My esteemed colleague and friend Gene Pell was well known in his primary profession, international broadcasting, to a world often denied high quality, objective news and information. Gene died on April 7 after a three-year battle with cancer at his home near Syria, Virginia. He was 83.
Gene is the only leader to have occupied over the years the top positions at both the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The Pell era as a chief executive of the two networks was from April to October 1985 at the Voice and from October 1985 to October 1993 at RFE/RL.
Mr. Pell took obvious pride in both roles, as VOA director after serving as its Chief of News and Current Affairs, and as President of RFE/RL as both networks prepared to enter the age of multimedia (television and on-line media in addition to radio).
In an op-ed piece written a year before his retirement from RFE/RL and three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall signaling the end of the Cold War, Mr. Pell wrote:
“VOA and RFE/RL have evolved from their ideological origins into positive forces in moderate and objective fashion, but project and exemplify the very democratic values that nations of the East are now trying desperately to trying to absorb and institutionalize.
“From the Baltic to the Balkans, from the Danube to Vladivostok, both radios are viewed by listeners as complementary forms of direct American aid for democracy, aid that reaches more people directly than any other form of moral support we can give these emerging democracies at this critical time in their history.”
Gene Pell’s prophecy remains true today. Both networks still serve a curious world, RFE/RL in 26 languages and VOA in 47. Together, they reach well over 300 million multimedia users each week, and have collaborated on an around the clock program stream in many languages called Current Time, co-produced around the clock with content from both networks.
Broadcast journalism a lifelong commitment
Mr. Pell’s official obituary cites his early fascination with broadcasting “with a wonderful, commanding baritone voice he developed when he was 13 years old.” A 1959 Harvard graduate, Gene initially served as an officer in the U. S. Navy for three years, and then earned an MS degree in journalism from Boston University.
Gene began his professional career in TV news in 1963 as an investigative reporter with WBI in Boston, then became an anchor at Boston stations WBZ and WCVB. In 1969, he joined the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, where he eventually emerged as its first national political correspondent in Washington.
In 1974, he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. In 1978, he joined NBC News, and served as that network’s Moscow correspondent for two years before taking up an assignment as NBC’s Pentagon correspondent from 1980 until 1982. As a reporter, Mr. Pell covered every major news story — the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, Watergate, five presidential campaigns, the Iran hostage crisis, and, according to his obituary, “countless other events across the nation and around the world.” He joined VOA as my successor as chief of News and Current Affairs, and shortly after his arrival, he was named director.
It was an honor to be invited by Gene, as VOA director, to accompany him as part of a small VOA delegation to visit China in 1985. We were responding to an invitation by Radio Beijing after we hosted their leaders in Washington. The sights and sounds of China, from the capital to outlying hamlets, were an unforgettable adventure for both of us.
I heartily agree with his family’s account of Gene’s career: “He lived his professional life as a serious and devoted advocate of reporting the truth, using both radio and TV”… as a practitioner, “he was riveting and honest… and the results were impressive, a great curiosity, a commitment to support and nurture quality and truthful broadcast journalism, and an abiding dedication” to that cause.
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 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More