John Birchard of the Voice of America writes:
I read your new material on Willis Conover and VOA. When I joined the staff in ’93, Willis was in decline with cancer. As I worked ights, I didn’t see him often and, in fact, never had a conversation with him. It was my impression that a fair number of staff people kinda resented his status – his renown, his separateness from the “regular” employees.
Following his death, I was appalled that VOA continued to run his tapes for months and months. After some time had passed, I spoke with the then-Deputy Director of VOA, Alan Heil, asking what was going to happen to the program. He said they would hold auditions for a successor. I applied, knowing that whoever followed Willis would suffer by comparison, but feeling that they should have a “live” replacement and continue the great tradition.
Months went by and I was never given the courtesy of a response to my audition, and I learned a couple of other aspirants were treated the same. Management finally signed Russ Davis and put him on the air with a taped show with no publicity or promotion…a shabby epilogue to one of the great careers in broadcasting.
One final Willis anecdote: For most of the 1970s, I was emcee for the annual Quinnipiac College Jazz Festival, which featured the top college jazz bands along the eastern seaboard. Each year, festival organizers invited a distinguished panel of judges to critique the bands – people like Ernie Wilkins, Clark Terry, Chico O’Farrill, Rev Norman O’Connor, Jimmy Lyons, etc. At the time, I worked as a talk show host in New Haven. The festival ran Friday thru Sunday evenings and I couldn’t make the first hour of the Friday show because I was on the air. The organizers would run in a substitute for me for that hour. One Friday night, I believe it was in 1972, I arrived at
the festival site, walked in the hall and heard a very distinctive voice over the PA…yes, it was Willis. I made my way backstage, anxious that I might have lost my gig. When he was given the high sign from the wings, he introduced me. I walked onstage, took the mic and said to the audience, “Do you know how intimidating it is to try to follow the most famous jazz disc jockey in the world?”.
I don’t know if the audience realized who he was – but I sure did. It’s a memory I shall treasure lways.