Kenneth R. Giddens (1908-1993) was an Alabama businessman and broadcaster. He is best known for serving as the director of Voice of America (VOA) during the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford from 1969 to 1977; he is thus far the longest-serving director of the organization (1969-1977).
In 1908, Kenneth Rabb Giddens was born in Pine Apple, Wilcox County, to Lovick and Addie Giddens; he had one younger sister. He moved to Auburn, Lee County, in 1928 to attend Auburn Polytechnic Institute (present-day Auburn University) and graduated with a degree in architecture in 1931. After college, Giddens married Zelma Kirk, and the couple had three daughters.
Giddens made his home in Mobile, Mobile County, where he designed and constructed commercial buildings, apartments, and public works throughout the 1930s. He also built community complexes with movie theaters, which inspired him to establish the Giddens & Rester theater chain, with outlets in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. Giddens also served as the president of the Mobile Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1937. Through these business endeavors, he would become quite wealthy
During World War II, Giddens, a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, served in Washington, D.C. After the war, his interest in mass media was piqued further when he began buying radio advertisements for his theater company. As a result, he founded his own radio station, WKRG in Mobile, using his initials as the call letters. The AM radio station went on air on September 26, 1946, and WKRG-FM followed in 1947. WKRG-TV began broadcasting nearly a decade later on September 5, 1955.
Giddens remained active in the community. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was a member of numerous boards and organizations. In 1958, he became a trustee of the Mobile YMCA, a position he held until 1965. From 1960 to 1969, he was also a trustee of the Mobile Infirmary. From 1960 to 1962, he was the president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association and served one year as the director of the National Association of Broadcasters beginning in 1964. He continued to use his business experience after the U.S. Federal Reserve Board appointed him to a six-year term as chair of the Federal Reserve Bank branch office in New Orleans in 1961; he also was named chair of the Mobile Better Business Bureau in 1964. Giddens partnered with William Lyon and Jay Altmayer to develop Bel Air Mall in Mobile, which opened in 1967 and is the oldest continuously operated mall in Alabama. Lyon developed commercial and residential real estate in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia. Altmayer was one of the largest landowners in Mobile County who, in the late 1960s, donated 200 acres to establish Mobile College, now known as the University of Mobile.
In September 1969, Pres. Richard Nixon appointed Giddens the director of Voice of America. VOA, the federal government's official broadcast institution, transmits a variety of news stories and U.S. government views in numerous languages to millions of people around the world. Although Giddens had little knowledge of international broadcasting or foreign relations at the time, he accepted the appointment at the request of his long-time friend and CBS Television president Frank Shakespeare. Shakespeare recently had been appointed as director of the now-defunct United States Information Agency (USIA) that was overseen by the State Department and was more political than VOA.
Giddens' tenure as the chief of VOA was controversial. He debated whether the agency's primary role was broadcasting unbiased news or serving as a propaganda organ for the federal government. He vacillated between promoting the United States on air and criticizing the State Department's involvement in the agency. Giddens sought to enhance VOA's credibility through honest reporting. He considered it especially important to present unbiased reporting of the war in Vietnam and of the Watergate scandal.
In April 1977, Democratic president Jimmy Carter replaced Giddens with his own VOA director, R. Peter Straus. In 1985, Giddens returned to Washington briefly during the Reagan administration to serve as the acting director of Radio Martí, the U.S. government's station established by Reagan to broadcast pro-democracy news and information to communist Cuba. Giddens was appointed by Charles Wick, the USIA director and an old friend to prepare the station to go on the air. He continued to serve as a consultant for Radio Martí after his interim directorship.
Kenneth R. Giddens died on May 7, 1993, in Mobile and was buried in the city's Pine Crest Cemetery. In 1994, the Giddens family
sold WKRG-FM to Coast Radio, LLC, and it was assigned the new call sign WMXC. It was sold again in 1997 to Clear Channel Communications.
Spartan Communications purchased WKRG-TV in 1998. In 2000, Media General purchased Spartan Communications and took control
of WKRG-TV. In 1998, Giddens was inducted posthumously into the inaugural class of the University of Alabama College of Communications and Information Sciences Hall of Fame.
Alexandre, Laurien. The Voice of America: From Dtente to the Reagan Doctrine. 1988.
Browne, Donald R. "The Voice of America: Policies and Problems." Journalism Monographs 43 (February 1976): 1-64.
Lambert, Bruce. "Kenneth Giddens, a Former Chief Of Voice of America, Dies at 84." New York Times. May 9 1993.
Published February 7, 2014
Last updated February 10, 2014