Thursday, March 13, 2008

Willis Conover and the VOA

Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, my dad bought a Philco console radio. Used though it was, it became the center of our household entertainment, where we’d gather after supper. Dad would read the paper, we kids would grab the “funnies,” and we’d all enjoy programs ranging from “Fibber McGhee and Molly” to “Our Miss Brooks” and “Gunsmoke.”

Within a short time, I became enamored with the shortwave bands. I can recall with amazement learning that the English monotone newscast I often heard was coming from Radio Moscow. In the middle of the “Cold War,” this was heady stuff. I think few of my friends were as intrigued by this stuff as I was.

By the late ‘50s, I was becoming a frequent listener of the
Voice of America. I liked to listen to both standard newscasts and “Special English” programs. Some 40 years later, when I was director of the Mississippi public broadcasting network, I even stole VOA’s “Opinion Roundup” title for a new program we initiated. It was a collection of editorial opinions from regional newspapers.

If I were to associate a single “voice” or “personality” with the Voice of America, it was Willis Conover. He was the independent contractor hired by VOA to host a jazz program, and it became wildly popular around the world. Importantly, it became a link with Russia and eastern European listeners and helped keep open a path of friendship between the peoples of those countries and the United States.

Willis’ rich voice, although used in a rather dour and monotone delivery, became familiar to citizens in most corners of the world – except, ironically, the United States. He seemed to have a limitless knowledge of jazz and its musicians, although that perception may have been because I was so immersed with “popular music” and the emerging sounds of rock and roll. I knew little about jazz.

The work of Willis Conover and his VOA broadcasts were a memorable part of my youth -- perhaps yours, too. I hope you’ll enjoy some of
these photographs of Willis at work and with some of the folks he interviewed over the years. That's songstress Sara Vaughan above with Willis. It’s a most enjoyable stroll down memory lane.

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