The author is president of the board of directors for the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting.
The Voice of America Bethany Station was built in 1944 on a wartime basis under the direction of broadcasting pioneer Powel Crosley. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was determined to broadcast radio messages overseas. Powel Crosley committed his innovative team of engineers in Cincinnati to building transmitters and antennae system capable of this.
A 640-acre site was selected north of Cincinnati in the rural community of West Chester and not far from neighboring Crosley’s powerful WLW transmitter.
Here, engineers set about building something that had never been built before. Intricate antennae systems would soon be scattered throughout the property and an impressive art-deco structure resembling a WWII airfield control tower was built to accommodate the six new 200-kilowatt transmitters (10 kW was the standard power at the time).
The transmitters were designed and built by Crosley engineers with every component custom-made; and they would remain in service to the U.S. government for the next 50 years. The technology was top secret and perplexed Hitler and others as America’s Voice continued to permeate Europe and South America. Frustrated by the inability to block this powerful voice, Hitler referred to the facility as “those Cincinnati Liars.”
The structure itself, while built during the shortages of war, was designed to highlight and pay tribute to the powerful technology held within its walls.
The art-deco building is made of glazed block with a four-story tower that during time of national crisis held armed guards. The bulk of the building was referred to as the Great Concourse, an open space with a 25-foot ceiling, curved balcony and six transmitters on two podiums. This impressive space in the 1940s would have been a vision of technology and progress.
Powel Crosley referred to this concourse as “The Temple of Radio.”
Unique American message
While the structure of the building is significant in an architectural sense, it is the story of The Voice of America Bethany Station that speaks to our nation’s history.
This building represents American ideals in so many ways. In service of their country, a group of innovators united to create technology that had only been imagined. They made it possible for the unique American message of freedom and democracy to be shared with people oppressed by tyrannical leaders yearning for the truth.
For the next 50 years, these engineers used their imaginations and their skills to make sure America’s message was always heard, defeating jamming efforts and overcoming technological challenges.
In times of war and in times of peace, The Voice of America Bethany Station delivered the news and culture of America, including the music of Louis Armstrong and others, to victims of war, the oppressed, the curious and service men and women serving their country around the globe.
With the advent of newer satellite-based technology, ground stations like VOA’s Bethany were no longer needed, and the facility was decommissioned in 1995.
Shortly afterward, dozens of radio towers and curtain antennae were razed at the West Chester location, and the facility and about 500 of the surrounding acres were turned over to West Chester Township and Butler County Metro Parks for public use. The VOA Bethany Station and its surrounding 20 acres were given to West Chester Township for historic monument purposes.
Over the next several years interested citizens worked to convert the Bethany Station into a museum. Most notable among them was the local VFW Post and the West Chester Amateur Radio Association.
As the museum took shape it was evident that the space was larger than needed for just the VOA Museum and West Chester Amateur Radio Association, which was operating an amateur radio station out of the building. At the same time two local museums were looking for new homes. They were the Gray History of Wireless Museum and Media Heritage. Both were excellent fits for the VOA Museum.
The Gray History of Wireless Museum boasts one of the largest collections of antique radio equipment in the country and was assembled by Jack Gray, a former VOA Bethany Station engineer. Media Heritage is dedicated to the preservation, restoration and maintenance of historic broadcast recordings, photographs, scripts, film, printed text, oral histories and other media related to the history of radio and television in the Greater Cincinnati area, the Midwest and the nation. Both of these museums are now housed in the Bethany Station building.
In order to facilitate three museums and an operating radio station (WC8VOA) occupying one building, West Chester Township formed an independent board. Its mission is to develop and operate the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting.
To determine the best way to merge these entities into a cohesive experience the board commissioned Jack Rouse Associates to develop a Concept Master Plan. Meanwhile West Chester Township, with a grant from the state of Ohio, has spent $1.5 million restoring the building to its original 1944 exterior façade. This restoration was completed in 2011 and they are planning additional major repairs to the building for 2012.
The National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting Board has accepted the Rouse Master Plan. The plan can be viewed on the museum website. The fundraising campaign to complete the detail engineering and construction has begun.
The goal is to raise $12 million to convert the Bethany Station into a museum that will preserve the rich history of VOA, wireless radio and Cincinnati broadcast history. Please visit www.voamuseum.org for more information on the affiliated organizations. If you are interested in contributing, please click on www.givevoa.org; it links to the West Chester/Liberty Community Foundation, which is collecting the donations.