Asheville Radio Museum

Asheville Radio Museum

Invented in 1904, vacuum tubes were a basic radio component. Photo by Lauren Stepp

Broadcasts History of WNC

By Lauren Stepp

At 5:30 p.m. on a Monday, most Asheville residents are fighting traffic or answering last-minute emails. But in the Elm Building on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Stuart Smolkin is cranking up a century-old phonograph.

“You hear that?” he asks. The record player hesitates, but soon sputters out a high-tempo show tune. A professor leaves an office to peer inside the narrow classroom. The music is loud, after all. “Everything is mechanical,” says Smolkin, nodding to onlookers. “The sound waves are amplified when they go through this horn.”

As secretary and curator of the Asheville Radio Museum, Smolkin is an expert in the science of sound. Engineering students often stop by to practice Morse code or to learn about radio waves, which according to Smolkin, travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) and can pass through solid walls. But in uncovering the science behind radio, students also uncover the history.

“Radio had a powerful impact on Western North Carolina when it became available,” says Smolkin. “It changed everything, almost as much as the internet did.”

Before the Great Depression, families in WNC lived on secluded farms or in remote hollows. Few had telephones and even fewer had access to news and entertainment from beyond county lines.

With the popularization of radio in the 1920s, however, came a cultural revolution. Growers could hear daily price reports and watch large weather systems, which provided enough advance to save crops from storms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also began broadcasting weekly sessions on how to increase crop yields, fight droughts and care for sick livestock. Though the variety show was called The National Farm and Home Hour, most knew it as radio’s “college for farmers.”

Meanwhile, stations like WLWL—a New York City operation that aired talks on religious, social and literary topics—stirred the pot. Listeners became more involved in politics, and though this left many communities divided, it evoked a sense of patriotism too.

“Before radio, people thought of themselves as belonging to their county or their state,” says Smolkin. “But with daily countrywide news, more people began thinking of themselves as Americans.”

Still, for many families the radio was simply a source of entertainment.

“A fellow I just met explained how, as a child, his rural family used to walk a good distance on Saturday nights to a relative’s house, where all would gather around the radio for the weekend’s entertainment,” says Smolkin.

Since most homesteads did not have wired electric power back then, radios were designed to be battery powered. Farmers would park their tractors on a hilltop and plug up their Freed-Eisemann or Atwater Kent. Others from around the cove would come to hear Amos ‘n’ Andy or Snow Village Sketches.

Should the tractor’s battery die in the process, it was no problem, says Smolkin: “They would just roll it down the hill and back on home.”

The Asheville Radio Museum is located in room 315 of the Elm Building at A-B Technical Community College. Admission is free. Open 1–3 p.m. on Fridays, March through November. Appointments can also be made. For more information, visit avlradiomuseum.org.

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