A Farewell Message
to the Voice of America Staff


The Eponyminator
   Date: Fri, 28 May 2010 06:00:00 -0400
Subject: A Farewell Message from Chris Kern
     To: VOA Colleagues
   From: Chris Kern

Those of you who know me are perhaps aware of my distaste for retirement ceremonies.  I long ago resolved not to have one of my own when it was finally time for me to pull the metaphorical ripcord.  However, I didn't want to leave without saying a few words to my colleagues of the last 38 years -- and since way back in the 1980s I was the person responsible for introducing electronic mail at VOA, I figure this is a particularly appropriate way to say goodbye.  (Those of you who don't know me may now want to hit the delete key, which Al Gore invented before I could get around to it.)

I've had the great good fortune to have had two completely different careers since I joined the News Division as an intern back in 1971.  Richard Nixon was in the White House when I first reported for work here and I was barely out of college.  I had the opportunity to cover the Supreme Court, a presidential campaign, and the Watergate investigations as a central news reporter while I was still in my 20s.  Then I spent the Ford and Carter Administrations writing interpretive essays about domestic and international events as one of five senior news analysts in the old Current Affairs Division.

Unfortunately, the news analysis was abolished during the purge of the central news department by the first wave of Reagan appointees.  The other news analysts all retired, but as the new kid on the block I needed to find something else to do.  I had learned to program computers while I was in college, and managed to persuade management to appoint me as VOA's "technology advisor" just as we were introducing computing technology into the editorial process.

As chief of the VOA Computer Services Division and, later, Director of the Office of Computing Services, I led the teams that developed and managed an enterprise computing environment for the agency -- first for the VOA programming elements and eventually for the support staffs, as well.  When we started, the broadcasters were writing their scripts on typewriters or, in some of the language services where mechanical typewriting was unavailable or too clumsy, by hand.  We built two generations of of what we called SNAP, the System for News and Programming, and they ran around-the-clock with only an occasional hiccup between 1985 and 2004, when Engineering took over the information technology function.

We established a connection to the public Internet in 1987, at a time when most Americans weren't aware the Internet existed, and in 1994 VOA became the first broadcast news organization in the world to make continuously-updated program product available via the Internet.  The distribution of correspondent reports and digitized audio segments took place on a couple of surplus computers using custom software I had written for the purpose.  We created quite a bit of our own software in those days because there were no commercial products to do many of the things we wanted to do.

A lot of dedicated, energetic and ingenious people worked for me at one time or another.  There are too many to name in this message, but needless to say when I speak of the accomplishments of the Computer Services Division and the Office of Computing Services, I'm referring to their work as well as my own.

I counted them up the other day and it turns out I've served under 17 VOA (and "IBB") directors -- some memorable, in ways good or bad, some forgettable, and a few best forgotten.  Two of the finest, Mary Bitterman and Geoffrey Cowan, implemented significant reforms that resolved lengthy internecine struggles in which I was personally involved.  During the Carter Administration, Mary finally ended the censorship of News and Current Affairs (that's what we called our central news department in those days) by USIA foreign service officers, overcoming stiff resistance within our parent agency.  At a time of shrinking budgets and layoffs during the Clinton Administration, Geoff reversed a longstanding maldistribution of financial resources between the programming elements and Engineering by creating a centralized computing support organization, making it possible for us to improve the technology available to both the broadcasters and the support staff while significantly reducing the aggregate cost of operation.

Mary and Geoff shared a respect for VOA's tradition of honest reporting, immunity to flattery or threats by bureaucratic opportunists, and that rare but critical executive ability to base their actions on the long-term interests of the institution rather than the internal political distractions of the moment.  Both happened to be Democrats, but they conducted themselves in a scrupulously nonpartisan manner while they were here: they worked through and supported the career employees, and never allowed partisan considerations to intrude on programming decisions.

Like anyone who hangs around so long, I've occasionally had to ride out the waves of this outfit's cyclical ups-and-downs.  Twice, in 1982 and again in 2004, the organizational element where I worked was abolished by an ill-conceived reorganization -- on both occasions, perhaps not coincidentally, while Ken Tomlinson was running the agency -- but by and large this has been a pretty good place to spend the last 38 years.

Of course, there are a few things about working here that I'm altogether happy to put behind me in retirement: the rush-hour commuting, the demented bureaucratic rules we are obliged to follow, the petty intramural bickering, and the (ahem) distinctive architecture and amenities of the Wilbur J. Cohen Building.

But I'll tell you one thing I definitely will miss, and that's going up to my office every morning and wondering what language the other occupants of the elevator would be speaking.  Sometimes I could only make out a couple of words, if that.  But whenever I overheard my colleagues talking in a language I couldn't understand, I knew I was in the right place.

Best regards,

Chris
ckatvoa@gmail.com