Powel Crosley and the Bethany Station.
- Let's say you're a longtime, enthusiastic Voice of America listener who has the opportunity to visit the United States, and someone like me, right now, informs you that there's one place in America where you can find a VOA Museum. There's even an interstate highway sign pointing drivers to an amazing VOA complex,
the site where VOA transmitters once sent the mightiest signals in international radio history into the heart of occupied Europe and elsewhere during World War II;
a three-in-one museum that chronicles VOA's story, the saga of wireless communication going back to Marconi, and local broadcasting history in rich detail;
a large and beautiful park named for the Voice of America where you can hike, fish in a 14-hectare lake, sled down a long hill, get a match going on one of 24 soccer fields or a cricket pitch, bird-watch in meadow that's an official wildlife preserve, let your mutt loose in the "Wiggly Field" dog park, and even get married!
a university learning center that also carries the name of the Voice of America;
and even a good-sized VOA shopping center, of all things.
You would surely assume that such an immersion experience would be in Washington, surrounding VOA headquarters on Independence Avenue and the National Mall. Or somehow squeezed into downtown New York City, where most VOA programming originated during the war. Those choices are too obvious, of course. Cox Road is the place where you'll find the Voice of America "brand" on dozens of buildings and signs and thousands of lips and is nowhere near the nation's capital or the Big Apple. I can assure you that there isn't a VOA shopping center, university extension, wildlife preserve or dog park anywhere near our nondescript Washington headquarters building or the VOA news bureau in congested Manhattan.
To picture their location, take your right hand and make a "V for Victory" sign of the sort for which Britain's wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, was famous.
Your fist is the pleasant and prosperous Midwest city of Cincinnati, Ohio. And your two uplifted fingers are busy interstate highways, the index finger heading north toward Dayton, Ohio, and on to Detroit, Michigan; and the middle finger angling northeastward to Ohio's capital city of Columbus and the Great Lakes port of Cleveland.
Inside the V, what was once the rural township of West Chester has exploded from 39,700 population in 1990 to more than 62,000 today as housing subdivisions, shopping malls, business parks, hospitals, and freeway exit clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels have gobbled up almost every clod of dirt.
Save, that is, for a pretty, 253-hectare (625-acre) oasis 650 kilometers (400 miles) west of Washington where you can get that unparalleled Voice of America "fix."
As announcer Fred Foy intoned on the old Lone Ranger radio show in the 1940s, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear for the fascinating answer.
The story begins with Powel Crosley, Jr., a man who early on had nothing to do with the Voice of America. Crosley had his heart set on building inexpensive automobiles but would one day be known as "the Henry Ford of Radio."
Lots of people drove Crosleys home and grabbed a beer or sandwich from their Crosley refrigerators in the 1940s.
Powel Crosley became intrigued with broadcasting when his son asked for a radio set as a "toy." Revolted by their exorbitant cost, Crosley was soon building radios and their components himself. By 1924, the Crosley Corp. was the world's largest manufacturer of desk radios and large radio cabinets of the sort you see families gathered around in old photographs.
Crosley the radio man wanted to give people a good reason to buy his product, so he constructed a 20-watt transmitter in his home and began broadcasting to his neighbors.
Within ten years, the entire country would be listening, not through some network but to Crosley's WLW - "The Nation's Station" in Cincinnati - which generated its own elaborate programs, including the first "soap opera" using a resident company of actors and musicians. Many of them - Doris Day and the Mills Brothers among them - would become American superstars.
Broadcasting on medium wave at 500,000 watts - ten times the power of any other U.S. radio station then and to this day beginning May 2, 1934 with the throwing of a switch by President Roosevelt in Washington, WLW bounced a signal off the ionosphere from coast to coast and beyond. Rival stations complained bitterly of unfair competition and interference with their signals. And when some of them began haranguing the federal government for equal power to mount their own superstations, Congress in 1939 rid itself of the controversy by capping every station's power, including WLW's, at 50,000 watts.
This early informational booklet shows the unusual shape of WLW's 224-meter (735-foot) 200-ton tower that blasted its signal clear across the continent.
The WLW megastation's programs emanated from Crosley's downtown appliance factory, but its enormous tower taller than the Washington Monument - sat 40 kilometers away near the little town of Mason, Ohio, in those same farm fields mentioned earlier. For good reason. A half-million-watt signal bouncing around downtown buildings would have played havoc with other electronic signals and drowned out every other station in town.
