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VOA Microphone Comes Home After 34 Years

Vintage 1950s model was used by legendary Willis Conover

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Washington, D.C., 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.

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Adorned with the iconic Voice of America nameplate, the Altec 639, first manufactured in the 1940s, was widely used by VOA broadcasters, including Willis Conover, legendary host of Music USA Jazz Hour. Nicknamed the "birdcage" because of the enclosure surrounding the head, the microphone is 14 inches 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.

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Voice of America Director Danforth W. Austin said, "We are indebted to the Smithsonian for giving us back a piece of our history."

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.

The Voice of America, which first went on the air in 1942, is a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts approximately 1,500 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 125 million people. Programs are produced in 44 languages and are intended exclusively for audiences outside of the United States.

For more information, call VOA Public Relations at (202) 203-4959, or e-mail VOA Public Relations at