Ernest Eugene “Gene” Pell, a 1975 Nieman Fellow and a longtime broadcast journalist who led Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty during the final years of the Cold War, died at his home near Syria, Virginia, on April 7 after a 3-year battle with cancer. He was 83.
Pell’s career in broadcast journalism spanned more than five decades. He covered every major news story, from the civil rights movement to the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., from 1963 through 1982 for NBC News, and went on to lead Voice of America (VOA) and become the president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Born in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1937, Pell attended Harvard University, where he worked for the campus radio station. He graduated with a BA in English in 1959. After serving a 3-year stint in the Navy, with assignments including as a program director for the Armed Forces Radio Service in New York City, he returned to school and received his master’s in journalism from Boston University.
Pell began his broadcast career in local news in Boston, first as an investigative journalist for WBI-TV and later as an anchor for WBZ and WCVB. In 1969, he joined the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, based first in D.C. as a national political correspondent, and then in London as chief of the Westinghouse Foreign News Service. Following his Nieman fellowship year and a visiting fellowship at the Harvard Russian Research Center, Pell joined NBC News in 1978, serving as a correspondent from Moscow until 1980 and then serving as a Pentagon correspondent for another two years.
The Reagan administration recruited Pell to help modernize technology and programming at VOA in 1982, first as director of news and current affairs and then as the deputy director for all of the network’s programming. He was appointed by President Reagan as director of VOA in 1984. A year later, he was named president and CEO of the Munich-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—which, funded by the U.S. government, broadcast news to the Soviet Union and Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Under Pell’s leadership, RFE/FL was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for the critical role it played in supporting peaceful revolutions across the Soviet bloc that helped end the Cold War.
“In 1989, we who were privileged to serve in the management of RFE/RL as Gene Pell’s colleagues watched the awesome professionalism of RFE/RL’s broadcasters as peaceful revolution swept from the Baltics to the Balkans, and the Radios helped each country share with others the power – even the slogans – of peaceful protest,” wrote Robert Gillette, NF ’76 and former director of RFE/RL, in a remembrance of Pell. “[We salute] Gene for his contribution to a freer world.”
After Pell retired from RFE/RL in 1993, he joined Radio America, writing and hosting a weekly radio program as well as producing and narrating a series of television programs about Congressional Medal of Honor winners.
Pell is survived by his wife, Susan Jane Pell, as well as two daughters and a stepson.