February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
On February 17 the Voice of America (VOA) began broadcasting in Russian from a shortwave transmitter in Munich. A newspaper cartoon had predicted that the Soviet public would be baffled by such American radio hits as “Open the Door, Richard” and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” but the VOA’s hour-long inaugural broadcast came closer to the opposite extreme. It began with a summary of world news. Next came an exposition of the relationship between America’s state and federal governments, meant to answer such supposedly common questions as, “Why must the motorist in one State of the United States observe traffic rules different from those in another?” There followed a selection of folk and cowboy tunes and a rundown of scientific developments (“The study of the infrared spectrum of the stars was until recently complicated by the absence of sufficiently sensitive detectors …”). Rounding out the hour were Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and a recap of the news from the top of the program.
No one could be certain how many people heard the initial broadcast. The transmitter was far from the audience, atmospheric conditions were poor, and only about one Russian in a thousand had the proper type of receiver. Most who di^Tnanage to tune in politely suggested that the program had been interesting but a bit wordy. According to W. Bedell Smith, the American ambassador in Moscow, everyone said that “Night and Day” was what they had been waiting for all along. At the end of March the VOA took the hint and hired Benny Goodman (“the hot clarinet man,” as the Associated Press described him) as its unpaid musical adviser. The New York Times explained the choice by saying: “It is claimed in jive circles that Goodman is the most popular American musician in Russia.” Soon Russians from Leningrad to Sevastopol were jumping to the sounds of Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, and Tommy Dorsey, giving incontrovertible evidence of one area where the vaunted Soviet industrial machine could not outproduce the West.