A Tribute to Marie Ciliberti
By Ted Lipien
I am sad to report that former Voice of America broadcaster Marie Ciliberti has passed away. For many years, she was one of my closet confidential advisors on employee issues at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which recently changed its name to the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM). When we both started working for VOA, it was still under the old United States Information Agency (USIA) when some of the best and most impactful VOA broadcasts were produced.
Marie Ciliberti will be most remembered for her longtime broadcasting career at the Voice of America (VOA) Russian Branch, especially her production of Willis Conover jazz programs to the Soviet Union. Willis Conover attracted millions of loyal shortwave radio listeners with his jazz broadcasts which were one of the best instruments of American soft power public diplomacy in the USSR.
Marie was also a confidential advisor to several VOA USSR Division managers and played an active role in the VOA employee union for many years even in her retirement. She and I continued to communicate regularly after we both retired from U.S. government service and focused our pro bono activities on protecting VOA programs from cuts by BBG Board members, some of whom had business interests in Russia and China.
Preferring to stay out of the limelight, Marie wrote from time to time anonymous commentaries for independent BBG Watch website and offered her advice to other contributors on defending agency employees from effects of unjust retaliation and mismanagement. My last telephone conversation with Marie Ciliberti was about the need to defend the VOA Mandarin Five China Branch broadcasters facing internal punishment by VOA’s senior managers for what these journalists believed was resisting censorship and pressure from the Chinese government.
During her radio career, Marie Ciliberti was one of the best VOA broadcasters among such great VOA radio figures as Zofia Korbońska in the Polish Service and English Service program host Pat Gates.
I admired her vast knowledge of history, politics and foreign cultures. She called me “Pan Tadeusz,” shared with me her love for Polish literature, was proud of her belief in preserving Catholic Latin Mass, loved Pope John Paul II and defended traditional values.
Marie was not fooled by foreign propaganda and domestic partisanship. She knew that VOA was started by pro-Soviet Hollywood media figures and political activists who admired Stalin and tried to help him establish communism in Eastern Europe with Soviet propaganda while covering up his crimes. She was not going to let it happen again. She would not be dissuaded from protecting VOA programs from political bias. She defended employees from bad management decisions while effectively helping those USIA and Voice of America managers who shared her vision of VOA’s noble mission in defense of freedom during the Cold War.
Some of her other VOA colleagues also paid tribute to her indomitable spirit.
Gary Marco, former VOA broadcasting engineer, wrote:
There are never enough good people. Marie Ciliberti should be remembered as one of the best among good people. True to her Polish roots, she was tough-minded, principled and fair. She understood the nature of the Voice of America (VOA) from both the management and employee perspectives. She knew where the weaknesses in the agency were especially in her latter years when the agency was constructing a reputation for being one of the worst places to work in the Federal government. In this kind of negative environment it takes exceptional fortitude to protect the rights of agency employees.
Anyone who knew Marie Ciliberti also would know that she was tremendously proud of Willis Conover and her work with him in the “Conversations” program she helped write and produce for the VOA Russian Service. Fluent in Russian (as well as Polish), she knew firsthand of the impact of the Conover radio programs when she herself traveled to the Soviet Union as part of US State Department exhibition tours.
She was also passionate in her support for the VOA Georgian Service.
In “retirement” (for Marie was never really retired in the conventional sense), she was most proud of her grandson Nicholas. She was often retell stories of her “teaching moments” with Nicholas up to the last weeks of her life. Nicholas was her gem. Marie was a people person and knew how to connect with individuals from all walks of life.
Marie Ciliberti will be missed, but she won’t be forgotten by those who are guided by her principles and values.
Timothy Shamble, AFGE Local 1812 President, wrote:
Marie Ciliberti believed in the mission of the Voice of America where she worked for many years. She was not a fan of how the employees of the Agency were treated, especially those who were unjustly accused of some sort of infraction. After retiring from her long career at the VOA she continued to work for her fellow employees volunteering for the union. Many employees owed her a debt of gratitude for her tireless representation on their behalf.
She served on the AFGE Local 1812 Executive Board and was invaluable as the union local’s Legislative Coordinator.
She truly loved guiding the members on how to advance their interests through the political process. She loved politics! She had been a manager and would advise us on how management thinks and the best way to deal with them.
She was a guide to many of us. We depended on her for her knowledge, wisdom, and humor. She was a brilliant woman and she is already greatly missed.
Former VOA Russian Branch broadcaster Irene Kelner wrote:
I used to work with Maria Ciliberti at VOA Russian Branch. She was always eager to give advice to me, at that time a new broadcaster. I treasured her jazz programs with Willis Conover.
I and many of my friends had listened to these programs while living in the Soviet Union. At that time we all thought that Ciliberti was not her real name but rather a pseudonym of two words Ci — probably the fist letter of her real surname — plus the word “Liberty.” When I started my 27-year career at VOA in 1981, during the first weeks it was difficult for me to imagine that I talk to Maria Ciliberti since she had such a celebrity status back in the USSR.
Former Broadcasting Board of Governors presidentially-appointed BBG Board member and radio and TV program host Blanquita Cullum wrote:
Words cannot convey how very much I will miss Marie. She was brilliant, brave and a very respected journalist. I would add–a precious friend to me. God bless her good soul and grant much comfort to her family. All my love and prayers for her and them.
Former VOA Russian radio and TV host William Skundrich wrote:
Marie was an amazing colleague, who had a wealth of knowledge, a fantastic wit and a great sense of humor. She always knew how to make everyone think and laugh! She was also instrumental in getting me hired at VOA. I will always be in her debt. God bless you, Marie! And thank you for all that you were and all that you did for so many!
Former Radio and TV Marti Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) broadcaster Ivette Valle Martinez wrote:
We met 23 years ago during the negotiations for Radio Marti’s move to Miami. Both of us served on the Union side. From day one we were good friends. We shared our Catholic faith, anti-Communism and the struggle against injustices to employees. I was always amazed at how much she knew about Cuba and the Martis. I will miss her terribly. RIP.😔🙏
Max Carroll, former Voice of America studio engineer who had worked with Willis Conover and Marie Ciliberti on getting their jazz programs on the air to the Soviet Union, wrote:
I am grateful for the twists and turns my broadcasting career has taken, for I never would have gotten to meet Marie Ciliberti. As one of Willis Conover’s broadcast engineers, it was my great pleasure to see Marie in the studio. She had a wonderful ‘biting’ sense of humor. I enjoyed witnessing the friendship she and Willis shared. She was nice to include me in a conversation, from time to time. I will miss hearing from her at this website.