Voice of America, which sent its original broadcast overseas 70 years ago this month, will see backers of its first-built transmitting station begin fundraising this year to become a national museum.
The impact of the local transmitting station was felt in 1944 when the building and its six 200-kilowatt transmitters were completed about a year after groundbreaking. The station was instantly able to broadcast news to Europe, Africa and South America.
“What happened here is something that I suppose only a few of us in the community understand or realize the significance of,” National VOA Museum of Broadcasting board president Ken Riser said. “None of this had been done before. They couldn’t just pull things off a shelf. They had to actually design, build and construct it all from scratch.
“These were things that were probably equivalent of going to the moon in the ‘60s.”
Currently, the old VOA Bethany Relay Station is undergoing approximately $500,000 worth of exterior restoration work that includes installation of a new roof and block maintenance on the rear of the building.
Once completed in the spring, it will be up to the museum’s board of directors to raise approximately $12 million to make it a revenue generating landmark.
“When they are finished, the building will be pretty well secure from the elements. From there it is our job to raise the funds to turn the building into a first class museum,” Riser said.
Securing the building has been the responsibility of West Chester Township since 1998, three years after new technology caused the U.S. government to close Bethany Station in 1995.
In addition to a $500,000 grant from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission, which will reimburse the township for the restoration work, the township also received a $1 million grant in 2008 to repair the exterior facade, windows and entry doors, as well as some electrical. During the 2008 restoration, the township had to pay an additional $731,653. Overall, West Chester has spent around $1.68 million from its own budget on utilities and improvements since 2004.
If and when the museum is completed, it is expected to attract 25,000 visitors, bring in $475,000 in out of area direct spending and provide an overall economic impact in excess of $1.7 million annually, according to estimates by museum design firm Jack Rouse Associates.
“It would certainly be a real asset to West Chester and draw people all over the country and the world,” said Mark Hecquet, executive director of the Butler County Visitors Bureau.
“Hopefully it comes to fruition because it is a one of a kind thing and we should do all we can to make it a reality.”
Before the latest restoration project, the VOA museum opened its doors briefly in the fall of 2011 for the first time in two years to provide public tours. This year, the museum is expected to open after the roof work is completed while it attempts to raise funds.
“Most of the transmitter stations have been decommissioned. There is nothing left, not even a marker to show what was there,” Bethany Station’s last plant supervisor David Snyder said.
“When we open, we will have a lot of information on Voice of America and its history. It will be exciting to come here and see something, which the American public knows very little about.”
While Americans may not be aware of Voice of America’s history during World War II and the Cold War, since it only transmitted broadcasts oversees, many should be able to identify with the other two museums that are located in the same building – The Gray History of Wireless Museum, which features one of the country’s largest collections of antique radios, and The Media Heritage’s Greater Cincinnati Museum of Broadcast History, which boasts local radio and television programming memorabilia.
Today, Voice of America is still operational and is funded by the U.S. government. VOA now broadcasts through the Internet, mobile, social media, radio and television in 43 languages and reaches a weekly global audience of 141 million.
Locally, Clyde Haehnle, who was one of the original engineers who helped design and build the transmitting station in West Chester, takes great pride knowing the station’s impact on the outcome of World War II.
“To see it still here and be preserved and restored for historical purposes is a great thrill to me,” said Haehnle, who will turn 90 in October.
“I hope I can see it finished.”