The Office of War Information's Radio Operations Overseas
|Office of War Information poster illustrated by Fred Little Packer (source)|
Beamed to Europe: OWI's Propaganda Paves the Way for Military Advances
Only slightly less important than military preparation for the invasion of Europe was the paving of the way by the Office of War Information overseas propaganda. Of all the OWI's branches, its Atlantic Operations Radio Bureau has the most direct contact with the peoples and the governments of enemy and occupied Europe. With the military now actually on its way in, the effectiveness—or the ineffectiveness—of the radio propaganda during the past two years will become increasingly evident. Its worth is, unfortunately, a good deal harder to measure than that of a military operation.
Operations: The OWI Atlantic radio barrage has now reached the staggering proportions of 2,600 short-wave shows a week; including repeats and duplications, the actual transmissions are up to 6,000 a week. These broadcasts, ranging in length from fifteen minutes to half an hour, keep most of the eighteen Atlantic short-wave transmitters running full blast 24 hours a day. Part of the time is devoted to entertainment for the overseas armed forces, but the majority of programs are beamed to Europe itself.
Maintaining this schedule in two dozen languages requires an operational staff of some 500 announcers, writers, translators, producers, and clerks, who more than fill three floors of the New York OWI office building. Now heading the staff (chief of the Radio Program Bureau for Atlantic Operations) is Lou Cowan, a former publicity man and radio producer from Chicago, who confesses to a prewar responsibility for, among other things, having started the Quiz Kids on their way.
In addition to the short-wave programs, the OWI overseas radio branch is now building a vast standard-wave network of local stations in friendly foreign countries. This operation is best illustrated by a huge chart which now covers a wall in Cowan's office. Across the top are names of 25 OWI "outposts," including Sweden, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Under the names of the countries are such categories as the number of languages spoken, names of stations available, equipment, time obtained, shows produced, etc. Egypt, for example, has eight languages, six stations, and uses both 33 and 78 rpm phonograph turntables.
Programs are now being built, recorded, and shipped overseas as fast as time can be cleared with the foreign stations. Although the shows are designed for consumption in the neutral country itself, some, near the frontiers of Europe, are heard by the enemy as well. A typical recorded series now going to several countries is Symphony Orchestras of America which, besides music, includes descriptions in various languages of the cities in which the orchestras are located. Another is a series entitled Meet America, which is being sent to Radiotjänst, the Swedish government-operated network of eight stations.
Policy: Elmer Davis, the director of War Information, made his over-all propaganda policy clear when he took office: The best propaganda is the truth. Thus the great majority of OWI overseas programs are straight newscasts, only slightly slanted in subject matter to fit the country at which they are aimed, and occasionally interspersed with comment explaining the significance of the news. The typical newscast is fifteen minutes long. It is introduced by a brisk band chorus of "Yankee Doodle" and is identified as "The Voice of America" (the OWI is never mentioned).
Criticism of United States propaganda has ranged from charges that it is silly, such as the "moronic little king" case, to claims that it lacks imagination and virility. It is only fair to point out, however, that the OWI operational branch itself is not allowed to commit itself on any important subject without instructions from either the policy-making Overseas Planning Board in Washington or the government department involved. William L. Shirer, one of the leading critics of United States propaganda, wrote on Sept. 5: "There is no use kidding ourselves . . . Our propaganda in the Western World . . . is not getting any place. This is not the fault of the OWI. It is the fault of the American Government." In the same article he pointed out that for 24 hours after Rome was declared an open city, the OWI failed to mention the fact because it had no directive from above telling them what attitude to take.
Results: Much of the sniping in Congress and elsewhere against the OWI overseas radio branch is based on the claim that there is no certainty that the programs are listened to in Europe. To refute this, the Atlantic operations office offers such evidence as a recent protest from the newspaper Porunca Vremii, in Nazi-occupied Rumania, against "individuals who from morning to evening listen to enemy broadcasts . . . Unfortunately, those harmful individuals are not only out to satisfy their morbid curiosity. From one coffee house to another they spread their 'news,' thus undermining morale." Later in the article an OWI broadcaster is mentioned by name. And last week, Morse messages on the progress of General Mikhailovich's troops from station YTG, "in the free mountains of Yugoslavia," were being received by Press Wireless, carefully addressed to "the Voice of America"—in care of the stations which the OWI uses in both New York and Boston.