Central Illinois' On-Line Broadcast Museum
The History of WBLN, Channel 15, Bloomington, IL
1953 - 1958
(above): The 455-foot WBLN tower behind the studios is located near the corner of US-150 and the US-66 Bypass, located in southeast Bloomington, Illinois.
From November 5, 1953, Bloomington Daily Pantagraph. Click on the photos for a larger view.
From November 14, 1953, Bloomington Pantagraph
Bloomington's Very Own Television Station
On December 6th, 1953 Bloomington would finally see its own TV station after seeing other central Illinois communities receive their own crop of stations earlier in the year. After broadcasting a low-power test pattern for several days, regular programming would begin at 7 pm.
The application for channel 15 was filed just 11 months earlier on January 30, 1953. Cecil W. Roberts applied for a television station in Bloomington that would have a power of 17.95kw and broadcast from an antenna sitting atop a tower of 325 feet. The cost of construction was set at a modest $110,000. The first-year operating cost was estimated at $108,000 and the revenue was forecast to total $120,000.
In most other communities of similar size in mid-Illinois the television channel allocation was quickly applied for by newspapers, radio stations, and other community investors. It is surprising that that allocation for channel 15 wasn't pursued by the Bloomington Pantagraph or the local radio station, WJBC which did have ownership in common at the time. This would have been a similar ownership situation that that of WDAN-TV in Danville which was owned by the local newspaper and radio station. If there was some interest in ownership of the Bloomington television station by the established local media companies, it seems that interest was never pursued. That lack of competition in the application process made the application by Cecil W. Roberts a sure thing.
The permit for channel 15 would fall to a broadcaster who already was a ten-year owner of four radio stations in Missouri and Kansas. Cecil W. Roberts of Farmington, Missouri. The permit for the construction of Bloomington's first television station was issued in March 1953 for UHF channel 15.
At the same time, Cecil W. Roberts was actively and perhaps passively pursuing other broadcasting properties of both radio and television. In May of 1952, Roberts applied for an AM radio station in Chester, Illinois to broadcast on 1450kc with a 250-watt full-time signal. He was again frugal in his proposal for that new radio property in his application to the FCC. His construction costs were only listed at $13,500, with operating costs of $35,000 his first year and revenue at $45,000. Even in the early 1950 dollars, the cost estimations were low.
His first attempt at television station ownership was with an application for a UHF in St. Louis. In August of 1952, he applied for channel 36 which he claimed would operate at a power output of 81.9kw from a tower of 425 feet. His proposed station would broadcast from the Melbourne Hotel at 36-1 Lindell Boulevard in St. Louis. He would use a DuMont transmitter and an RCA antenna. His construction costs were stated to be $133,878 with a first-year operating cost of $150,000 and anticipated first-year revenue of $175,000. His estimated construction cost was far less than adequate when you compare another application this time for channel 4 in St. Louis which came later in the month of August 1952. Meredith Engineering Company included a construction cost of $873,000 in their application for the VHF station.
It appears he took the "blanket" approach to add to his station group. By applying for a number of different properties, he would get lucky on at least one or two proposals. His ten-year radio ownership experience came from small AM local radio stations in (KREI-AM 800) Farmington and (KCHI-AM 1010) Chillicothe, Missouri as well as (KBIA-AM 1460) Chanute and Leavenworth (KCRB-AM 1410), Kansas. These mini-market stations were hardly, even under the best circumstances considered “cash cows” to support the early development of a major market UHF TV station in St. Louis.
The broadcast facility for what would become WBLN(TV) would be housed in a building built and owned by James Hastings and leased to Roberts. It was located near the intersection of Route US 150 and US bypass 66 (now Route US 150 and Veterans Parkway) in southeast Bloomington. Also at the station site was the 455-foot broadcast tower which was said to be able to “beam a clear picture to sets within 40 miles of its ultra-high frequency signal.” The broadcast facility, in the only photograph I found of the station, looked to be nothing more than an oversized concrete block garage. No architectural amenities of any kind were visible. The driveway and small parking lot appeared to be of gravel.
