Allie Goodman: In 1942, six months after President Roosevelt declared war on the Axis powers and officially entered the United States into the Second World War, the federal government created the Office of War Information. The goal: create continued public support for the war effort by documenting it through media, including photography, film, and radio. Yet these efforts were officially classified as propaganda, indicating an intentionality as to what the OWI chose to document and how they chose to document it. One such instrument was the Voice of America, more commonly known as VOA, which worked with the OWI during the war. And while the OWI officially ended operations in 1945, VOA continued to provide news, entertrainment, and propaganda globally through the Cold War.
Nowadays, propaganda is a dirty word. Just think about the pandemic: massive online misinformation campaigns have caused many Americans to doubt not only the efficacy of vaccinations, but the very reality of the pandemic itself. So it’s not surprising that we tend to think of Propaganda as mutually exclusive from both truth and objectivity—as information given in bad faith. But consider this image: three women clad in scrubs, hairnets, masks, and face-shields look forward, their gazes full of strength and determination. Inspired by 1940’s posters, the text reads, “For you! For Them! For Us! Stay Inside. Victory Begins at Home.” Much of the work published by the online design lab Amplifier, which connects artists to action movements, was inspired by World War Two propaganda posters to inform the public about the dangers of Covid-19 and to encourage audiences to take action to stop the spread. The one described, created by artist Das Frank, is entitled, “Positive Propaganda 1.” Can propaganda be positive? What does that mean? During World War Two and the Cold War, many Americans saw creating entertainment through information technology or art like the pieces solicited by Amplifier as their patriotic duty: bringing the Good News to global audiences. So, when is something information and when is it propaganda? Can the two be one in the same? Can art, especially music, and the archives in which it is contained have an agenda, including one apart from what the original recording artists envisioned? How do choices—like where music is ultimately housed, who its intended audience is, and laws that limit broadcasts—impact our interpretation of programming?
Welcome to Season 3, Episode 1 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Allie Goodman. In this episode, you’ll hear from a number of voices, including Christopher DeCou, a PhD student of the Department of History. His research focuses on histories of science and technology.
Christopher DeCou: You’re listening to the song “Apollo.” The singer is from the Diula (DEE OO LA) tribe, a group of people living in Sub-Saharan West Africa. The song uses many local instruments. Drums. Xylophone. Voice.
In many ways, it’s typical of West African folk music, but the lyrics might surprise you. The singer highlights the moon landing and the American space program.
This recording comes from the November 1977 broadcast of Music Time in Africa. A radio show
Sue Moran: featuring some of Africa’s finest musicians and cultural groups of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Christopher DeCou: The song “Apollo” aired during a special program on the music of Upper Volta, or today’s Burkina Faso.The music was recorded by local radio producers in a small rural village,
Sue Moran: and according to our musicologist Leo Sarkisian it seems that not only popular dance orchestras but even village folk musicians in a large number of African countries were singing about the Apollo space venture.
The content of Music Time in Africa wasn’t about policy, politics, or current events. It was meant to entertain and to educate African audiences about African-made music. But the US government funded the show through the Voice of America, and it was classified as propaganda under American laws. From the 1960s to the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, this entertainment program became one piece in the global information game.
The mind behind Music Time in Africa was “Music Man” Leo Sarkisian.
Radio Call: “And now here’s Leo”
Leo Sarkisian: “And I’m Leo Sarkisian, happy to have you with us today.”
Christopher DeCou: Leo Sarkisian was born to Armenian immigrants on January 4, 1921, in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
In Lawrence, twenty five miles north of Boston, Leo grew up in a multilingual and a multicultural world, among the Armenian diaspora. Leo would eventually earn a remarkable reputation for knowing many languages apart from English.
Dr. Kelly Askew: Oh, he was definitely a polyglot. It was amazing. He spoke Armenian and Turkish from his family life. He also spoke Arabic and Farsi, French.
Christopher DeCou: That was Dr. Kelly Askew, a professor at the University of Michigan. She is a fellow ethnomusicologist, or a scholar who studies the music of different cultures. She is a long-time friend of Leo, and co-leads and manages the Leo Sarkisian and Music Time in Africa Archives at the University of Michigan.
