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Willis Conover: Music as Propaganda

by John Cobley

Tuesday May 31st, 2016


The emotional power of music has been exploited throughout human history. Many traditional religious ceremonies depend on music. Today it is used in shopping malls, gyms and restaurants, at the beginning of sports events, and for advertising and film. Armies went to war with marching bands and bagpipes, and public events are started with national anthems. Even political propaganda, which is mainly verbal, has successfully exploited music.


One of the best examples of music as successful propaganda can be found in the jazz broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA) during the Cold War.  VOA was a short-wave radio station that was originally set up by the American Office of War Information for propaganda purposes during World War Two. John Houseman, more famous as a theatre producer and actor, was the first director of VOA. He established its policy and programming. At first the material was largely verbal, but Houseman’s view of propaganda soon changed: “We found ourselves using music as an instrument of propaganda.” (Terence M. Ripmaster, Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz to the World, p. 23) During the war, VOA began to broadcast American popular music, which was predominantly big-band jazz at that time. Such music had been banned in Axis countries.


After the war, Lou Cowan, the new head of VOA, suggested continuing this use of music in the propaganda war that was developing with the Soviet Union. The American government wanted to promote its democratic and free society in contrast with the repression behind the Iron Curtain. In this propaganda war, the value of VOA increased despite both opposition from Senator McCarthy and an ensuing 36% budget cut. It was at this time that VOA hired Willis Conover to broadcast a nightly jazz show called Music USA. In the words of John Chancellor, a future director of VOA (1965-1967), this program was to become “the single most effective instrument we had at the Voice.” (Ripmaster, p. 27) Much of the credit for this success must go to Willis Conover. 




Willis Conover (1920-1996) was working as a broadcaster and impresario in Washington, DC, when he was hired by VOA in 1954. He was vice-president of the DC Hot Jazz Society and had been sponsoring and emcee-ing concerts. Although not a musician, he formed his own jazz orchestra in 1952 and recorded an album that received a five-star rating in Down Beat. By the time he was hired by VOA, he was well-known in jazz circles and respected by the musicians.


Although he was a firm patriot and believed in the necessity to combat the Communist ideology, Conover did not overtly use anti-Soviet propaganda in his programs. According to Terence M. Ripmaster’s Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz to the World, Conover was often asked how he felt being “a mouthpiece of American policies.” In reply, he reminded his critics that as an independent producer, “he was not beholden to any agency policies other than those related to the technicalities of broadcasting over VOA.” (p. 30) Conover was never an employee of VOA; he called himself an “independent contractor.”


He also portrayed himself as a purist, as someone solely concerned with jazz, the music he loved. He took great care in preparing each one-hour program: “I wanted to make a program, a composed program, literally composed like a song or a poem, or like a book.” (31) Gene Lees has described how Conover presented his programs with “a quiet authority founded on unfailing taste and a knowledge of jazz that is encyclopedic, as is his knowledge of the men and women who create it.” (Jazzletter 11:4, April 1992)


This authority was the key to the success of Music USA. It also enabled Conover to negotiate more than 40 annual contracts. Of course there was opposition, but his program continued uninterrupted and apparently without any imposed verbal propaganda. I say apparently because his programs have yet to become available. A large number of tapes do exist, although many are said to be in poor condition. Fortunately they have recently been acquired by North Texas University with a commitment to make them available. At this time there are only short examples of his Music USA program on the Internet.


I still find it hard to believe that there was never any verbal propaganda in Music USA. In fact, I did find one example where Conover says in his introduction to a program: “The music of Jazz parallels the freedom that we have in America. Something that not every country has.” But so far only a few excerpts of his programs are available. What these excerpts show is the uniqueness of Conover’s style. There is none of the hype of the American DJ style that evolved with the development of radio. Conover’s style is best described as reverential. He managed to convey his great respect for jazz in his deep voice, letting the music speak for itself. He never resorted to hyperbole or praise and would do little more than introduce the artists. Of course, his choice of jazz artists was impeccable.


Such an approach led him to attract millions of listeners all over the world. Ripmaster’s book has a 46-page chapter on “Conover’s Jazz Children Around the World.” This long chapter contains anecdotes from all the Eastern-Bloc countries as well as from countries as diverse as Turkey and Cuba. These anecdotes abound with sentiments of devotion and love.




It seems quite miraculous that Willis Conover became America’s most successful Cold-War propagandist merely by introducing and playing jazz, that he was more successful than the many experts hired by the CIA to write propaganda. It will be interesting to see, when the University of North Texas issues some of his hour-long programs, whether Willis Conover did completely avoid verbal propaganda in Music USA.


Stay tuned.


Note: I highly recommend Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz to the World by Terence M. Ripmaster.

1 Comment

Shaukat Husain Sunday 1st January 2017

Thanks for this article John.

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