In spite of its simple appearance, WBLN's television studio and business office included a studio room that was 20 by 30 feet and included two garage-type doors which enabled vehicles to be driven through for live commercials for local auto dealers. One in the front and another elsewhere. No other details are known about the rest of the facility which no longer exists.
Jerrell “Jerry” Henry, who worked for Roberts at the Chanute, Kansas radio station would be named station manager. The staff numbered nine people, but the identities of most are largely unknown, as they were not included in any newspaper descriptions. It was reported that all but one of the nine were brought in from the radio properties owned by Roberts. The only other early staff members identified in newspaper accounts were Wayne Cox (who later became a news anchor at WICS, Springfield, Illinois), Miss Jo Harter (whose position at the station is unknown), and Ned Wallace who was an engineer.
The beginnings of this failed operation began under much controversy primarily because of labor issues between the Bloomington-Normal Building Trades and Labor Assembly and later with the Peoria Local 1292 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Initially, problems began with Contractor James Hastings, builder of the studio facility, when it was disclosed that non-union painters were hired by Hastings for interior painting of the facility after the construction of the building was completed. Even though picketing didn't take place until the next week in early November of 1953, the other union workers walked off the job, and construction of other areas of the building stopped.
Union representatives and Hastings met the following Monday but according to Pantagraph reports the sides failed to reach an agreement. The president of the Assembly, Kenneth Pearl, stated that picketing would continue until an agreement was reached. At least part of the agreement would have had Hastings either pay union painters to repaint the facility or pay the union a fine which would be the same amount as if the building was painted by union painters. Another part of the agreement would have forced Roberts to pay the other carpenters who walked off for their time away from the job.
Picketing was also underway by the IBEW which was in charge of electrical work at the studio facility. Union representatives met with station owner Cecil W. Roberts and they reported that the owner “refused to bargain.”
Yet another union joined in the picketing of the new WBLN facility during that time as well. The AF of L Radio Television Broadcast Technicians placed a lonely picket there initially because, as the union stated, the owners have imported two non-union engineers “from the south.”
The business agent for the Peoria-based A. F. of L. Radio Television Broadcast Technician, R.K. Pratt said his only demand was that WBLN employs union members. This fact seemed to be a surprise initially to WBLN station manager Mr. Henry. Henry said that union reps visited the station and asked him to sign a union contract. Henry told them they would have to make that request to the station owner, Cecil W. Roberts who was not in the area on that day. According to Henry, as soon as the representatives left, “all of a sudden we had pickets.” According to Henry, those non-union engineers were regular employees brought in from the other radio stations owned by Roberts.
By November 19, 1953, the labor quarrel continued as pickets were still reported at the facility. Union representatives were still stating that Roberts “refused to bargain.” When the Pantagraph contacted Roberts the day before the report was published he just replied, “no comment.”
It's unknown when or if any settlement was reached as newspaper accounts ended coverage of the dispute. It would be assumed, though, that this labor dispute was just the first of several public relations problems experienced by the new UHF station.
WBLN and ABC
The Bloomington station was relegated to become an affiliate of the ABC Television Network since other local affiliations were already claimed by other central Illinois broadcasters. CBS was holding out for the yet-to-be-decided owner of the Peoria license for VHF channel 8 but would eventually establish a month-by-month affiliation agreement with WTVH. In the very early years, WTVH was one of the initial ABC affiliates and would keep ABC later as a secondary network. NBC had already signed affiliation contracts with WEEK-TV in Peoria.
Other low-powered central Illinois UHF stations were already signed by ABC and included stations in Decatur and Danville. WTVH in Peoria was the lowest powered of the two Peoria stations and did not deliver a watchable signal in Bloomington. That made WBLN a natural network partner with ABC.
However, before receiving a live ABC network signal, WBLN had to be satisfied to air kinescopes of network programming until an AT & T microwave receiving tower could be built near the TV station site to receive programming from ABC. It would be completed as other central Illinois TV stations were also being connected to live network service in October of 1953.
From November 16, 1953, Bloomington Daily Pantagraph
(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.
