Former Voice of America (VOA) director and former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Ken Tomlinson, who died in 2014, told the Voice of America in 2012 that his most memorable moment at VOA was to visit the Polish Service and help arrange extensive news coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland when the country was still under communist rule during the Cold War. The Pope’s visit to Poland helped the suppressed Solidarity trade union to intensify its peaceful struggle for democracy and eventually resulted in the fall of communism. Father Stefan Filipowicz, a Chicago-based Jesuit priest and former director of the Polish Service at Vatican Radio, provided religious commentary from a VOA studio in Washington during the coverage of the papal visit. Live audio transmission from Poland was provided to VOA by Vatican Radio.
Ken Tomlinson and his wife Rebecca later traveled to Rome with VOA Polish Service director Ted Lipien to meet Pope John Paul II who thanked the Voice of America for broadcasting news to his countrymen in Poland under communism.
Thanks to Ken Tomlinson’s support, funding from the Reagan administration and full bipartisan backing in the U.S. Congress, the Polish Service became one of the most successful language services in the history of VOA, with over 70% weekly audience reach in Poland in the late 1980s according to a poll conducted by the Solidarity trade union. Other polls showed VOA audience in Poland in the 1980s between 40 and 50 percent.
Ted Lipien and his deputy Marek Walicki hired a number of highly talented Polish opposition journalists who had sought political asylum in the United States. VOA Polish radio broadcasts had achieved considerable impact thanks to VOA news service, telephone interviews with leading Polish opposition figures, including Lech Walesa, and programs about the United States, including a call-in show hosted by popular radio personality, former Radio Free Europe music program DJ Jan (Janusz) Herburt-Hewell.
The following remembrance of Ken Tomlinson by Jon Basil Utley, who during the Reagan administration worked as a political commentator at the Voice of America, appeared in The American Conservative.
“In any case, the VOA under Tomlinson began to broadcast hard-hitting, real information and criticism. Reagan spoke about how private property owners cared for their land to produce profitably and for the long term, unlike government. After that, I hammered away at explaining why Americans were rich and Russians were poor, for this reason. Tomlinson also unleashed the East European refugees to broadcast. A Polish friend of mine even started a talk show for listeners inside Poland to call into.
His New York Times obituary doesn’t mention how Tomlinson reformed the VOA and made it into a dynamic force for freedom. Nor, of course, does it explain that Ken Tomlinson was one of the architects of the collapse of communism. Rather, it almost completely dwells on infighting and criticism of him in later years and about his disputes with PBS and public television.”
Jon Utley also mentions the role of Ed Warner, a former Time editor, hired to oversee all the special programs.
“He was my direct boss. Tomlinson and Warner hired me and others who really understood communists’ psychology; we knew how to get inside their minds. I had been a long-time journalist in Latin America, and grew up the son of Freda Utley, who wrote several of the first books explaining Russian and Chinese communism.”
Jon Utley also mentions in his article that during the Cold War the Voice of America had been a primary target of infiltration by communist block agents, but it is still not known how extensive their operations were at VOA.
READ MORE: Reagan’s Man at VOA: Kenneth Tomlinson, RIP, Jon Basil Utley, The American Conservative, May 9, 2014.