The WSJ features Willis Conover

Willis Conover, The Voice of America (Source: Wikimedia Commons)(Source: Wall Street Journal via Any Sennitt)

The Radio Broadcaster Who Fought the Cold War Abroad but Remained Unheard at Home


During the Cold War, listeners in captive nations behind the Iron Curtain huddled around radios in basements and attics listening to the imposing bass-baritone voice of the man who sent them American music. His greeting—“Good evening, Willis Conover in Washington, D.C., with Music U.S.A.”—was familiar to millions around the world. At home, relatively few people knew him or his work. A proposal for a postage stamp honoring Conover may give hope to those who want the late Voice of America broadcaster to be awarded a larger mark of distinction.

For 40 years, until shortly before his death in 1996, Conover’s shortwave broadcasts on the Voice of America constituted one of his country’s most effective instruments of cultural diplomacy. Never a government employee, to maintain his independence he worked as a freelance contractor. With knowledge, taste, dignity and no tinge of politics, he introduced his listeners to jazz and American popular music. He interviewed virtually every prominent jazz figure of the second half of the 20th century. His use of the VOA’s “special English”—simple vocabulary and structures spoken at a slow tempo—made him, in effect, a teacher of the language to his listeners.

Countless musicians from former Iron Curtain countries have credited Conover with attracting them to jazz, among them the Czech bassists George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous, the Cuban saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera and the Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev. On the Conover Facebook page established in 2010, Ponomarev wrote that Conover had done as much for jazz “as Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.” Conover’s New York Times obituary said, “In the long struggle between the forces of Communism and democracy, Mr. Conover, who went on the air in 1955 . . . proved more effective than a fleet of B-29’s.” In his publication Gene Lees Jazzletter, the influential critic wrote, “Willis Conover did more to crumble the Berlin Wall and bring about the collapse of the Soviet Empire than all the Cold War presidents put together.”[…]

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal…

Regular SWLing Post readers know that I’m a huge fan of Willis Conover. Much like VOA’s Leo Sarkisian, Conover represented some of the best diplomacy this country has had to offer. [I’ve actually had the honor of meeting and interviewing Leo Sarkisian at his home in Maryland, a few years ago–one of the highlights of my career.]

Are there any SWLing Post readers out there who listened to Willis Conover from behind the “Iron Curtain?” Please comment!

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4 thoughts on “The WSJ features Willis Conover

  1. Richard Langley

    Mike Terry has informed the DX Listening Digest Yahoo Group that the University of North Texas has started to put the Willis Conover archive on line. An article on the effort has appeared on Rifftides, an Arts Journal blog:

    The first batch of ten reels (out of almost 2100) has been converted and the recordings are now available:

    This batch includes an hour from one of the first VOA Music USA broadcasts,
    an interview with Kai Winding:
    This is the first interview conducted for Music USA.

    There’s also one featuring Dave Brubeck:

    1. Thomas Post author

      Richard! Great minds think alike: I just made a post linking to the UNT archive. What a fantastic treasure trove of Jazz music. Thanks for your direct links. I’ve been listening to several with Satchmo this morning.

  2. Richard Langley

    Thanks, Thomas, for putting up the Willis Conover piece:
    Enjoyed it and went and read the whole article.
    Got me wondering about available Willis Conover recordings on the Web and went to to have a look. Not sure if you’ve mentioned these in your blog before or not but I found three:
    NPR Willis Conover Feature 1987:
    Willis Conover Tells His Story:
    Special Dedication to Willis Conover by VOA:
    The last one is two hours long. All an enjoyable listen. It’s too bad we don’t have an archive of Willis Conover’s VOA programs available somewhere (I originally wrote this before seeing Jonathan’s comment above. Also, see below.).
    Also on from VOA and worth listening to (but not related to Willis Conover), we have
    History of Jazz, Part One:
    History of Jazz, Part Two:
    It’s too bad the collection at the University of Texas isn’t on line.


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