(picture courtesy of Barry Thompson)
Going on the Air....maybe
WBLN was originally expected to go on the air in late October of 1953 but, that was not to be. Labor disputes described above and equipment delays kept the station behind schedule. By mid-November, the pressure was intense to get WBLN on the air and fast! The fact that WCIA in Champaign had gone on the air by this time was at least a psychological defeat to Cecil Roberts and his staff. Even though at least one representative of Channel 15 had said that “we're not going on the air with anything messy.”
It was planned that the new station would go on the air with a 100-watt test pattern and then after a few days of testing the transmitter power output would be increased to give the station a 20,000-watt ERP. The first try to go on air was decided to take place on November 15th, although Jerrell Henry wouldn't predict an hour before the sign-on. The final “piece of equipment” to operate the station had arrived at the facility and installation was underway. What specifically the equipment was is unknown.
Bloomington area viewers were once again disappointed as equipment failures prevented them from seeing the new Channel 15 on the projected date of November 15th. Once again, it would be a few more days before any mention would be made of a WBLN premiere.
This map shows the expected coverage area based on tower height/ERP (effective radiated power) for each station in central Illinois in 1953. It omits WDAN-TV because it was of no consequence for those in central Illinois. This includes the gigantic area of WCIA as compared to the other UHF stations.
This was prepared by the Bloomington Pantagraph
WBLN, Channel 15 “Suddenly It was There!”
Then on Thursday, November 19th, from 4:15 to 5 pm, WBLN broadcast its first test pattern at 100 watts. Even with only a 100-watt power output, the signal was received by a viewer in Shirley, 10 miles away from the transmitter site. Station staff also received 20-30 other calls after the initial low-power broadcasts. There was no audio broadcast with the test pattern.
The next day, the transmitter output was upped to give the station nearly an 18,000-watt ERP, its full licensed power output. It was reported on the following Sunday in the Pantagraph that Jerrell Henry said the station was still “about a week” away from full-time broadcasts. The station was still experiencing problems with equipment. It's unknown what the problems were, but it was enough to delay the actual full-time broadcasting of WBLN for another couple of weeks.
Finally, though, on December 6th, 1953, WBLN would become one of the final heritage television facilities in central Illinois, although not the last one. WDAN-TV in Danville was still just short of one week away from broadcasting.
At sign-on, the WBLN broadcast day would air from 7 pm to 11 pm. In just a few weeks, the day was lengthened to run from 6 pm to Midnight, and eventually, sign-on would move up to occur during the mid-afternoon. While short broadcast days were common to early television, most other stations increased the length of their broadcast day to include most of the daytime in just a couple of years. WBLN continued with a short abbreviated schedule for a while longer.
The only exception to the evening-only broadcast schedule was the broadcast of ABC's Don McNeil's Breakfast Club from 8 to 9 am, then either the station signed off until later or would broadcast a test pattern until programming resumed, also a common practice during the very early years of television. Given the costs of electricity and the maintenance on the equipment, I would guess WBLN didn't operate its transmitter any longer than it had to. There were also some mid-afternoon sign-on times with some late afternoon ABC programming, and on weekends for at least a time in 1955-56. ABC didn't broadcast a full daytime schedule until 1959, and filling that time with programming which had to be purchased would increase the cost of operating considerably. WBLN would not be in business long enough to see a longer broadcast day.
On the first day of sign-on, newspaper reports in Bloomington's Daily Pantagraph indicated many viewers were disappointed by its signal quality. Even though station manager Jerrell Henry reported the first day as going “pretty good” he also indicated some problems early on, which he said were corrected during the first hours of broadcasting. Meanwhile, viewers stated that the picture was “blurry” and “dark.”
Two local TV repairmen called the station's signal “lousy.” An out-of-town viewer in Hudson located just a few miles north of Bloomington reported that the signal was weaker than that of her reception of WEEK-TV in Peoria.
I speculate viewers might have had antennas pointed toward other stations, such as those in Peoria. Keep in mind that Peoria is northwest of Bloomington-Normal, while the broadcast tower of WBLN was located on the outskirts southeast of Bloomington. If people had antennas pointed toward Peoria, they could have been picking up WBLN on the back or side of the antenna, which could have created “ghosting” with a reflected signal which would have been “blurry.”
