West Chester museum renovation to honor VOA’s worldwide influence


Phase 1: Renovation of room in west wing of building for an exhibit hall that can host lectures and small displays that can periodically be switched out for new ones. Started this month. planned for completion later this year.

Phase 2: Renovation/redesign of room in east wing of building to create a multipurpose area for group-based activities.

Phase 3: Renovation of the former transmitter room as the main exhibit hall area.

For more information, visit www.voamuseum.org or call 513-777-0027

Jack Dominic walked out the front of the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting to welcome the unannounced guest.

Speaking with a thick Russian accent, the man explained the purpose of his visit to Dominic, the museum’s executive director: “I have been wanting to come here for years. I just live down the street. I’ve got something for you.”

Opening the trunk of his car, the man and his wife pulled out a worn, nondescript shortwave radio — one manufactured by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War — and presented it Dominic with an explanation.

“We call this our under-the-blanket radio,” said the man, who previously lived in Ukraine and used the radio in the 1960s and 1970s. “Most of my neighbors would have one like it.”

The radio, like countless others, was specifically designed to receive only Soviet transmissions, effectively blocking out news broadcasts from the outside world.

“He called it the under-the-blanket radio because nobody was supposed to be able to do this,” Dominic said, adding that everybody “knew a guy” who could.

However, many resourceful people found others who could doctor the device so it received Voice of America broadcasts, which originated in the United States from West Chester’s Voice of America Bethany Relay Station.

Situated along Tylersville Road near Voice of America MetroPark, the facility and its technology served as the main conduit for the United States to present news, entertainment and educational programming from actual press agencies to people worldwide hungering for facts instead of state-fed propaganda.

On Oct. 17, a woman from Loveland with a Polish accent stopped by the museum for an open house and told Dominic she had been very active in Poland’s Solidarity movement, which fought for the country’s independence in the 1980s.

“She was actually put in jail because she published stuff that they didn’t want to see and she said she had a radio like this,” Dominic said.

An interview Dominic conducted with a man from a former Soviet satellite country succinctly captured the importance of VOA’s mission to spread factual information far and wide.

“He said, ‘In Russia, airplanes never crashed. Crops were always good. We knew better than that.’”

Hardly a month goes by without someone dropping by the museum to share the importance of the relay station in their lives, Dominic said.

“They find out that this place is here and it’s unbelievable. They have tears in their eyes,” he said. “They all say the same thing: ‘I never thought I would see where these broadcasts were coming from.’ That’s the power of this place.”

Stories like those are why the VOA Museum embarked in 2013 on a $12 million capital campaign, one that this month launched renovation efforts meant to improve aesthetics, create handicapped accessibility and carve out areas for both temporary and permanent exhibits, as well as a multipurpose area for lectures and workshops.

The revamp is aimed at providing the ultimate way to highlight the Voice of America Bethany Relay Station’s legacy: keeping millions of people worldwide informed.

Constructed in 1944, the Voice of America Bethany Relay Station in West Chester Twp. was one of three, with similar facilities in New York and California, Dominic said.

“They didn’t want to put too many eggs in a basket on the East Coast and they didn’t want to put too many eggs in a basket on the West Coast because of the U-Boats and all of that,” he said.

The Butler County facility was the main transmission facility for new, entertainment and educational programming going to Europe, North Africa and South America.

“From 1945 until 1995, it operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with six of the most powerful (short-wave) transmitters in the world,” Dominic said. “They were 2 million watts each.”

The facility, which once sat on a sprawling property on the northeast corner of Tylersville and Cox roads, was decommissioned in 1995. Most of the land went to Voice of America MetroPark and the Voice of America Centre shopping complex. Now the broadcast towers that stood as blinking landmarks to passing motorists on Interstate 75 are gone and the iconic, art deco building sits on a significantly smaller property that many motorists likely pass without knowing its vast, impactful history.

Tours of the facility, including various historical exhibits, occur on the third Saturday of each month. Renovation efforts would change that to make the museum a six-days-a-week operation, Dominic said.

But the renovation effort is not a matter of building something “to house a bunch of old tubes and radios,” he said.

“There will be some old tubes and radios, but that’s not what this place is about,” Dominic said. “This place is to recognize and to celebrate the tremendous importance then and today of factual, truthful communication. “To preserve the whole concept of free and clear truthful information is not a historical remnant, it’s something we need to continue today.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose idea it was to develop the Voice of America effort, did so because Nazi Germany understood state-run media and the power it had to control and sway the masses, Dominic said.

“They had a whole division of propaganda and movies and … Hitler subsidized the purchase of shortwave radios for the German people, but guess what? They only received their channels,” he said.

The reason behind how Butler County ended up with such a facility in the first place should inspire pride, Dominic said.

“When they decided they wanted to build a facility like this, with high-powered transmitters, the only people in the entire United States that had the engineering prowess was (Powell Crosby Jr.),” he said.

Dominic said once such basics as heating, air conditioning, lighting and chairs are in place, a wide variety of displays and programming are envisioned.

“We want to have dialogue, maybe a lecture series on the importance of factual communication,” he said. “People who don’t pay attention to history are (doomed) to repeat it.”

A revamped VOA Museum also would mean a better way to exhibit the history and development of radio as a medium and the history of radio and TV broadcasting in Cincinnati, including everything from legions of singers, musicians and comedians to actors, journalists and the inventor of program syndication.

Before any of that can happen, the museum must reach its $12 million fundraising goal, including a $3 million endowment, Dominic said.

“Anyone who knows anything about museums … realizes that a turnstile is not going to fund it,” he said. “You’ve got to have reserves. Before we go full bore, we need to be sure we have an endowment.

“You can build this thing, but if you don’t have money to run it, you’re just digging yourself a hole.”

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