Voice of America cutbacks end reach across borders

Radio service becomes post-Cold War casualty

April 09, 2000|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Wojciech Minicz, Zdenek "Zenny" Sadlon and Michael Joyce are local radio reporters with huge and loyal followings, but their voices are unfamiliar to the vast majority of Chicagoans.

The three are based here with the Voice of America and have long helped broadcast stories of Chicago's diverse immigrant communities and of American political and cultural life to millions of people in Eastern Europe and Asia where the traditions of state-controlled media run deep.

In 1989, Minicz told Poles about the U.S. travels of Lech Walesa, leader of the Polish Solidarity movement, who pleaded for aid for Poland. That same year, as Chinese students stood down government troops in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Joyce covered a rally of Chinese exchange students in Grant Park and broadcast their messages of support for the protesters back home.

In 1994, Sadlon told Czechs about the visit to Chicago of their president, Vaclav Havel, the hero of the so-called Velvet Revolution that freed Czechoslovakia from Communist rule.

Their reports will soon end, a casualty of the end of the Cold War and the subsequent shift in focus of U.S. foreign policy. Though the three have a combined 45 years' experience with VOA, they are scheduled to lose their jobs Aug. 31 under a wide-scale restructuring of the government-funded radio service that has long broadcast America's story to the world.

In all, about 51 positions are expected to be cut, as VOA, which broadcasts in English and native languages, plans to reduce broadcasts to many former Soviet bloc nations including Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania. There also will be reductions in Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese, Croatian and Albanian language broadcasts.

Some of those service cuts will begin this weekend.

The cuts come as the VOA refocuses coverage on new global hot spots, such as Colombia, East Timor, Indonesia and parts of Africa. There also will be additional resources channeled into the Internet and other new media.

"In a time of limited resources, we can't keep broadcasting an unlimited amount to an unlimited number of places," said VOA chief Sanford Ungar.

When the cuts were announced last month, the agency's board of governors said savings would be used "where U.S. international broadcasting can have the greatest impact and where democracy is either fragile or nonexistent."

The reductions made the front page of Chicago's daily Polish newspaper, and opponents of the cuts have posted their comments on the Internet.

When Minicz, Sadlon and Joyce leave the VOA, the agency's Midwest bureau here will be left with one reporter.

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