James Conkling, a pioneering recording industry executive, was appointed Director of the Voice of America by President Ronald Reagan. A lifelong musician (he was a noted jazz trumpeter during college), his passion for music fueled his rocket-like career.
Conkling began at Capitol Records after the end of World War II, first producing records then heading up Capitol’s A&R (Artists & Repertoire) department where he was responsible for such stars as Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Les Paul, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jackie Gleason, Andy Griffith, Bob Hope, Stan Kenton, Dean Martin, and many others. In 1951, at age 32, he was named president of Columbia Records where he was instrumental in starting Columbia Record Club and establishing the 12-inch LP as a popular format (aside from singles and 10-inch EPs). He was also one of the original directors of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and a founder and chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). In 1958, Conkling became the founding president of Warner Brothers Records. He retired in 1961 at the age of 46 to focus on charity and public causes.
In 1981 the pioneering executive headed to Voice of America, where he faced new challenges. The Cold War brought added pressure for VOA to not only tell the truth, but to actively point out the Soviet Union’s failings and fallacies. During this time, VOA started airing U.S. government editorials rather than news analyses written by the newsroom. The Editorials “representing the official views of the U.S. government” originated from a separate VOA Office of Policy.
Friction from the political pressure to expand anti-Communism propaganda in violation of VOA’s statutory Charter and journalistic pushback from commercial press and inside VOA led to Conkling’s departure after eight months.