Why the National Museum of Broadcasting Will Call Pittsburgh Home
The museum will be developed inside of a former Mellon Bank in East Pittsburgh, a few hundred yards from where KDKA made its initial groundbreaking broadcast more than a century ago.
More than 100 years ago, Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad founded the commercial broadcasting industry inside of a brick garage on his Wilkinsburg property, using bare wires, crackling spark coils and homemade vacuum tubes.
His innovative experiments are what led to the nation’s first commercial broadcast on Nov. 2, 1920, transmitted from Westinghouse’s former K building via KDKA, with Leo Rosenberg announcing returns in the Harding-Cox presidential election that reached 1,000 listeners.
Pittsburgh’s role in the birth of commercial broadcasting paved the way for technologies that we rely so heavily upon today.
A group of local officials, broadcasters and historians has been working for years to establish a National Museum of Broadcasting in Pittsburgh, and recently identified the museum’s location – a vacant Mellon Bank building in East Pittsburgh that sits a few hundred yards from the site of the first KDKA broadcast.
The group is working to purchase the building and is seeking investors from local corporations and organizations to help get the project off the ground.
Donations may be made by contacting the board here. Rick Harris, historical preservationist and museum board secretary/treasurer, estimates the overall cost being in the millions. The board is hoping to raise $100,000 over the next year or two to purchase the building.
Bill Hillgrove, longtime Pittsburgh Steelers and Pitt Panthers broadcaster, serves as president of the nonprofit museum’s board, and is joined by Harris and board members: Ron Klink, former KDKA anchorman and congressman; Harry Jessell, former editor-in-chief of Broadcasting and Cable Magazine and co-founder and former editor of TVNewsCheck; Susie Barbour, communications director for Westinghouse Service Uniting Retired Employees, public relations professional and former Pittsburgh radio personality; and Rosemary Martinelli, seasoned public relations, marketing and journalism professional who teaches at Penn State Greater Allegheny.
“This former bank building is several hundred feet from where the first broadcast took place at the former Westinghouse K building in the East Pittsburgh Works. I think this is an appropriate place to have the museum since it’s so close to the original site,” says Harris.
Museum artifacts will include equipment used during the early days of KDKA, as well as a depiction of radio, television and media technology from the 1920s to today.
“During the first broadcast, they had a 100-watt transmitter atop of the eight-story K building. The announcer used a microphone that was made of a modified telephone transmitter and a box stuffed with cotton to reduce noise,” Harris says.
A wind-up phonograph was used to play records between election returns and local banjo players performed live during the initial broadcast.
The focal point of the museum will be the restored Conrad garage, the birthplace of commercial broadcasting.
In 1972, Hillgrove’s mother-in-law, Alice Sapienza-Donnelly, was adamant that Conrad’s garage be preserved and saved it from demolition. It has since been dismantled and has sat in storage since 2001, awaiting its resurrection.
Harris became involved in the garage’s preservation project in the late 1980s while serving on Wilkinsburg’s centennial committee.
“We set a goal of preserving this garage for future generations to enjoy,” he adds. “This isn’t just about preserving Pittsburgh’s history, but national and world history. This really marked the start of the industry of wireless communication that is so important to our world today.”
Harris’ grandfather showed him the garage when the Wilkinsburg Elks Lodge was housed on the property, which sparked his interest in history at the age of 6.
“I think this museum would be a wonderful thing for the Pittsburgh region to have as a major attraction. It’s a significant part of our history, one I don’t think people really understand or appreciate,” he adds. “We’ve been on the cutting-edge of technology in the past, present and future.”
The group also hopes the museum will serve as an educational hub for future generations to instill in them an appreciation for the media and recognize the folks that made it all happen.
It will house radio/podcasting and video production facilities where young people will be able to learn media performance, production and technical skills under the aegis of local high schools, colleges or trade schools, the website reads.
Hillgrove says the group has struggled to get the ball rolling, but is closer now in the process than it ever was, thanks to help from outside partners and state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.
This project is near and dear to Hillgrove’s heart. The friendly voice familiar to generations of local sports fans has been projected over the airwaves for more than six decades.
“We want to raise awareness of the importance of what we are trying to make a reality,” he adds. “The birthplace of not only broadcasting, but a lot of electronic communication, is right here in Pittsburgh. We don’t want to end up like Latrobe with the NFL Hall of Fame. We don’t want to fumble that football.”