Weekend Wanderlust: Visit the place where the Voice of America began

A monthly guide to day trips around Ohio and beyond

Kevin J. Elliott
Bethany Relay Station

The Voice of America’s Bethany Relay Station sits alone in a field along busy Tylersville Road in northern Cincinnati, at the end of a long driveway. Few take the time to investigate its purpose. Why does this mammoth, government-funded art deco monument still remain? Why is it vital to radio technology, world peace and a free press? Walk inside for a tour and the first stop is a room full of ham radio enthusiasts and a docent who has all the answers. 

Off of the lobby inside Bethany, our guide explains the presence of WC8VOA — a ham radio frequency tethered to the Voice of America’s first home. Most days here, hobbyists send shortwave communications all over the world, trying to connect with other shortwave transmitters. Clad with tire-sized headphones, twisting knobs on all sorts of archaic equipment, we finally make contact with Nova Scotia. It’s a weather report. Basic ham fodder. 

“It’s mostly competition,” one of them said. “Seeing how far and how long we can talk. The only things we can’t discuss are politics and religion.” As such, it’s mostly weather, geographic coordinates and historical anecdotes. There’s also a real-time projection on a screen that shows when the International Space Station is within earshot.

“A little bit of shortwave goes a long way,” said Leland Hite, curator and engineer at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting. “Even though not many people still have shortwave radios … there’s a message getting across. There’s still a need for this information, especially in countries like North Korea and Russia, where they try to jam us, but we’ve found ways around that.” 

He’s not speaking for the remaining ham signals emitting from Bethany, of course, but for the larger mission of Voice of America when it began broadcasting in July of 1944. That’s the reason Bethany exists. And even though the station ceased its Voice of America relay to the world in 1994, it’s still in the air. There are still shortwave broadcasts of VOA jamming the jammers and spreading news where the internet is censored or completely decimated. 

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Much of this history wouldn’t have happened without Powel Crosley Jr. and his engineer brother, Lewis. Many have called the entrepreneurs the Ford of radio, because with their business acumen the Crosleys made radio affordable for the common man. In 1924, Crosley was the leading manufacturer of home radios and began breaking through in programming with the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation. A decade later, in this incubating age of radio, the brothers started WLW, dubbed “The Nation’s Station,” with an unprecedented 500-kilowatt transmitter. They had to downsize, but in my youth I still distinctly remember hearing a Reds game from Cocoa Beach, Florida. With the experimental short-wave station WLWO, the Crosley’s were able to reach other parts of the globe.

Before WWII, the U.S. government was hands-off when it came to public broadcasting. News was slow, deliberate, isolated. After all, broadcasting was a private venture, built around advertising and entertainment. But when it became apparent that Nazi propaganda was successfully being beamed into homes equipped with short-wave radios in Western Europe, South America and even on our own soil, a concerted solidarity formed among the major players of broadcasting: We should be using our technology for good. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor quickly changed the trajectory, prompting Franklin D. Roosevelt to enter the war and, as a result, create a “beacon for American democracy” with the government-sponsored Voice of America. 

Voice of America programming came directly from Washington D.C. and studios in New York, reaching hundreds of millions in 47 languages. But that was only possible with the ingenuity of the Crosleys and the complex fortress of transmitters erected at Bethany — then seen as an inland cornfield and a soft target, regardless of the guard towers built. Bethany's constant barrage of information around the world during the war was so powerful that Hitler condemned the site as the home of those “Cincinnati Liars.” 

A guided tour is essential. Our informed docent spoke of Soviet contraband — the “under the blanket radio” — that could specifically access VOA during the Cold War. They also took us through the control room where English language seminars, Rod Sterling dramas and up-to-the-day news was broadcast to whatever points the station could reach, and later to a view of the transmitter complex, where it was once necessary to employ workers to hand-crank the antennas round the clock. 

“It began as a museum primarily for engineers,” Hite said, and, indeed, there are parts of the Bethany experience that just highlight the machinery needed to facilitate the Voice of America at the height of war. “But we realized what was here requires an explanation. We used to have self-guided tours, but people were in and out in 20 minutes and had no idea what they were seeing.”

Control room at Bethany Relay Station

When VOA first broadcast, the mission was clear. The station played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” read the Pledge of Allegiance, and a host said, "Today, and every day from now on, we will be with you from America to talk about the war. … The news may be good or bad for us. We will always tell you the truth."

You can parse the “propaganda” sent across the world by America and the VOA during WWII and in every subsequent world conflict, but counter that with the facism, authoritarianism and Nazism that purposely distorted the news. Despite the will to win — with patriotism, the hope of freedom and in some instances jingoism — the VOA promoted actual, objective news.

“It’s about the importance of truth,” Hite said. “The tagline of Voice of America has always been ‘Tell the truth, and let the world decide.’ At first, Roosevelt wanted a propaganda station. He finally got one with Radio Free Europe, and I’d be editorializing if I said Radio Free Europe always told the truth, but it was established to aid our military in conflict. It was very successful in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But Voice of America was founded with very clear journalistic integrity.”

Hite doesn’t see Bethany as a relic. It’s still a beacon. Through a bit of research, though, you can read about the Trump presidency trying to dismantle the VOA, and in our conversation, Hite raised the importance of House Bill 234, a piece of legislation recently passed in Illinois requiring high school students to pass a media literacy course before graduation. 

In the meantime, Hite continues to travel to other broadcast museums in the country, trying to steer away from Bethany being viewed as little more than a massive collection of old radios (though the radio history wing of the museum is a wonderful tribute to Cincinnati and the burgeoning technology). Hite said he envisions a future for the VOA museum as a place where visitors can learn the basic tenets of journalism, as well as the stories from the past that got us here. “The lesson here is how well a society can function with the truth,” he said.

The Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting is only open Saturdays and Sunday from 1-4 pm. Visit the website for more information.