But it wasn’t just language that inspired Leo. When he was in high school, he learned the clarinet. And he started learning more about Armenian music.
It’s music that got him involved in sound engineering. After World War II, he moved to New York City.
Dr. Kelly Askew: The story goes that he, he would, even though he was working as a graphic artist and illustrator, he would spend his evenings in the New York Public Library reading whatever he could about music from Central Asia, from South Asia, from the Middle East. He was drawn to learn more. He was a self-taught ethnomusicologist and he’d read everything and anything that he could.
Christopher DeCou: He wrote up his research to share with friends, but according to the transcript of an oral history he gave to one researcher, in 1947, one of his papers somehow landed on the desk of the Hollywood recording executive Irving Fogel.
Leo Sarkisian: While working as an artist, of course, I continued my music studies on my own on Oriental music. And, through friends, word about my interest in Oriental music reached the ears of the president of Tempo Record Company. That’s when the president of Tempo came to the East Coast and offered me a position as their music director.
Christopher DeCou: Leo accepted the offer. And just a few months later, he finalized his affairs in Boston and New York, and moved to Hollywood to join Tempo Records.
Paul Conway: What Tempo Records’ niche was, was natural sounds that could be used as in soundtracks for movies. For instance. Leo did the recordings for Africa, the background recordings for African Queen. So when, when the boat is going up the river and there’ll be, there’ll be drums beating on the horizon ominously or whatever, and they need a drum soundtrack. Tempo Records was in the business of, of providing soundtracks of indigenous music for use in movies.
Christopher DeCou: That’s Paul Conway, from the University of Michigan’s School of Information. He co-leads the preservation of the Leo Sarkisian Archive with Professor Askew.
In late 1952, after preparations in Hollywood and in Washington, DC, Leo and Mary boarded a flight bound for Afghanistan and Pakistan, their first destination to record folk music and work with the Karachi radio station.
After a few years in Central Asia, Leo arrived in Ghana at the end of 1958. And it’s here that his career and passion for African music began. Ghana had just gained independence from the British. The new government supported Leo’s efforts to document musical heritage for Tempo Records, and they connected him with the director of Radio Ghana Attah Mensah; he was a well-known ethnomusicologist of West African music, who became Leo’s guide.
As they traveled the country, folk musicians from the villages and the cities played for Leo, and he made many brilliant recordings of the local music.
And in 1959, he left for the neighbouring country of Guinea. Here the political situation was different. The country too had recently gained independence, but was more squarely caught between Soviet and American influence. There were few Americans there at all.
Leo’s wife Mary captured the moment when they left Ghana.
Taylor Sims [for Mary Sarkisian]: The day we were leaving Accra and the Ambassador Hotel which had been our home for several months, Leo had brought the loaded Jeep to the front entrance of the hotel while I said goodbye to our friends working at the front desk, and I remember very well, getting into the Jeep, sitting down, and how Leo turned, looked at me smiling and said: “Here we go again, are you ready?” I just said: “Yeah man! I’ve always been ready, let’s go!”
Christopher DeCou: The new leadership in Guinea ended up being even more receptive to Leo’s projects. He stayed there for three years. And he didn’t just focus on villages, he also recorded contemporary music for Tempo Records, like this excerpt from the Sounds of a Nation.
In 1961, American journalist and head of the United States Information Agency, Edward Murrow, came to visit the new president Sékou Touré and encourage better relations between the United States and Guinea. Right after meeting Touré, Murrow asked to meet the Sarkisians. Murrow was familiar with Leo and his international recordings, and when they met, Murrow asked if Leo would be willing to leave Tempo Records and join the Voice of America.
Leo accepted. He knew some would find it hard to believe. And it was. Because for many, the Information Agency wasn’t just about information but about American propaganda.
Persuasion and politics tend to go together. And the United States is, historically, no exception.
It wasn’t until the world wars that the United States seriously developed government-funded media and information management.
In World War II, the bombing at Pearl Harbor led the US to join the Allied war effort, and within two months, the government stepped into the international broadcast and media landscape. Using shortwave radio for long-distance transmissions, they created the Voice of America. On February 1, 1942, the Voice transmitted its first message to Germany.
