The History of WBLN, Channel 15, Bloomington, IL
1953 - 1958
In 1953, across the prairie of mid-Illinois brand new television sets began to flicker with pictures from St. Louis, Peoria, Decatur, Springfield, Champaign, Bloomington and Danville. Local entrepreneurs invested their lives and fortunes in a new industry hoping to attract advertisers and capture viewers in each of those cities and rural areas to the images and sounds they would broadcast.
Each new television station owner had different obstacles to overcome, some achieved success, while others failed.Competition brought on many legal challenges between stations and owners. Television careers began, on-air personalities became local celebrities while other broadcasters worked behind the scenes.
This book is the story of those entrepreneurs, managers, sales representatives, studio engineers, on-air personalities along with politicians, the FCC, even the legal system all the way to the Supreme Court. It's a detailed story of a budding local industry during television's golden years, the first years we saw “Pictures on the Prairie.”
The many details of the existence of WBLN are omitted here and told in great detail in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television." Order your copy today!
(left): The 455-foot WBLN tower behind the studios located near the corner of US-150 and the US-66 Bypass, located in southeast Bloomington, Illinois.
(above): The motel/restaurant pictured above was from a postcard advertising the travel facility near the intersection of US-150 and US-66 Bypass, but also quite by accident shows the broadcast tower of WBLN which was located at the studios at the rear of the business pictured.
(picture courtesy of Barry Thompson)
From November 5, 1953, Bloomington Daily Pantagraph
From November 14, 1953, Bloomington Pantagraph
From November 16, 1953, Bloomington Daily Pantagraph
Who was the applicant for the Bloomington television station, and what were his credentials for station ownership?
How did not hiring union construction workers for the building of the station an ultimately a poor decision?
Why was WBLN was a total failure from the beginning?
How the community stepped up to support keep the station on the air.
How did the failure of WBLN keep Bloomington-Normal from having a permanent full-service television station?
What were the reasons that the station changed ownership hands three times during its brief existence?
Find the answers in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television" available by clicking on the picture above.
Sky King was produced in the early 50s for NBC during 1951-52 by Jack Chertok Productions. Reruns from the initial NBC run were picked up by ABC and CBS in later years. It aired on ABC during the mid-1950s and was seen on WBLN and other ABC affiliates at the time. The series starred Kirby Grant and Gloria Winters. This is a complete episode during the years it was sponsored by Nabisco.
Here is an episode of the TV series "Gangbusters." It was produced in the early 1950s for NBC and syndicated in later years during the 1950s. WBLN picked it up for broadcast during the 1950s. Here is a complete episode.
"The Danny Thomas Show" or "Make Room for Daddy" was originally on ABC. This classic Desilu sit-com starred Danny Thomas, Jean Hagen, Sherry Jackson and Rusty Hamer. This original episode includes original commercials and aired December 27, 1955.
Click on the button to see the program schedule from the dates indicated.
In early February 1957 the financial problems of WBLN became obvious with the expected eventual failure of the "main power tube" in the station's transmitter.
Many stations would back down the power requirements to keep from having to replace the klystron tube as often, although it only delays the inevitable. Some tubes will last seemingly forever, while others will fall well short of their expected life. In the case of WBLN, ownership fell well short of its financial expectations to prevent the stocking of another "back up" tube. So when it happened, there was simply no cash reserve, or a reserve tube to make the replacement.
The WBLN story is told in great detail in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television" available on the link at the top of the page. Order your copy today!
From early February 1957 to December 1, 1957, there was no WBLN. Bloomington viewers probably didn't miss it much. By then there were three Peoria TV stations which even at low power were still able to reach Bloomington viewers, even though viewers in Bloomington may have had to install a more aggressive antenna to pick up those weak Peoria signals. WCIA from Champaign was also quite visible for Bloomington viewers bringing the more popular CBS programming to the "other Twin-Cities" (Bloomington-Normal) from the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana.
