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In Praise Of Meaningful Conversation And Pleasant Personalities

July 22, 2015

If you are like me to any degree you flinch just a bit when searching out the latest news headlines. What crazy comment from Donald Trump will headline everything else, and what thoughtful dialogue will be drowned out?

That it was why this article about Willis Conover caught my eye. It was most refreshing to be reminded of a time when loud, brash, coarse, and low-brow was not the norm over the airwaves.   Though the purpose of the article was to highlight jazz and the importance of getting Conover on a postage stamp I was caught up in just a few lines.

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.

I grew up listening to radio, worked in broadcasting for a number of years, and wrote a fair amount about the impact the medium had on my life in Walking Up The Ramp.  As I think about what passes for much on the AM dial–minus the serious and uplifting conversations on WGN (AM 720) and public radio–I am not certain there are even many readers to this blog who understand what has changed and now missing from our national dialogue.  A dialogue that once had coast-to-coast and even international listeners.  There was something worthwhile being said.  No screaming and ranting and charging rhetorically.

Willis Conover was proof that no one had to steady themselves for fear that a bombastic voice was about to rein down on their heads.

A nice thought on a gentle summer afternoon.

  1. August 5, 2015 9:45 AM

    Thanks, Andrew. If you look in my radio category on the right hand side of the blog under categories you will find many posts about radio and in the same theme as this one. I worked in radio when younger (WDOR) and grew up with radio in our home. We had no television in our home until I was in sixth grade. I have a great appreciation for radio, and thank you so much for your comment.

  2. August 5, 2015 7:55 AM

    This is wonderful. I have been feeling nostalgic for old fashioned talk radio for years. just now I thought I’m going to try something. So, I googled in “pleasant radio, nice conversation and this article came up. Thank you very much. It’s good to know others remember.

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