Most UHF antennas in Bloomington were probably pointing either toward Peoria for the signals of WEEK and WTVH while VHF antennas were probably pointing toward Champaign to receive WCIA. Without the ability to re-aim a UHF antenna to point toward Channel 15, it would be logical that the signal would be affected by multi-path interference giving a viewer a series of reflected ghosts and distorted images. It's unknown if the problems stated by the more vocal Bloomington viewers were legitimate observations or if the problems were because of the local antenna aiming issues. The perceived poor signal and bad reception of Channel 15 were other factors contributing to the poor public relations of WBLN within the community.
1953 Bloomington Pantagraph ad for new TVs
1953 Bloomington Pantagraph ad for new TVs
1954 WBLN TV Guide, from the Doug Quick Collection
1953 Bloomington Pantagraph ad for new TVs
WBLN Programming ABC, Local and Syndicated, from 1954
The details of WBLN broadcasting local news are unknown. What is known, the half-hour dedicated to news, weather, and sports aired on Monday and Tuesday at 10 pm and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9:45 pm. The only mention of any personality associated with local news came with an ad in TV Guide which mentioned Fred Muxfeld.
Mr. Muxfeld created the “Problems and Solutions” audience call-in talk show on Bloomington's radio station WJBC. It's unknown who anchored the local news initially, but a year or two later, Muxfeld's name was included in TV Guide ads for WBLN as the newscaster. His tenure at WBLN came to an end in February 1957. Another name from the WJBC management roster came up in December of 1957 during the second “life” of WBLN. More on that later.
The appearance of Fred Muxfeld on WBLN also came at about the same time as the sale of at least a 50-percent interest in the WJBC from the Daily Pantagraph to another local group. At that point, Muxfeld left WJBC to take the newscaster job at WBLN. Since the operation was very small at Channel 15, along with being the newscaster, he was probably the news gatherer as well. His broadcast was sponsored by the “Telephone Answering Service.”
WBLN had a featured children's show as many other early TV stations did. On Channel 15 it was called “The Children's Hour” even though it aired during the half hour from 4:30 to 5 pm on weekdays beginning in 1955 or 1956 after the broadcast day was extended. It was hosted by a woman named “Esther” and was sponsored by Prairie Farms Creamery(Dairy).
During the Fall of 1954 season, the network schedule of ABC would include a number of programs that were not aired on WBLN. It was because the advertising agency which owned the rights to these programs didn't purchase the time slot on Channel 15. Those programs included: Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, Flight #7, Big Picture, Walter Winchell, Martha Wright Show, Dr. I.Q., Kukla Fran, and Ollie, Name's the Same, Come Closer, Voice of Firestone, Junior Press Conference, Cavalcade of America, Twenty Questions, U.S. Steel Hour, Stop the Music, Disneyland, Stu Erwin Show, Masquerade Party, Enterprise, Lone Ranger, Mail Story, Treasury Men in Action, So You Want to Lead a Band, Kraft Television Theater, Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Ray Bolger Show, Dollar A Second, The Vise, Compass, Dotty Mack Show, Stork Club. As you can see, WBLN was only airing a small portion of the programs offered by ABC.
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 sitcom starred Danny Thomas, Jean Hagen, Sherry Jackson, and Rusty Hamer. This original episode includes original commercials and aired on December 27, 1955.
"Mickey Mouse Club" aired on weekday afternoons at 5 pm CT from ABC. This is the "Mickey Mouse Club" opening showing the billboard sponsors of the series from 1955.
"The Big Picture" was barter television programming offered to the stations at no charge. Each one told a story of the US military in action.
"You Asked For It" was a show that would follow through with challenges that were mailed in from the audience. It aired on WBLN as one of the few ABC shows that made the cut.
WBLN Programming in August of 1956....more from ABC
It appeared that by August of 1956, WBLN had given up on the broadcast of local news at 10 pm, having only the 6 pm 15-minute local newscast before the ABC national and world news broadcast.
Other ABC shows by August of 1956 that aired on the network which were NOT included in the WBLN schedule are as follows: Omnibus, Lawrence Welk Talent Show, Broken Arrow, DuPont Theater, It's Polka Time, Navy Log, Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Ford Theater, Wednesday Night Fights, Circus Time, Wire Service, Adventures of Jim Bowie and The Ray Anthony Show. By August of 1956, WBLN was airing around 60 percent of the ABC offerings during prime time.
