VOA Mic Comes Home After 34 Years

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Museum Associate Curator Hal Wallace (left) hands the vintage mic over to Voice of America Director Danforth W. Austin.

Museum Associate Curator Hal Wallace (left) hands the vintage mic over to Voice of America Director Danforth W. Austin.

Washington - May 28, 2010 - A vintage microphone used by the Voice of America during Cold War era broadcasts is back at the agency's D.C. headquarters, thanks to a sharp-eyed curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which borrowed the artifact three decades earlier. After an extended time on display, the VOA microphone sat for years in a storage cabinet at the museum together with other microphones, including one used by Amelia Earhart during a press conference and another of the type used by Orson Welles during his legendary War of the Worlds broadcast.

Adorned with the Voice of America nameplate, the Altec 639, first manufactured in the 1940s, was widely used by VOA broadcasters, including Willis Conover, host of "Music USA Jazz Hour". Nicknamed the "birdcage" because of the enclosure surrounding the head, the microphone is 14" tall and weighs in at a brick-like 3 lbs, a giant compared to its modern cousins.

The microphone was loaned to the Smithsonian in 1976 for its bicentennial exhibition "A Nation of Nations," and was placed in secure storage when the exhibition closed. Museum Associate Curator Hal Wallace recently took charge of the museum's electricity collection and came across the microphone as part of a routine inventory. Wallace, who hand-carried the artifact to VOA, said it had been kept in storage because curators 30 years ago, "probably hoped to use it again for other exhibitions."

Soon the microphone will be part of a public display at the VOA headquarters, a reminder of the broadcasting service's founding era, a time before television and the Internet, when radio was the sole source of news, music and information for millions of people around the world.

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