Fast-forward to the early days of World War II, when Nazi Germany, too, had developed 62 powerful transmitters, shortwave in this case, pointed across Europe and reaching as far away as South America. German broadcasters poured out propaganda aimed at softening resistance to Nazi aggression and diverting America's attention. Japan, too, operated 42 long-range transmitters flooding the Asian nations it was in the process of subjugating.
There was no equivalent American response, since the nation was trying mightily to stay clear of war. The signals of only 13 shortwave stations, programming innocuous entertainment, emanated from America's shores at the time.
Powel Crosley's WLWO or WLW Overseas - was one of them. From two towers next to the WLW monster in those corn and alfalfa fields, it beamed orchestra music, comedy shows, crime dramas and westerns to Europe and Latin America with 75kw of shortwave power. Following Japan's bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, and America's immediate declaration of war on Japan and Germany, President Roosevelt summoned titans of industry and pleaded for help in countering Axis psychological warfare. WLWO began beaming German- and Italian-language broadcasts supplied by the Voice of America's predecessor agency, the Office of War Information, operating out of New York. WLWO broadcasters like Robert Bauer, who had escaped Nazi Germany by an eyelash, gave the Third Reich a dose of its own bluster. Bauer, an Austrian like Adolf Hitler, could mimic the Führer's speech impeccably. He would give faux rally speeches in which "Hitler" would dissolve into stark raving lunacy - which, of course, wasn't far removed from reality. The real madman, in turn, was heard to rail against "those Cincinnati liars."
WLWO and other American-based shortwave stations also carried the very first words of the new Voice of America in February 1942, when newsman William Harlan Hale said in German from New York, "The news may be bad or the news may be good; we will tell you the truth."
During a break in the president's meeting with the moguls, Crosley Corp. Chairman James Shouse called his top engineer in Cincinnati and asked if the company could build 200kw shortwave transmitters with directional antennas that could be aimed at Europe, Africa, and South America.
"I don't know, but I will sure give it a hell of a try," replied the engineer.
And so it was that the U.S. Government purchased a 250-hectare (625-acre) stretch of hillocks, meadows, and alfalfa fields in southwest Ohio, just down the road from Crosley's WLW transmitter complex. This new "Bethany facility," named after a local telephone exchange, was ideal because of its location far from coastlines that were viewed, in those anxious days after Pearl Harbor, as vulnerable to Axis attack. Besides, power from companies in Cincinnati and Dayton was readily at hand. (And boy, would Bethany need it. Once the plant was up and operating in September 1944, the Federal Government would pay the electric utility companies almost $900,000 a year for "juice.")
Needless to say, the Bethany project got "AA-1" priority, obtaining all the glass vacuum tubes, steel and copper it needed, despite the strict wartime rationing of such materials.
There in bucolic West Chester within a year and a few days, Shouse's men, including Clyde Haehnle (still an active broadcast-engineering consultant and one of the VOA museum's board members) constructed an impressive building the size of a small city's airport terminal.
A former board member and the project's architect, Jim Fearing, calls it a "temple of radio." Why so fancy for a top-secret installation, off-limits to, if not out of sight of, the public? "Powel Crosley was a showman," says board member Dave Snyder, the facility's supervisor in its final days. Crosley thought, perhaps, that he'd be getting control of the building back once the war was over. "You'd go up an impressive set of stairs to what we called `the fishbowl,' from which you would see the whole transmitter concourse," Snyder added.
Inside the handsome edifice, "RF," or radio-frequency, transmitters converted low-wattage signals incoming on telephone lines into powerful ones, and six 175kw shortwave transmitters - the strongest in history, plus 24 directional shortwave antennas sent programming, ultimately in 52 languages, skipping off the ionosphere to overcome the earth's curvature to precisely pinpointed target areas abroad.
"These shortwaves are not like those of our standard broadcast band," an early VOA broadcast informed its audience. "They are the siege guns of radio, the heavy artillery guns of war that can hurl explosive facts against weapons of lies and confusion, anywhere in the world."
For those of you who "speak engineering," I'm told that these manually tuned Crosley transmitters were later replaced by even more powerful, remotely tuned 250kw Collins units.