The business of WBLN during the early years of its existence is unknown, but it was probably very difficult. The biggest problem was the lack of households that could even watch the station. Bloomington was also the home of one of the leading AM radio stations in the country, WJBC, and was also the home of a strong daily newspaper the Daily Pantagraph. Both the radio station and the daily newspaper could claim many more listeners and readers than the local TV station could claim viewers to prospective advertisers. It's assumed the advertising rates for WJBC were much higher than that of WBLN.
WBLN's Lost History....and Its Fate
I also observed in researching the history of WBLN, the lack of information from the Bloomington Pantagraph compared with the amount of coverage, advertising, and other publicity of the other stations as they went on the air in 1953. There were only a few photos published of the new station's equipment and staff. As mentioned earlier, I could not find a listing of all of the station's employees, something that was always featured in the news stories of the other stations in central Illinois along with pictures.
It also appeared that the Pantagraph did not capitalize on the advertising possibilities with area TV dealers as only a few were included in the pages of the newspaper. Other newspapers in Springfield, Decatur, Champaign, Urbana, and Danville all took advantage of the opportunity to sell ad space to the TV dealers and repair shops to celebrate the arrival of local TV services in their respective cities.
The lack of outside promotion whether it was ad space in the newspaper or time on the local radio station(which would be impossible to prove or disprove) could have been another public relations mistake made by Cecil W. Roberts and his management.
Add to that the number of stations that were coming on the air at the time and competition was increasing as well. Signals from WEEK-TV, Channel 43 in Peoria which broadcast many NBC programs, and the overwhelmingly strong signal of WCIA, Channel 3, and network programming from CBS were the two main sources of competition for WBLN. As an added hurdle, remember that the overall programming quality of CBS and even NBC was putting lowly ABC in the rating basement....dragging the viewership of WBLN into the basement as well. The syndicated programming which had to be purchased by WBLN to fill the holes left by the vacated time slots of ABC programming was of even poorer quality overall. Also, WBLN filled programming holes with local religious and or local music programming which would not have attracted much of an audience against that of the more popular programming of the other local stations.
The possible small staff of WBLN limited the station's ability to produce local programming which could have generated some local interest. Compare the small staff of 9 WBLN employees with the enormous staff of 47 employees at WTVP in Decatur and over 20 employees at each WICS and WCIA facility. It appeared that WBLN was a low-budget, shoestring operation that prohibited the purchase of outside promotion and advertising. Local programming surely had a low production value compared to much higher quality local broadcasts on Peoria's WEEK and Champaign's WCIA. Cecil Roberts underestimated the costs of running a television station and seriously under-capitalized the operation of WBLN.
According to records, on July 13, 1955 ownership of WBLN was transferred from Cecil W. Roberts to Worth S. Rough's WBLN Inc.. The price paid for the property is unknown, but the low or non-existent profitability certainly contributed to the sale of the facility. It was during this time in the mid to late 1950's many stations were running out of operating capital. Many UHF stations located throughout the country were going out of business, especially ones in which the direct competitor would have been a VHF station with a major affiliation contract with either CBS or NBC.
Under the ownership of Worth Rough WBLN would live on....at least for while, before stumbling in February of 1957.
On Tuesday, February 5th, 1957, WBLN went off the air. By the following Thursday, it was reported in the Pantagraph that a “bad tube” was the cause. The newspaper account reported that Worth Rough, the WBLN station manager said that mechanical difficulties had forced the station to go off the air at 6:15 pm. Even then, WBLN was operating under partial power before the tube finally shut the transmitter down.
Failure of the main power tube was the cause according to Rough. He said the tube which was guaranteed for 1,000 hours of operation had by then been used over 4,000 hours and a spare was not stocked by the station for backup. He also said a replacement tube had been ordered from G.E. In Syracuse, New York, and was expected to arrive sometime Thursday.
He also stated that the downtime would be used to “overhaul” the station equipment, and viewers may see a test pattern broadcast from time to time during the period. This was obviously a stall and most certainly an embarrassing situation for the recent new owner of the station. By the following Friday, February 8th, the Pantagraph published the station's first obituary, with the headline read “WBLN's Blackout Will Be Extended.”
