Friday, August 5, 2011

Another take on Willis Conover

The four previous postings on Willis Conover have been from VOA sources, and for a change of pace, I find it refreshing to refer to a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of Willis from The Daily Kos, a political blog known generally for its progressive point of view, which in April of this year (2011) published two postings on Conover.

In the first, entitled Top Comments: The Willis Conover Edition, writer Ed Tracey refreshingly introduces Conover as "an Army brat who had an interest in science fiction, and even edited the Science Fantasy Correspondent – a 1937 fanzine of its day". (In an earlier posting on these pages I mentioned Conover's book on H. P. Lovecraft--"Lovecraft at Last--fetching generally high prices--though I just ordered an apparently quite crisp and fresh copy for $80--the Daily Kos blog links to an edition of Volume 1, No. 3 of the SFC, with an asking price of $495.00, on the antiquarian Website ABE Books.)

He goes on to say that "In recent decades, governmental efforts to propagate press-release information world-wide via the airwaves (with Radio Marti as an example) I can't help but marvel that the VOA was able to be very influential merely by reporting the facts. And Willis Conover was able to achieve world-wide stardom by merely presenting American music to the rest of the world. He had that perfect radio voice, as was already mentioned. In addition, he learned to speak what was referred to as Special English - slowly and to enunciate quite clearly - not only for the benefit of those who did not speak English, but also for those listening on short-wave and poor transistor radios." (You can hear the VOA Special English program on Willis Conover here in my posting two days ago.)

He goes on to note that "At his peak, Willis Conover's show was estimated to have reached 100 million world-wide - all broadcast from a cramped studio in Washington, D.C. And 30 million of that total was in Eastern Europe alone - especially at a time when the VOA (as well as jazz music) was banned in many Eastern European countries."

As he notes later in the month, the piece generated great interest: "I previously mentioned this man on a Top Comments diary - and had so many "I never knew this!" responses ... I've decided to reprise it here (in more detail).

Then, in "The Cold War hero .. you never heard of", Tracey expands his original piece with many more details and citations of musical influence, along with occasional partisan observations: "At the time, there were 'immediate grumblings in Congress about wasting taxpayers' money by broadcasting frivolous music'. Back then, that might have been a bi-partisan exercise (today, couldn’t you just hear the Tea Party warbling about this?)."

He closes his expanded piece with this moving observation: "So far, a campaign to have him posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - being led, interestingly, by the former Nixon aide Leonard Garment - has been unsuccessful. But fittingly, as a sign of Willis Conover's stature: he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in his adopted Washington, D.C."

Next week: Excerpts from Willis' interviews of leading jazz figures, as selected by Conover's last Studio Engineer at VOA, David Bodington, from among hundreds of taped programs in the weeks following Conover's death on 17 May 1996.

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