DOUG JOHNSON: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Doug Johnson.
STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. Each year in Washington, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honors performers for a lifetime of work. This year the Kennedy Center Honors go to Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman, Bill Jones, Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey.
(MUSIC: "Workin' Man Blues"/Merle Haggard)
DOUG JOHNSON: Merle Haggard is considered one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the history of country music. He became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in nineteen ninety-four. But his work also extends into other kinds of music.
He was raised in Bakersfield, California, during the Great Depression. He was a rebellious young man. He spent two and a half years in prison for robbery. While serving his time, he played country music in a prison band.
Over the years, he wrote songs that were often different from the traditional country music coming out of Nashville, Tennessee.
Merle Haggard made hit songs like "Mama Tried," "Carolyn" and "Sing Me Back Home." One of his most popular and most controversial songs was "Okie From Muskogee." It was his reaction to people who protested the Vietnam War and made fun of small-town values.
(MUSIC: "Okie from Muskogee:/Merle Haggard)
STEVE EMBER: Composer and lyricist Jerry Herman wrote the music and words to some of the best known show tunes in American theater. His Broadway musicals include "Hello, Dolly!" "Mame" and "La Cage aux Folles."
(MUSIC: "Hello, Dolly!")
He was born to musical parents and started piano at an early age. By the time he was a teenager he was composing music. His first Broadway show was "Milk and Honey" in nineteen sixty-one.
Jerry Herman won two Tony awards and was nominated for three others. And last year he received the Tony Award for outstanding lifetime achievement.
DOUG JOHNSON: Dancer and choreographer Bill Jones began dancing in college. Over the years he gained recognition for his inventive ways with modern dance.
In nineteen eighty-two he formed a dance company with his partner, Arnie Zane. Their dances often broke with tradition by having men perform with men. But six years later Arnie Zane died of AIDS.
As a dancer, Bill Jones often included video, text and material from his own life in his dances. His dance company has created more than one hundred works that have been performed throughout the world.
Last year, Bill Jones won a Tony Award for best choreography for his Broadway production of "Fela!" His work has also appeared in recent years in another Broadway musical, "Spring Awakening."
(MUSIC: "Yesterday"/The Beatles)
STEVE EMBER: Paul McCartney is one of the most successful musical performers of all time. The singer, songwriter and musician was raised in Liverpool, England. He first rose to fame as a member of the Beatles.
He and John Lennon began playing music together at the age of fifteen. They played in a band called the Quarrymen.
Then, in nineteen sixty, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison began performing under the name the Beatles. Drummer Ringo Starr joined the group in nineteen sixty-two.
(MUSIC: "Yellow submarine"/The Beatles)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, has inducted Paul McCartney twice -- once as a member of the Beatles and again as a solo artist. More than thirty of his songs have been number-one hits in the United States.
(SOUND: The Oprah Winfrey Show)
DOUG JOHNSON: Oprah Winfrey was born in the South, in a rural part of the state of Mississippi. Her parents were a soldier and an unwed teenage mother. The grandmother who raised her taught her to read at an early age.
Oprah Winfrey made herself into a billionaire as a talk-show host, actress, producer, author and magazine publisher. Her daytime talk show changed American television and made her one of the world's richest women.
Oprah has announced that she will retire her talk show in the fall of two thousand eleven. She is expected to launch her own cable channel.
The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts normally honors performing artists. It says Oprah Winfrey is being recognized for her "soul-stirring performances on screen."
She has appeared in several movies. She was nominated for a best-actress Oscar for her first movie, the nineteen eighty-five film "The Color Purple."
And she is not the first television host to receive a Kennedy Center honor. Late-night TV host Johnny Carson was among the honorees in nineteen ninety-three.
STEVE EMBER: This is the thirty-third year that the Kennedy Center Honors have been awarded. The ceremony is recorded for television and raises a lot of money for the Kennedy Center. Presidents attend the event and tickets can cost as much as five thousand dollars.
Most years, there are five Kennedy Center honorees. But there have been up to seven people chosen in some years.
Honorees are not always American. They can include foreign artists who have had a major effect on American culture.
The process for choosing the honorees begins with nominations made by about one hundred artists. From those nominations, Kennedy Center executives produce a list of about fifteen names.
Then seven members of the center's executive committee make the final choices. The process does not include an official vote.
DOUG JOHNSON: Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake. I'm Doug Johnson.
STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. You can find transcripts and MP3s of our programs at 51voa.com. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.