During the war, the Voice—or VOA, as it became known—reached multiple audiences. They collaborated with the Office of War Information, and they distributed stories to CBS and NBC. Hollywood stars and celebrities also lent a hand to making this early media.
But after the war, government officials were unsure if they should continue funding the agency—and what it would look like.
Some senators like Joseph McCarthy were suspicious of the Voice of America. They falsely claimed that Communists had infiltrated the government and were manipulating the agency. Others supported the organization. In 1948 Congress passed the Smith Mundt Act as a compromise that appeased skeptical legislators and major networks like NBC and CBS. The Voice would receive government funds to operate, but it would not be broadcast domestically, instead targeting foreign audiences. It was officially classified as propaganda and public diplomacy.
The Voice of America’s first mission? Curbing the influence of the Soviet Union. Although the US and the USSR had been allies in the fight against Nazism, after the war their alliance collapsed, and Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower came to regard Communism as the next great threat. The Russians expanded media initiatives in Eastern Europe and across the globe with Cominform, a short-lived international organization that published Soviet sources. American officials believed they too needed to prioritize information. The superpowers fought using technologies of communication, narrative themes, and stories.
At first, propaganda didn’t have purely negative connotations. It was linked with psychological warfare, but also shared connections with advertising. Propaganda could be thought of as a type of government-funded advertising. By the early 1950s, the United States government created the Information Agency to administer cultural policy, including the Voice of America.The agency was tasked with creating a uniform policy, and it worked broadly to support government initiatives, in art, culture, film, and documentary work. Its mission was to bring this content to global audiences.
The VOA was modeled on state-sponsored organizations like the BBC that produced news and entertainment. But by the mid 1950s and 1960s, journalists at the VOA grew more concerned about editorial independence; and they sought to distinguish news from propaganda. The Voice of America was caught up in these debates, and in 1960 adopted a charter that sought to balance these competing notions.
Leo was certainly aware of these debates when Edward Murrow recruited him to the VOA in 1964. The Voice sought to improve relations between the United States and newly formed African countries, like Guinea and Ghana. The US wanted to limit the influence of the Soviet Union and communist economic development in these newly formed African states. US strategy competed with the Soviet Union in the developing world through financial investments, global connections, and technical expertise. Leo bolstered this effort by creating cultural programming to reach African audiences.
Here is Professor Kelly Askew, again, the ethnomusicologist at the University of Michigan, again to explain.
Dr. Kelly Askew: In a way, I think of it as a very Pan-Africanist effort. He was trying to, in most of the shows, there would be music from different parts of Africa. If there was a political event that had occurred in a particular part of Africa, he wanted to just highlight the music of that country. There would be shows that were devoted to a particular country. But more often than not, the show’s ranged across different parts of Africa. … So this was bringing African music from different parts of Africa back to Africans and sharing with them the diversity of the continent.
Some of these recordings are the first recordings of very famous people. We have what we believe to be the very first recording of Fela Kuti, for instance, Bombay, a jazz [musician] from Guinea, which would go on to be a world phenomenon. Remember Leo’s first assignment was in Guinea, Ghana, and Guinea. So he was there recording these, these fabulous acts long before they became household names.
Christopher DeCou: Music was one part of this programming. The Voice of America worked to train and create radio operations across Africa.
Paul Conway: When a former colony becomes an independent country, one of the first things that that country did was start a national radio station, Radio Chad, Radio Niger, Radio Ghana, et cetera. And Leo, being the generous man that he was, would travel around not only to make his own recordings, but also to train people how to run the radio stations. And then he had a whole cadre of radio broadcasters that he had trained who would then send him material that he could then use in Music Time in Africa.
Christopher DeCou: That was Paul Conway again, from the University of Michigan’s School of Information.
The 1960s saw the height of US interest in Africa. The Information Agency created the African Program Center in Monrovia to host the Voice of America station. The Program Center included sub-stations in Cote d’Ivoire and Ethiopia and operated like many other American funded cultural centers around the world. They sponsored English language learning programs, cultural exchanges such as jazz collaborations between American artists and African musicians, as well as educational exchanges with universities and students.
