Asheville Radio Museum

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Asheville Radio Museum

The Asheville Radio Museum traces the history of radio through the tech that brought audiences the earliest American radio broadcasts of bluegrass music

by Stephen Pitalo

Heinrich Hertz
James Maxwell

For Peter Abzug, Director of Media Relations for The Asheville Radio Museum, the connection between the museum and bluegrass music’s origin is simply a matter of chronology, technology, and opportunity.

“Bluegrass music and musicians have had a connection with radio since the late 1920s,” Abzug explained. “WWNC, considered Asheville’s first successful radio station, featured bluegrass music after it went on air in 1927. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys had a regular weekly segment on WWNC in 1939. There’s no counting how many bluegrass musicians were born from their first taste of the style heard on the radio.”

"Bluegrass music and musicians have had a connection with radio since the late 1920s," Abzug explained. "WWNC, considered Asheville's first successful radio station, featured bluegrass music after it went on air in 1927. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys had a regular weekly segment on WWNC in 1939. There's no counting how many bluegrass musicians were born from their first taste of the style heard on the radio."

The History

The Asheville Radio Museum in Asheville, North Carolina traces the history of radio from the early days of spark-gap transmitters through the 1960s. Exhibits and artifacts include Atwater Kent, Philco, Silvertone, Edison phonographs, Crosley, Hammarlund, Harvey Wells, test instruments, spark gap transmitters, keys, and ancient QSL cards. Many displays are hands-on and kid-friendly, and the one-room museum also includes an operating amateur radio station, W4AFM. Going by the name “the Southern Appalachian Radio Museum” until 2017, the Asheville Radio Museum lives in the Elm Building on the campus of A-B Tech. The museum’s volunteers teach amateur radio at the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, aka A-B Tech, where the museum is located.

"The link between A-B Tech and the Asheville Radio Museum goes back 21 years to the museum's founding when a group of amateur radio operators who were radio collectors wanted to exhibit their combined collections for historical purposes," Abzug said. "A few of these ham radio operators already had established relationships with some of the instructors in the Engineering Department. These instructors helped the museum get on its feet by providing a room without cost for the museum. A-B Tech's support has been critical to the museum's success as we are a not-for-profit organization with 100% volunteer staff. The college provides exhibition and storage space and marketing support services. We probably would not have lasted so long without the college's backing."

The advent of radio broadcasting in the 1920s brought unprecedented cultural and economic change to Appalachia.

For the first time, farmers didn’t have to travel to the county seat or nearest city to hear the latest news, commodity prices, or weather forecasts, all of which were critical to their professional and personal lives.

Once radio receivers became more ubiquitous  – by 1940, 28 million households possessed a radio – the federal government provided free advanced agricultural courses over the radio for farmers. These educational services helped increase crop yields and decrease animal disease, among many other benefits.

The museum boasts one of the largest collections of amateur and home radios in the Southeast, but the museum is unique because it’s also a learning museum.

“Volunteers, most of whom are amateur radio operators, love to take visitors back to the discovery of radio waves in the 1800s and explain how that technology progressed and improved throughout the 20th century,” Abzug said. “They’ll explain the ‘magic’ of radio waves that move at the speed of light – 186,000 miles per hour – and their role in enabling many products that touch our everyday lives like mobile phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth-enabled devices, and even the James Webb Space Telescope. These all harness the same radio waves first predicted in 1864 by James Maxwell and proven 20 years later by Heinrich Hertz,” Abzug said.

Last year’s successful Vintage Radio Market, held annually at A-B Tech, allowed attendees to see and appreciate the beauty in the workmanship of classic radios and could even purchase them.

"For the more technically inclined, vendors sold parts and provided advice to those who wanted to restore an old radio, such as one passed down through the family," Abzug said. "The market provided an excellent time for the whole family to learn about a time long past. Our next Vintage Radio Market is on October 15th, beside the parking garage at A-B Tech."

More information on the museum is available at avlradiomuseum.org.