National Museum of Broadcasting

To Preserve the Birthplace of the Broadcasting Industry

Reproduced with permission from the
Woodland Progress, Gateway Newspapers - 4/25/2007

Radio's Debut Site Coming Down

by Peggy Conrad
Staff Writer

Pieces of history are crashing to the ground in Turtle Creek, as the K Building, site of the first commercial radio broadcast in the world, is succumbing to the wrecking ball.

History was made atop the eight-story building in the former Westinghouse East Pittsburgh plant on Nov. 2, 1920, when the company's pioneer radio station, KDKA, broadcast the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election.

From inside a corrugated metal-covered wooden shed housing a studio and transmitter, five men under the direction of Westinghouse chief engineer Frank Conrad started the world onto the idea of broadcasting as a means of entertainment and information.

"What happened on the roof of the K Building marked a transition between the industrial and electronic age," says Rick Harris, a local broadcast history buff who has extensively documented the birth of the radio industry.

Harris, of Forest Hills, now is documenting the demise of the building where he previously had hoped to establish the National Museum of Broadcasting. After being vacant for many years, no use or tenants could be found for the 100-year-old building in Keystone Commons, owned by RIDC.

"It's a shame that these broadcasting landmarks are disappearing from the landscape," says Harris.

In between music and election returns during that first 18-hour broadcast, a small KDKA audience heard the following message: "Will anyone hearing this broadcast please communicate with us, as we are anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching and how it is being received."

At the time, radio communications mostly were heard by people who built crystal radios, which had no batteries or power source. They were made of coils of wire wound around empty oatmeal boxes containing lead crystals that acted like diodes.

The first KDKA signal reached several hundred miles, so people all over the Mid-Atlantic region could hear, according to Harris.

The project evolved from weekly experimental broadcasts Conrad had been conducting from an amateur radio station in his garage at his Wilkinsburg home, which had attracted many regular listeners. Harris and other members of the non-profit National Museum of Broadcasting were able to raise enough money to dismantle and preserve Conrad's garage before it was torn down in 2001 to make way for a Wendy's.

Every rafter, joist and brick, as well as artifacts for reconstructing the equipment Conrad used, is in storage not far from the K Building in the hope of someday making these items the centerpieces of a museum.

"At least we were able to save it in some fashion," says Harris, who has been collecting and preserving pieces of broadcasting history for decades. "Hopefully, we'll find a place to reconstruct it."

"I hope someday, it still will be the centerpiece of the (museum) building, although it won't be in the K Building."

In 1990, the group also made a replica of the original broadcasting shack that was on display for a time at the Westinghouse and Carnegie museums.

"We've just been documenting everything in the hopes of getting a museum started . . . . We're trying to make sure we have photographs of everything."

He has also created a computer model showing exactly how the first studio appeared, based on photos taken within a couple of days of the first broadcast. The radio studio was moved to what is now Forest Hills/Westinghouse Recreation Center in 1924, a then-state-of-the-art facility where the first world-wide shortwave broadcast took place.

"You could speak into a microphone and be heard anywhere on the planet for the first time in history," says Harris.

The first electronic television also was developed at the Forest Hills site in the late 1920s.

The shack was removed from the K Building in the 1930s. Harris still would like to recreate the end of the building that held the studio; visitors could climb steps to the rooftop studio to learn about the birth of radio. After almost two decades, however, no location or the required funding has been found to establish the museum.

'We were hoping we could restore the shack on the roof itself, in the same spot."

Harris does not fault RIDC for tearing down the building, however, because the agency tried unsuccessfully for years to find a use for the deteriorating structure. RIDC also has been supportive of the group's efforts and has provided storage space for the artifacts.

"Our entire organization is so appreciative. Our project only exists now through their support. From our perspective, they have been absolutely wonderful."

The historian still is hopeful a museum can be established somewhere, even if not at one of the historic sites. The group has "gone to every foundation and corporation" for funding.

"We find we're going to have to have a specific site before we can go out and fundraise . . . . We simply haven't found the right spot . . . . We really feel that it happened here, and that Pittsburgh is where radio and TV started . . . . We'd like to commemorate this if we can. It's a shame to have all this history sitting in storage and gathering dust."

Anyone who would like to find out more about the National Museum of Broadcasting, or who has photographs of the inside or outside of the K Building, preferably from its earlier years, is asked to leave a message at 412-241-4508.