Radio Central: CHRS Asks Big Questions

California Historical Radio Society considers how to protect the past while appealing to new audiences
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The author is professor emeritus at San Jose State University and the board chair of the California Historical Radio Society.

The California Historical Radio Society, CHRS, is building a radio history museum on Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay.

This is the Pacific Telephone exchange as it was constructed in 1900.

This is the Pacific Telephone exchange as it was constructed in 1900.

For 10 years, our radio museum was in the abandoned studios and offices of Berkeley radio station KRE. Under our original handshake agreement, we were permitted to use the space rent-free with the option to purchase. But, alas, right in the middle of our 2015 fund drive, we were informed that someone else would buy the building including the two licensed AM transmitters operating there, paying an amount far above our bid. Within a month we were shown the door.

Immediately, CHRS President Steve Kushman of KGO(TV) contacted our major donors and asked them to remain committed while we searched for a new home. Within a frantic few months we were able to locate and buy for $1 million the 120-year-old Pacific Telephone building in Alameda.

We are now creating a radio history experience, slowly, carefully, one exhibit at a time. We are calling it “Radio Central,” because it was once the central phone exchange, and it is on Central Ave.

Radio fans line up for Radio Day 2018. The original façade still exists behind the ugly concrete front. We plan to restore it back to how it looked in 1900.

Radio fans line up for Radio Day 2018. The original façade still exists behind the ugly concrete front. We plan to restore it back to how it looked in 1900.

PLANS

CHRS is a California non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation created in 1974 to promote the research, preservation, publication and presentation of early radio and broadcasting.

In addition to the society’s collections of the histories of Bay Area radio stations and personalities, we have thousands of radios and other communications devices of the 20th century, from wireless to radio to television, from crystal to vacuum tube to transistor, from headphones to loudspeakers. For radio scholars we have a complete communications library containing the histories of radio technology and programming as it was created for amateur and citizen audiences.

In addition to actual devices, we have taken over the mission and archives of organizations that were “virtual,” that is, they resided in someone’s home or on the web.

The California Historical Radio Society museum is on historic Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay.

The California Historical Radio Society museum is on historic Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay.

The most important of these is the Bay Area Radio Museum and Broadcasting Hall of Fame, a salute to the legendary radio personalities, stations and programming in the form of air checks, photos and stories. It’s soon to be a “real” room in our building. We have online the archives of The Society of Wireless Pioneers, and we hold the FCC-licensed amateur station W6CF. In our shop members repair radios for auction and display, and it is in this space that we teach classes in radio repair.

When we are fully built, we will have a complete radio museum featuring artifacts from early wireless to the present day, all told as stories and much of it interactive. We will have a small theatre for live presentations and a broadcast control room and studio as it was in the early years.

The interior in 1900, seen as an operating phone exchange. After that went out of business, the building became a church and, later, a private school.

The interior in 1900, seen as an operating phone exchange. After that went out of business, the building became a church and, later, a private school.

CHALLENGES BEFORE US

OK, we have lots of equipment. But what is our purpose, our reason to exist?

CHRS began over 40 years ago as a radio collecting hobby club. But now with the responsibility of museum ownership, we must broaden our audience.

Our original membership is mostly over 65, while the museum audience we seek is from high school to college to those of millennial age and beyond. As a university professor I would ask students in my communications history class this question: How many of you have radios? Several decades ago all would raise their hands in the affirmative. Now when I ask the question only one or two in a class of 100 admit to owning a radio.

Today, the same space is filled with radios in storage. We will create our museum, studio and control room in this space.

Today, the same space is filled with radios in storage. We will create our museum, studio and control room in this space.

This is my cue to ask about their car radio, and to start a discussion about defining radio. I’ll admit I listen to Bay Area radio on a smartphone app and I am a longtime subscriber to SiriusXM. It’s all radio. How can our museum reach those who have never owned, never tuned a radio?

How can we educate and excite new audiences about the cultural as well as the technical importance of radio? How do we communicate the meaning of radio to a very diverse Bay Area population, now one-third white, one-third Hispanic, one-third Asian? How can we remain viable long after our older hobbyist base ages out? How can we explain in a compelling way how wireless 100 years ago relates to the wireless device currently in the hand of every man, woman and child?

Even more important, how can we serve the Bay Area broadcast community, those professionals who were the announcers, engineers and managers of the formative years of radio? We have their transmitters, control boards and microphones. We want those broadcasters and their listening audiences as museum patrons.

Our annual Radio Day by the Bay features local broadcasters. Master of Ceremonies Stan Bunger of KCBS Radio, left, and auctioneer Dan Ashley of KGO(TV) are shown at Radio Day in July 2018.

Our annual Radio Day by the Bay features local broadcasters. Master of Ceremonies Stan Bunger of KCBS Radio, left, and auctioneer Dan Ashley of KGO(TV) are shown at Radio Day in July 2018.

BY THE BAY

Our major yearly event is Radio Day by the Bay; it features an auction of vintage radios and the recreation of a radio play featuring local radio talent as the actors.

This year we presented the San Francisco-themed “Pat Novak for Hire.” Our auctioneers are local broadcasters, this year KGO-7 anchor Dan Ashley. The new inductees into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame were introduced by author and San Francisco Chronicle radio columnist Ben Fong-Torres and Kim Wonderly of KCBS Radio. Our long time master of ceremonies is KCBS morning news personality Stan Bunger. Radio Day is successful as a fundraising event, and it introduces a citizen audience to the museum.

Music from the past with Don Neeley’s sextet.

Music from the past with Don Neeley’s sextet.

The California Historical Radio Society remains committed to providing a forum for exchanging ideas, publishing stories and displaying the artifacts of the history of radio and broadcasting. But we must make our knowledge and our artifacts relevant to the new audiences we seek to serve.

We are asking big questions: How do we attract to our museum the broadcasters that we honor? The Bay Area SBE chapter holds their annual meeting in our museum, but announcers seem less interested. What do we do to attract them? How do we reach those of millennial age? How do we move from a static radio hardware museum to one that speaks to the cultural importance of communications technology and programming? How do we pay for it, and how do we ensure our viability in the future? These are our challenges.

For more information visit www.californiahistoricalradio.com.

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