At the time of the failure of the tube the station had also failed to achieve financial success enough to sustain itself in the event of a cataclysmic failure of a klystron tube. While other stations were attracting viewers from their affiliated network, WBLN struggled for the attention of even ABC as many ABC shows and their advertising agencies failed to recognize the station enough to purchase the time on Channel 15. The station also programmed many religious programs during prime time, along with what were probably poorly produced country-western programs which did nothing to attract large audiences. The problems, the challenges are all described in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television" available on the link at the top of the page. Order your copy today!
The Second Life of WBLN, Channel 15
By December 1st, 1957, WBLN would be back as Bloomington's local television station with a kick-off broadcast on that Sunday at 5:00 pm. The staff included new members and they were all introduced. The "sign-on" came about only after the FCC approved a debt payment plan and a technical proof of performance.
WBLN Back on the Air, December 1st, 1957.
Examining a television camera are three leading figures of Television Station WBLN-TV, which returns to regular telecasting today. Left to right, they are Warner Tidemann, news, and program director, Worth Rough, manager and Don McKellar, sports director.
(photo and caption from the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph)
Two ads from the second life of WBLN. One thing missing from WBLN was a network. All programming was either locally produced or either first run or off-network syndication.
(from TV Guide® and the Doug Quick Collection)
Here are two examples of locally produced programming on WBLN, Channel 15.
(ads from the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph)
Seen on WBLN
TV Guide® ads from the Doug Quick Collection
Click on the button to see the program schedule from the dates indicated.
"Life with Elizabeth" starred Betty White and Del Moore. Jack Narz, a network game show host, was the narrator. This syndicated show was produced from 1953-54 and was seen on WBLN during the 1957-58 second life of Channel 15.
"The Whistler" was a dramatic anthology series based on the long-running radio series. It was narrated by the same voice...and with the same whistle. "The Whistler" was produced for syndication in 1954.
In November of 2016, I received an e-mail from "Ann Hill" who said she hosted a program on WBLN during the stations last days in 1958. She also said she had a copy of an "ad for my program (that) would have been in the Daily Pantagraph probably a week before."
She went on to describe the show "We titled the show 'Talk of the Town.' Mr. Rough decided to use only my name as "Ann Hill." My first interview was with a local doctor, Dr. McNeely, who was in charge of a contest of Quarter Horses to be held in Bloomington. He was upset because they had to spray the trophy which he brought because it was too shiny. We were told not to wear white because it didn't project well on TV."
(ad from the Bloomington Pantagraph and the Ann Hill Collection)
Unfortunately, her show was short-lived as, she went on to say, "Shortly thereafter, the tube blew and that was the end of my television career." She also said her father actually bought some of the WBLN stock after she was hired. Ann was a mother of three children at the time. She was a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University with a BFA in Theater. She celebrated her 86th birthday in October of 2016.
Thanks Ann for the information about your experience with WBLN!
A TV Guide page showing programming in central Illinois on the final day
of broadcasting of WBLN. The final tube in the transmitter failed sometime
during the 6 pm hour, perhaps during the local news or during
the following "Film Feature."
(TV Guide® from the Doug Quick Collection)
By June 5th, WBLN would be off the air....and this time for good.
(from the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph)
This is the approximate location of the former WBLN studios/tower near the intersection of what is now called Veterans Parkway and US-150 in southeast Bloomington. It's difficult to determine exactly where the studio or tower was located at the building as pictured above is gone, there are no signs of a tower being there as the tower foundation and guy wire foundations are nowhere to be seen. The property has been developed and subdivided and includes some light industrial buildings and parking lots along with a recreational center across the street that didn't exist in the 1950s.
(picture from the Doug Quick Collection)
Sources and Contributors:
The Bloomington Pantagraph (through the facilities of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Danville Public Library, and newspapers.com)
TV Guide from various weeks from 1953 to 1958(from the Doug Quick collection)
The Milner Library at Illinois State University
The Dr. JoAnn Rayfield Archives at ISU and the Ken-Way Studios
Total Television by Alex McNeil(an indispensable guide to all TV shows)
TheCompete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows(1946-Present) by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh
Billboard Magazine from 1953, 1958 editions(available online)
Bob Lee(for many of the network/syndication screen titles)
McLean County Historical Museum