do the voice-tracking. And it’s not just a matter of these two guys and one lady taking a voice track log, going into the studio and sitting down before the microphone. A couple basically script their shows, and there’s a lot of research that goes into that, looking at various websites and artists sites and that sort of thing, to provide the information that we include in the content breaks. So I try to get the logs done early for them.
Today being Wednesday, I’ve got the advance charts for R&R for next week, and I’ll plot out my music categories, what I want to add, maybe think about my music promo we put on the air each week. Towards the end of the week, I’ll start production on the classic rock show that we do. In addition to our shows being broadcast on Music Mix, they’re also broadcast on News Now, and that requires some file shuffling to their system. That’s just the basic stuff. That doesn’t include the administrative stuff or the time I have to spend dealing with people who are helping us get these new studios built.
JV: You have a unique position as a radio programmer with no competition. I mean, you’re not trying to beat anybody, right?
Ed: Correct. One of things we take pride in is that we live in an Arbitron free zone. That doesn’t mean that we just air everything that comes in. We’re working from a current list of 26-29 records, depending on how many songs we have in our new music category. And some of our songs go back into the 1980s. It probably could best be described as a throwback to the classic Top Forty of the ‘60s and maybe early ‘70s. Any given hour you could hear 50 Cent, Leanne Rhymes, Creed. We do things that an American commercial broadcaster today would have a heart attack over, because we’re looking at an international market that has a fascination about things American, number one. Number two, most of them are speaking English as a second language, and number three, good radio in terms of tight production and presentation are something that could be literally quite foreign in many of these countries.
JV: How would you describe the style of imaging you use.
Ed: Well we make it very straightforward. There are things that commercial broadcasters do that we can’t. For example, I can’t drop in a quip of Jay Leno or David Letterman or something from a top movie because that doesn’t necessarily translate to an overseas audience.
My feeling about imaging has always been that if it’s well written and well presented in terms of sound then you’re message is going to get across. I think one of the problems today is that too much of what is passed off for imaging is basically gratuitous. Some of the work I admire, from folks I worked with or have heard here in the Washington market, seems to use the good writing and the straightforward sort of presentation. Sure, we’ll use some laser zaps and some drones and stuff like that, but we won’t go overboard on it. We won’t over process the voices, although for a while, when I was doing a jock show on Music Mix, I did run the imaging stuff through a flanger just to make it sound like it was a little bit different voice. That the sort of thing you do when you have a limited number of players on the bench.
JV: Things are pretty hot in the Middle East these days. Does VOA have a presence there also?
Ed: Actually, we have what we call the Middle East Radio Network. VOA is now a part of the International Broadcasting Bureau and that is overseen by a presidentially appointed board of governors; and for the past two years or so Norman Pattiz, chairman of Westwood One, has been one of the governors. This pre-dates 911, but while he was in the Middle East he noted the lack of a VOA signal in Arabic over there. He decided that the area was important and that VOA should have a presence in that area and designed what he called the Middle East Radio Network, which is a combination of satellite broadcasts, Internet broadcasts, and leased transmitters throughout the Middle East that would carry programming. They have two networks on the air now. One is Radio Sawa in Arabic. Sawa is Arabic for “together.” And for the Iranian audience they have Radio Farda, and I think that means “radio tomorrow.” They’re both designed through a combination of western pop and either Arabic or Iranian music with a heavy-duty dose of news and information to get the American side in there. I think it’s been a worthwhile piece of revitalization.
JV: You work in perhaps the most multi-lingual radio facility in the world. Have you managed to pick up a few foreign words along the way?
Ed: For a while I was Chief of the Program Review Unit, which is sort of like a heavy duty critiquing staff where we would take one service a week and basically look at its logs. Was it up to date with its stories? How was its production? We’d bring in an outside foreign language expert. Was their language current? That sort of thing. From the production angle I would listen to several hours a week of their broadcast, and quite often you’ll pick up some things. I think one of them in Hindi was something like – Yeh, Voice of America, hai, which is “This is the Voice of America.” So yeah, you can pick up some things. Our Creole service had a program they did once a week where the headlines of the week were set to a Creole version of rap. And one of our Asian services used a native form of storytelling called the Mohlam, these songs that kind of told stories. So there are all sorts of these neat cultural things that you get to see.
JV: What’s the most fun part of the job for you?
Ed: There are so many. I think it’s when I have the chance to sit back and listen to what we’re doing; you kind of listen to it from an audience point of view and you say to yourself, “You know, that sounds pretty good.” Quite often it’s like the doctor being so close to the patient that it’s only after the recovery that the doctor says, “Oh, that worked out okay.”