The story began with the statement that the station “was reported out of business at least temporarily.” Rough had no comment on the report that the station would remain off the air permanently. He did say that a “lack of operating capital would prevent the immediate resumption of operations.”
The cost of the main power tube, around $3,000, for the G.E. Transmitter was beyond the ability of the station to replace it. There was simply no money to do so, as the station continued to struggle in its day-to-day efforts to stay afloat.
A few days later, the newspaper account would say that “financial problems have forced Bloomington's Channel 15 television station off the air for 'an indefinite length of time.” The announcement was made by Worth S. Rough, president, and general manager of WBLN Television, Inc. He wrote a report to the FCC in Washington explaining that WBLN would be off the air indefinitely or until the company’s financial health improved.
It appears he sought a loan to purchase a new power tube, as well as more operating capital to bring the station back to life, and keep it running for awhile until advertising time sales were better. In fact from the time he took control of the facilities he was seeking additional capital to the sum of around $20,000. Even though during his ownership he said, he had been able to reduce by half the debt he took on with this purchase from Cecil Robert's company.
He also described the problems saying that advertisers were slow to respond to the station, but advertising interest had “picked up considerably in recent months.” He went on to say his sales staff operated differently from other stations because he “did not instruct salesmen to put the heat on potential local advertisers. We depended on solid, sound business practices and those practices were beginning to show results in recent months.”
From that point, Worth Rough intended to keep the station's franchise(license), but his future plans were not stated. Ultimately the writing was on the wall as much of the station's equipment may have been put in storage at an unknown location. The building of James Hastings Jr. would stand vacant and empty for a few months.
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 "backup" tube. So when it happened, there was simply no cash reserve, or a reserve tube to make the replacement.
WBLN Goes Dark the First Time
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 that 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 and local country music shows during prime time that did nothing to attract large audiences.
The Second Life of WBLN, Channel 15
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)
By December 1st, 1957 WBLN would be back as Bloomington's local television station. Once again, 10 months later Worth Rough, WBLN's station manager would be making announcements about a new sign-on for Channel 15. The mailing address of the new WBLN in 1958 was P.O. Box 646, Bloomington, Illinois.
The kickoff broadcast took place from 5 to 5:30 on Sunday, December 1st, and would include a number of Bloomington's dignitaries. Those appearing during the local broadcast would be Mayor Robert McGraw of Bloomington, City Manager Eugene Moody, and City Attorney Frank Deneen, and Ed Dirks, Executive Secretary of the Association of Commerce. Regular programming would begin at 5:30 pm.
Pantagraph accounts would, this time, include the names of station staff members. They were sales manager Willard Nichols, news and program director Warner Tidemann, sports director Don McKellar, chief engineer Buri Dixon, staff announcer Jim Evans, traffic manager Mrs. Worth Rough and copywriter Mrs. Warner Tidemann.
Warner Tidemann was at least the second person to go to WBLN from WJBC radio. Tidemann was the former WJBC station manager from 1946 to 1956, when he was replaced at the radio station during an ownership change. By December of 1957, he was at WBLN, with his wife as a copywriter.
The actual “second” sign-on of WBLN came about only after the FCC approved a debt payment plan and the station passed an equipment performance test to broadcast standards. By December 1st, approval was granted.
Our Miss Brooks
This is Your Life
(I Remember) Mama
Our Miss Brooks
1957-1200 Locally produced religious programming, Bloomington Pantagraph
1957-1200 San Francisco Beat, TV Guide, Doug Quick Collection
1958 American Legion League Baseball, which never aired, from TV Guide, The Doug Quick Collection.
1957-1200 Locally produced religious programming, Bloomington Pantagraph
Seen on WBLN
The Business of WBLN
Not a lot of information is known about the advertising sales efforts of WBLN, other than the fact the sales manager was Willard Nichols. How many salesmen (it was a man's world back then) were on staff is unknown.
One of the items I found was a published rate for WBLN in a 1958 directory of local TV station rates. The national advertising representative company for WBLN was McGillvra. The publication also gave a household number of 113,242 with a top rate of $200.