But in 1968 and 1969 the United States closed the center due to shifting priorities. The Information Agency started to focus more efforts in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. While the VOA continued to use the shortwave radio network constructed in Liberia, they relocated the center of operations for the United States’ Africa-based broadcasts to Washington, DC and cut funding to the African department.
But Leo’s show, Music Time in Africa, lived on. Although conflict dominated the news about Africa, the show offered an alternative medium for African audiences to connect across political barriers. Leo and his co-hosts Sue Moran and Rita Rochelle connected with their audience.
Heather Maxwell is the current host of Music Time in Africa. She also studied African ethnomusicology. In her view, Leo connected with his audience in part because of his charismatic personality and passion for African music.
Heather Maxwell: He was a one-of-a-kind gem, just a gem of a person. He was little in stature. So people noticed him right away because he’s this little small guy. But his personality and his smile and his voice was huge. It was so big and warm. And he loved to laugh. He was full of life. … He was just like a very, very wonderful, warm person.
Christopher DeCou: Kelly Askew had a similar impression.
Dr. Kelly Askew: He embraced the world. He embraced every kind of person within it. … …. when he would record in, in rural outposts, in an African rural villages. He said you can’t just go in and expect people to share their most beautiful music with you. … that they’re not gonna play their best, their best music for you, their most interesting valued or, or meaningful music for you. If they don’t know you as a person, if they don’t accept you as somebody who’s, if not a full, outright embraced friend, but at least somebody they know they, they share common humanity with…..And he says, after you become friendly with people, then we would start recording music. So it was really important for him to establish trust, respect, friendship, comradery with anyone and everyone he met.
Talitha Pam [for fan letter]: This short note is just to inform you that I am the best listener to your production Music Time in Africa each Sunday on the VOA. Bamenda, Cameroon
Teyei Pam [for fan letter]: We admire Music Time in Africa as our number one favorite radio program. You are the actual cultural bridge between our two great countries. Lagos, Nigeria.
Talitha Pam [for fan letter]: I have become a real addict, spending our Sundays by the radio just to be mesmerised by your honey-dripping voice. And we are also proud of you Rita as an American black woman interested in our culture and traditions and the efforts of our VOA musicman Leo showing us that you do care for we black Africans. Nigeria
Dr. Kelly Askew: They felt that every person who went through the effort, and he would tell me, imagine the cost of a stamp for somebody who’s making $0.50 a day to go to the effort to buy the paper, to write, to write that letter, and send it, and pay for the cost of sending it. They merited a response. So he and Mary would make sure to respond to all of them.
Christopher DeCou: Leo Sarkisian passed away in 2018. His wife Mary died not long after. The ideological conflicts of the Cold War shaped their lives, but their story—and the stories they told—were almost lost to history.
The Voice of America still uses shortwave radio frequencies, but now broadcasts on multiple media. Without some intervention, the show’s library was destined to be discarded, Paul Conway at the School of Information informed me.
Paul Conway: And so Leo’s library of quarter-inch magnetic tapes and LPs and 45s was sort of made obsolescent. Bye. Fiat. It’s like, well, we’re not going to do this anymore. … And so the, the point came where Leo’s library was essentially an old and obsolete, a room full of wonderful but obsolete media.
Christopher DeCou: The Voice of America decided they were going to send the library to a storage facility.
Paul Conway: A kind of records management storage facility underground in limestone caves in western Pennsylvania.
Christopher DeCou: In the mid 2000s when Leo finally retired, he called Kelly Askew to ask for help. And she applied for a University of Michigan Mcubed grant to work with former Music Time in Africa host Matthew Levoie to catalogue and preserve recordings of the show.
Dr. Kelly Askew: And Matthew and I would go and we would just spend like several days at a time just sort of piecemeal going through these piles and piles and piles. And what was interesting was that Leo was a total analog person. He just refused to go into the digital age.
Christopher DeCou: She also talked to Paul about what to do.
Paul Conway: And alarm bells went off. I mean, both Kelly and myself said, wait a minute, this if this goes to a limestone cave in western Pennsylvania, it’ll never be heard from again. And over about a two month period, put together a memo of understanding between the Voice of America and the University of Michigan that allowed the entire library to be boxed up, inventory, boxed up and sent here to Ann Arbor.
