It is fitting that the first story in our anniversary feature Only at VOA focuses on VOA’s international jazz “superstar,” Willis Conover. As a VOA radio broadcaster, Conover’s career spanned more than 40 wonderful years. His popular show, Music USA, took to the airwaves on January 6, 1955. The first hour of his program played popular music while the second hour focused solely on jazz, showcasing its artists and music. Conover and Jazz Hour/Music USA represented VOA’s vision of maintaining a balance of its programing between news and culture.
VOA is prohibited from broadcasting within the United States, so although Conover’s career was based stateside, his wide-spread fame was overseas and within the jazz community. Known as America’s “ambassador of jazz,” Conover attracted large crowds when he appeared at concerts and festivals in such countries as Poland, Russia, Brazil, and India. In addition, his popularity grew rapidly with audiences, particularly those in countries behind the Iron Curtain, providing musicians there with a vibrant link to jazz and popular music. Through VOA and his show Jazz Hour/Music USA, Conover featured interviews and on-air performances from world-famous jazz artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Sara Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Conover lived an individualistic lifestyle. He signed 40 one-year contracts during his time at VOA to ensure he remained a contractor rather than a government employee. This allowed him to retain control of his schedule and take advantage of other work opportunities. Individualistic and self-sufficient, Conover only used selections from his personal music library and self-produced his own shows. He never used a replacement or co-host; when away on trips, he aired several pre-produced new programs mixed with carefully selected repeat broadcasts to fill his broadcast times.
Conover died from cancer in 1996, after more than 40 years at VOA, but has not been forgotten. We still receive requests from audience members around the world!