West Chester man gives back via VOA Radio Lab

Intel retiree uses skills to ‘explain things you can’t see.’

West Chester resident Joe Gruber’s passion for technology and commitment to serving at the VOA Museum has been a driving force in bringing VOA’s Radio Lab to fruition.

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The VOA Radio Lab offers insight on various radio-related topics including magnetism, basic electricity and radio wave theory.

Gruber, a retired Intel executive, has served on the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting’s board of directors since 2015. He is also a devoted volunteer, who spends his time teaching students and visitors about radio in the VOA Radio Lab and beyond.

As a native Cincinnatian, Gruber holds an engineering degree from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA from Xavier University. Gruber and his wife, Diane, have three children. They have lived in West Chester since the late 1980s. Additionally, Gruber holds two patents and is also a General Class amateur radio operator.

We talked to Joe about the VOA Radio Lab and learned more about his love of technology:

Q: Joe, can you share how you got involved with the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting?

A: Early on, I started working with Intel Corporation. I had a fantastic opportunity to meet and work with the founders, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove and Bob Noyce. After I retired, I started thinking about how I would spend my time, and the concept of giving back started to rear its head. I thought, "Who can you go help?" "What can you do with what you've learned and your skills?" I was driving by Voice of America. I drove by where the antennas used to be, and I thought, "I wonder what's going on there?" Well, that has cost me an incredible amount of time, because I stopped in, met Jack (Dominic) and the other people at VOA. I got involved and joined the board of advisors, the corporate board for the Voice of America, and most recently, I accepted the position of chief technology officer for the Voice of America Museum. The skills I had developed at Intel over 34 years have come into play in helping the museum incorporate the latest technologies. One example is we now have Fiber Optics, and wi-fi at the museum, and the basic infrastructures are in place that you need to operate a facility. When I came here, we had a phone lines from the 1960s. One of the things that I find that's been most rewarding is the other half of the story.

There are two parts to VOA. There’s the preservation part, to preserve this and get it ready for visitors, and then there’s the education part. And, what I’ve found with radio, is because it’s invisible, is really an enigma, it’s a mystery to people. Kids don’t understand it, but even with adults, I’ve found it’s something that’s tough to explain. So, with this idea of education, we embarked on an effort to create a special exhibit, or a display, the VOA Radio Lab, and within 15 minutes we can go from magnetism to radio.

Q: Tell us more about the VOA Radio Lab?

A: I don't think (anything like this) exists anywhere in the country. Part of what I did at Intel, and in my sales and marketing roles, was to learn how to explain things, to teach and show the invisible. How do you explain things you can't see? I used different, tools, techniques and technology to help people understand things. Intel was all about inventing new things, and how do you explain these new things? I remember when we invented the USB. Initially, the uses for the new USB cable other than for printers and keyboards was hard for people to grasp. So, we needed to paint a picture of what the future might look like and how people would use these cables. People would stare at them, and look at me and say, "I'm going to use this?" So, you would share with them how important it was going to be. Everybody probably understands USB cables today, but that is only one example.

So, we’ve put together a unique flow in the radio lab, and the comments of people that have gone through it are phenomenal. They walk away with an understanding that they’ve never had before, and it clicks. So, it’s making the invisible visible and being able to explain things, and this is phase 1.

I have visions of taking this to the next level by using augmented reality, which will allow you to see radio waves from all the devices. It will take more financing to get to the next level. (The cost for augmented reality is about $50,000.) But the radio lab allows us to bring people in, educate them, and explain what radio is. It illustrates the technology of radio and shows visitors why it’s important today.

Q: Can you walk me through the process of how the VOA Radio Lab came to be?

A: It started off with a brilliant group of moms in the area. There were some gifted kids and their moms were looking for some new things for them to do. They had run out of ideas. They got together and started creating these opportunities. One of them was Pi Day. They invited companies and individuals in, who had technology to set up exhibits, and then invited families in to be able to come to Pi Day to experience all kinds of technology. So, the basis for Pi Day is STEM (science, technology, engineering and math.) The notion was the more kids you can expose to technology, the probability is later, maybe more of them will get involved in technology … . So, we designed an exhibit … . Again, it boils down to "How do we make the invisible real?" We wanted to communicate information by telling the story of radio … . We built this, and we started off with the basics, which is magnetism, and we worked our way through from magnetism to radio … .

Early on, Intel was gracious enough to provide the exhibits. We needed a 20-foot set of exhibit space, so Intel was generous enough to pay for $35,000 worth of exhibit equipment, so that we could do this. We also managed to get donations for equipment from several other companies, and we put together this flow. Eventually, we’d like to take it to the next level in the future, which is augmented reality, and this would allow you to see the radio waves.

Contact this contributing writer at gmwriteon@aol.com.

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