Christopher DeCou: From 2010 to 2018, the University of Michigan Library digitized the radio show and Leo’s field recordings, and has now made the recordings available online. Their website even includes searchable radio scripts. It’s a boon for researchers, because radio scripts are rarely preserved.
But it also coincided with another important event: Congress amended the Smith Mundt legislation that had limited the Voice of America from broadcasting to domestic audiences. Although radio enthusiasts in the US could always tune their radios on their own to pick up the VOA’s shortwave broadcasts, media organizations could not redistribute the original content from the VOA radio and then television. In 2012, Congress updated the language to reflect today’s media landscape. They didn’t change the mandates about the organization: they still broadcast exclusively for non-domestic audiences. But the updates do allow for domestic media to rebroadcast and share content from the VOA. In a world where borders are increasingly irrelevant to media technology, the new law tries to reflect how content can flow from the internet but also through television and radio.
Today, Heather Maxwell holds the reins at Music Time in Africa. The show has shifted toward more contemporary music to meet the needs of new listeners, but she continues to play classics—to teach and show how the music has changed over time. She tries to follow in Leo’s footsteps, and when she visited Ghana’s University of Cape Coast in 2019, she showed the website and archive to the students and faculty there.
Heather Maxwell: And I played them old music from the show and I explained and I showed them and I pulled Music Time in Africa archive, the University of Michigan site up on, on the screen and showed them exactly how to use it and how to search it and played them some of the old music and they just loved it. And right away someone was like, wait a minute, that that’s that name and there was another they used to call him this this instead. So it was so fun because you could see the local audience from that music. They had their own stories about that Ghanian music that is theirs and that they remember. They can ask their grandparents, what about that? It’s just, it can create this beautiful dialogue and remembering of their own musical culture and history and personal histories, you know, family histories. So I think that is one of the most exciting things about it.
Christopher DeCou: This is exciting, that African listeners now have access to heritage that might have been lost. The archive is one of the richest libraries of African folk and popular music. It captures a unique set of sounds and a moment of significant transition in the mid-twentieth century. It is a rich documentary source. Available again, we might be able to learn more about what kind of stories they tell for African audiences.
Yet it’s also important to remember that this content didn’t appear in a vacuum. Recounting when he first joined the VOA, Leo said it was because he believed it was his patriotic duty. In Leo’s mind, duty called in 1941, when he joined the American Armed Forces in North Africa. Duty called again in 1964 when Edward Murrow asked him to help the VOA.
Leo Sarkisian and his wife Mary believed they were patriots. They were passionate about preserving the musical heritage of Africa, as well as training and empowering new radio artists and sound technicians in African countries. But their patriotism also led to certain choices. Leo recorded musical events that promoted American interests in Africa, just as equally as he recorded folk traditions.
What does it mean to understand Leo and the VOA as propaganda? And what about its legacy? Who actually owns and controls the data? What does it mean that these recordings are housed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and not, say, sub-Saharan West Africa? How do we reckon with these materials, and who gets a say in such archival projects? When we hear the song that opened this episode, selected to be recorded, because it shared a local story about the American Apollo space program, it should remind us: music too can have an agenda. For choices make our history. After all, to paraphrase E. H. Carr: “Before you study the history, study the historian.” Or, we might say, “before you use the archives for history, study the history of the archives.”
Allie Goodman: Thanks for listening, and a special thank you to our segment producer for this episode, Christopher DeCou. Another thank you to voice actors in order of appearance Taylor Sims, Talitha Pam, and Teyei Pam. Our editorial board is Professor Henry Cowles, Alexander Clayton, Christopher DeCou, and Hannah Roussel. A special thank you as well to Hayley Bowman, season 2 producer, for her work on this episode. Our production team is executive producer Gregory Parker, and I’m your season producer, Allie Goodman. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories about how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.
Selected Bibliography and Additional Reading:
Cull, Nicholas J. 2008. The Cold War and the United States Information Agency. American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945–1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gwamna, Bitrus Paul. 1992. “Multi-Cultural Programming as a Strategy in Public Diplomacy: Leo Sarkisian, and the Voice of America’s ‘Music Time in Africa’.” Ph.D. Thesis, Ohio University
Heil, Alan L. 2003. Voice of America: A History. New York: Columbia University Press.