According to one report, the Crosley engineers had to overcome "horrendous" technical problems in mounting the new transmitter site. "New tubes had to be designed [and built from scratch], 24 high-gain rhombic antennas improved, [and] `re-entrant termination' advanced to keep antennas from simply melting. . . . It was the most sophisticated antennae system ever devised."
Funny things happened out in the antenna field from time to time. Not always so funny if you were involved, however. John Vodenik, who spent a decade at Bethany and now works in VOA's Network Control Center at our Washington headquarters, recalls the day when an "electric blue" flame shot from one of the Collins transmitters, melting a hole in the aluminum side panel and setting off a popping sound matched only when various wildlife species would meet their demise atop one of the 300-ohm transmission lines, or when accumulations of ice would create a "light show" of arcs among the wires. The building did not burn down during the blue-flame incident, but the station crew had to take the panel to a local auto-body shop for repairs. Every once in awhile though, VOA engineers had to call in the local fire department to extinguish flames triggered by lightning strikes in the alfalfa. The government had allowed a farmer to continue planting and plowing right in the antenna field.
The entire complex was surrounded by chain-link fence and closely guarded by military sentries, some of whom slept in the observation tower above the transmitters and control rooms. Guards would remain through the Cold War years, after which engineers could finally allow in curious citizens and passersby for impromptu tours.
You would not have found a single microphone at the Bethany site. It was pragmatism - and paranoia - at work. What if enemy agents were to seize control of transmitters that could be redirected to different parts of the world in ten minutes?
VOA's Bethany site, like others in California and North Carolina, was considered a "relay station," passing along, rather than originating, programming from Washington and New York directly to international audiences or to other such stations in North Africa, Pacific Islands, Asian locations, and elsewhere. For a time, Bethany even connected with relay stations aboard destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1945 Powel Crosley, still determined to build and market automobiles, sold WLW and all other Crosley broadcasting properties, though Crosley engineers continued to operate VOA's Bethany site until Voice of America personnel took over in 1963.
Beginning in 1951 during the Cold War, arrays of "curtain antennas," strung among gigantic steel support towers, were added to Bethany's broadcast arsenal. These arrays were oriented at different angles facing Europe and parts of Africa. Exactly where could be changed quickly during station breaks while the transmitters were briefly shut off. But to do it, crews of three had to hustle out back in all types of weather and flip a series of handles by hand in a "switching matrix" of telephone poles and wires that still survives. It looks like a small power substation. Switches would freeze so solidly in the dead of winter that engineers had to attach lit propane torches to poles, reach up and melt the ice in order to throw them. Sudden shifts in frequency came often, too, to outfox Soviet engineers who were adroit at jamming shortwave signals.
Operations continued at the Bethany Relay Station six final years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, hastening the end of the Cold War. With the advent of satellite transmissions, the need for the aging Ohio facility had declined. Pressures on the VOA budget, plus our agency's steady move away from shortwave broadcasting except in parts of the world where medium wave, FM, and television broadcasting had yet to take hold, hastened Bethany's death knell. The site was decommissioned in September 1995, and its landmark towers were pulled down soon thereafter.
There was another factor working against Bethany as well. Its ever-increasing number of neighbors did not find the interference from our powerful transmitters amusing. We can laugh at the stories of a radio signal causing windshield wipers to spontaneously erupt, neighborhood downspouts and one fellow's entire furnace to throb with music, and a nearby church's public-address system to break into VOA Spanish in the middle of the minister's sermon. Nearby bedsprings were a good VOA signal carrier, too. But things got so bad that the local telephone company passed out anti-interference filters; and car and truck manufacturers would run new models up and down Tylersville Road, testing their shielding against the radio behemoth's signals.
In 2000, shortly after the Bethany site was formally transferred to West Chester Township, Bill Zerkle, the parks and recreation director, was visited by his boss. "We're getting the VOA property," he told Zerkle, and as part of the agreement this old transmitter building is to become a museum. "So buddy, you go for it," Zerkle recalls the superior's instruction.
The site was carved into several pieces. Thirty hectares in the southwest corner - thankfully only that corner given the glut of civilization already in the area was sold to shopping-mall developers for a "Voice of America Centre" shopping plaza. Eight hectares went to Miami University, one of Ohio's state universities, for a learning center. Once built in a halls-of-ivy-style columned structure complete with classrooms and meeting spaces, it began serving 21st century-style "swirling students." These are often working adults with what the VOA Learning Center's Rod Nimtz calls "fluid student experiences" who are compiling college credits evenings or weekends and adding them to those earned years earlier and elsewhere.
