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Invisible Man: Willis Conover and The Jazz Hour

Invisible Man: Willis Conover and The Jazz Hour
Karl Ackermann By

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Jazz is a classical parallel to our American political and social system. We agree in advance on the laws…we are free to do whatever we wish within those constraints. It’s the same with jazz. —Willis Conover
Willis Conover stood with a cordoned off pool of reporters and photographers, being kept at arms-length from celebrities and dignitaries on the White House lawn. There was no table assigned to him at Bill Clinton's 1993 celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival though Conover had been involved with George Wein's project from the beginning, serving on the festival's board of directors and acting as a host. There was no recognition of the man who had organized more than three-dozen jazz events at the White House for every president from Kennedy forward. Conover's Voice of America program, the Music USA Jazz Hour ran for over four decades, and reached, at its peak, thirty million listeners behind the Iron Curtain and one-hundred-million worldwide. It did not—by Congressional decree—reach Americans. Jazz writer Gene Lees said, "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." Away from the microphone, he was an aging, nameless face, neither recognized or remembered by most attendees. Conover was described this way in a New York Times obituary: "He was known as the most famous American that virtually no American had ever heard of." (May 19, 1996). When the White House event concluded, Conover made his way back to the Voice of America studio, a few blocks away on Independence Avenue, and went back to work on that night's Jazz Hour. What Conover accomplished in a lifetime at the Jazz Hour is impossible to quantify; hyperbole and bona fide achievement are both parts of his legacy. His life was no less complicated than his work.

The Voice of America

To understand the anonymity of Conover, in his own country, it is necessary to recognize the clandestine operations of the Voice of America. When the stars aligned, the VOA was embraced in a bipartisan manner. When there was any question of the organization's effectiveness, Washington bureaucrats treated it as a political football, both sides of the aisle lining up to kick it as far from themselves as possible. In 1939, the United States was the only world power without a government-subsidized radio service, with some degree of global reach. It was that year when Germany invaded Poland setting World War II in motion; the Nazi regime already having a large network of radio transmitters broadcasting into other parts of Europe and into Latin America. Japan, now at war with China, had a similar propaganda apparatus in place while the Dutch, English, French, and Soviets had been broadcasting radio propaganda since the beginning of the decade, the USSR, in fifty languages. Legislation for a national radio service had been introduced—and failed to pass in Congress—in 1937, 1938 and 1939 despite the concerns of many elected officials that saw the need to counter Nazi propaganda. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the U.S. Foreign Information Service (FIS) broadcasting from New York City and bringing in seasoned journalists and producers. But the lack of a supporting government infrastructure was near crippling. Shortwave radio was the means of broadcasting for all the industrialized countries with propaganda programming and those countries developed government-run networks to disseminate programs. FIS had to rely on U.S.-based amateur radio operators. Shortwave radio kits were inexpensive and relatively easy to build and by the early 1920s, there were sufficient numbers in use to warrant licensing regulations. By 1924, amateur operators in the U.S. were broadcasting as far away as New Zealand. FIS recruited both amateurs and professionals in the U.S. and worked with BBC officials in London to bring about off-shore programming, including Voice of America broadcasts that began concurrently with the 1941 U.S. entry into the war.

The numerous government agencies under whose umbrellas the VOA resided, prohibited the programs from being broadcast inside the U.S. either live or on tape and critics of the VOA questioned what "truths" were being broadcast on the taxpayer's dollar. Government officials offered what seems a self-defeating explanation, saying "programming used to promote American interests abroad could amount to domestic propaganda if shown within the United States." The ban on U.S. broadcasts remained in effect for over seventy years, being lifted in 2013 when the internet had made such injunctions useless.

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