The VOA Park will one day add a performance amphitheater, whose crowds may be ripe customers for the VOA museum.
The county's "metroparks" system got 80 hectares as a nature preserve, a recreational site - including a sledding hill that attracts snow-lovers from three states and a lodge for receptions, dances and weddings.
The little piece that remained of the project, including the transmitter building, was left to the township for that unspecified museum.
Zerkle, who left the parks department to become president and CEO of the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting in 2007, set up shop in the deserted, unheated building. It had been toasty warm in the days when its transmitters, full of large and red-hot tubes, were, in architect Fearing's words, "sucking up 3 million watts" of power; so hot were the tubes that some transmitter components had to be cooled in vats called "water jackets," whose rising steam heated the building. Now Zerkle was spending his winters in sweater, coat, and hat, surrounded by little space heaters. He and volunteers from a group called the Veterans' Voice of America Fund, later renamed The National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting Fund, began money-raising, and in 2008 they secured enough funds to create the museum master plan.
The "National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting" will one day, perhaps soon, incorporate four "visitor experiences," two of which are already in place:
Gray's History of Wireless Museum, which had previously resided in the hallways of Cincinnati's public television station. One of the largest assemblages of antique radio and telegraphy equipment in the country, the collection is named for Jack Gray, a onetime Marconi Co. shipboard wireless operator and Bethany Station engineer who began displaying artifacts in his garage.
and the Greater Cincinnati and Ohio Museum of Broadcasting, put together by Cincinnati broadcaster Mike Martini, whose nonprofit Media Heritage organization has gathered thousands of oral histories, photographs, radio scripts, early radio shows, and the private memorabilia of area broadcast pioneers. Some of this material had literally been rescued from trash bins after a previous broadcast museum was closed and "mothballed."
A third component, now under construction, is a reincarnated working amateur, or "ham" radio station, WC8VOA, whose operations will be fully visible to visitors. Technicians had run the amateur station on the premises during the Bethany station's operating lifetime.
The fourth and key ingredient, of course, is the building itself, with all of its control rooms, giant transmitters and switching equipment, augmented by recorded stories of VOA employees and those behind the Axis, Iron, and Bamboo curtains who received transmissions from Bethany. From the moment the gates to the property were thrown open after the feds left town, international visitors have shown up unannounced, knocked on the door, and asked when the museum would open. Some then told riveting, even heroic tales of surreptitiously listening to VOA's words of truth and hope in occupied lands.
The piece-de-resistance will be a Grand Concourse and a VOA Gallery. The former will feature an overhead oval screen so that the story of "America's Voice" can be dramatized using a 360-degree multi-media presentation. Actors will also portray VOA notables and broadcasters. The interactive VOA Gallery will use artifacts, hands-on displays, and a large-scale model of the Bethany Station to focus on the station's role in World War II and the Cold War.
The museum will also offer a gift shop, a grand tour of the restored VOA transmitter facilities and control room from half a century ago, and, outside, such experiences as walks along paths carefully sited along the azimuths of the Bethany antennas' signals. Maybe even the restrooms will be part of the tour. "There were two," Gray's Museum Secretary-Treasurer Bob Sands notes. "One for employees and one for gentlemen"!
Earlier this summer, West Chester Township commissioners agreed with the museum's board that the VOA Bethany site, properly promoted as a companion tourist attraction to the nearby King's Island amusement park and a museum complex inside Cincinnati's ornate downtown train terminal, could draw 30,000 or more visitors annually. They allocated $1.4 million to fix the Bethany building's crumbling glazed-block exterior, replace every door and window, and install floodlights and ramps for disabled visitors. The move gave the museum board confidence that the search for the estimated $14 million needed to complete a world-class museum will bear fruit.
The degree to which the federal government's Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), VOA's parent agency in Washington, will support the VOA Museum in Ohio with funds, artifacts, or special permission to present VOA programming has yet to be determined.
"At its core the story here is not about technology," Bill Zerkle says, with considerable passion. "It's not even about radio or the old days. It's about a strategy for spreading freedom and democracy that is so simple - to just tell the truth. What these people here did was to pull together the inventions that evolved from Marconi and create state-of-the-art technology that enabled professional VOA media people to tell the truth about this great country. It's a story they believed in - still believe in - and one that resonates with the people of this area."