To put that in comparison, WCIA had household numbers of 335, 900 with a top rate of $700.
The Joseph Hershey McGillvra Company also represented a number of Chicago area radio stations nationally including stations in Hammond(IN), Joliet, Elgin, and Waukegan.
The rates asked of local advertisers is unknown.
WBLN Minus a Network
It appears that ABC had canceled the affiliation agreement with WBLN when it left the air those months before and either had no intention of renewing a new contract or that Rough decided to “go it alone” with no network. By this time it was known WTVH in Peoria would lose its claim to CBS programming when WMBD-TV would go on the air in January of 1958.
It's possible that WTVH was holding on to its only chance for any financial success with an exclusive arrangement with ABC which included those few viewers in Bloomington-Normal that received the low-powered station. It was also during this time that WTVH was going through its own trauma with reductions of staff which virtually wiped out its local news programming.
With WBLN not having any network service, there were some costs that were saved from AT & T, but programming costs would increase with the necessary purchase of programming material. In December of 1957 a package of motion pictures was purchased from National Telefilm Associates called the “Champagne Package.” This package of top-notch movies included “High Noon,” “Spellbound” and “The Bells of St. Mary's.” That same package of movies for broadcast was also purchased by WGN-TV(Chicago) and KMOX-TV(St. Louis). It's unknown how many movies were in the package, but during its non-ABC months of operation, WBLN would air at least two movies most evenings, an 8 pm 90-minute feature and a 10:30 pm feature.
WBLN Bloomington's Local TV News Source
During the first go around of WBLN, there didn't seem to be any real emphasis on the broadcast of local news. Now with the second go around, WBLN returned to the air with two newscasts per day seven days a week, anchored mostly by Warner Tidemann with sports director Don McKellar. A United Press teletype machine and Unifax machine will supply the news from around the nation and the world. A weathercaster was not included in the anchor positions at the station, presumably, weather forecasts were simply read by Mr. Tidemann. An investment in at least one studio camera would also be made replacing the original low-cost Dage cameras. The brand of the replacement camera is unknown.
At that time, most local news, especially world and national, would consist primarily of the anchor reading wire copy, with an occasional picture, similar to what would be used by newspapers. The Unifax was an early “fax” machine that would recreate news photos that would be copied to paper and mounted on TV boards which would be placed in front of the studio's second camera and inserted at appropriate places during the reading of the script.
"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.
Keith Larsen played "Brave Eagle," in this 1950s syndicated TV series. Semi-comic relief was supplied by Bert Wheeler, who was half of the popular 30's movie comedy team Wheeler and Woolsey.
"Industry on Parade" was a barter program, seemingly edited to run a 15-minute slot, probably doubled to fit a 30-minute slot on WBLN.
"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.
"The Paper Millionaire Case" (1956). Originally broadcast on CBS as "The Lineup" in syndication on WBLN it was called "San Francisco Beat."
This dramatic anthology is not related to the series with the same title as the 1960s. This was hosted by Raymond Massey and described occurrences in history that involved espionage.
Other Local Programming
Three sources of local programming would come from the subjects of religion, country music, and sports. WBLN planned to air a weekly discussion of Holy Scripture called “Thinking About Life” by an in-studio panel on Monday from 7:30 to 8 pm hosted by Amos Barton, “Hope of the World” a live broadcast of scriptures and gospel music with Paster Allen R. Blegen and an unknown male quartet with aired Fridays at 6:30-7 pm.
Country music and local sports were represented with The “Hillbilly Jamboree” hosted by local radio personality (WHOW, Clinton, IL) “Uncle Johnny Barton” which aired on Wednesday from 8 to 9 pm and “Sports Round Table” was a weekly sports talk show with local coaches hosted by sports director Don McKellar on Monday nights at 9:30.
In 1958 listings from TV Guide, there were at least two more locally produced shows listed with those above. “Randy Bramble” was listed as a music program airing late Sunday night at 10:20 pm, and “Church in the Home” aired on Sundays at 6 pm.
(ad from the Bloomington Pantagraph and the Ann Hill Collection)
In November of 2016, I received an e-mail from "Ann Hill" who said she hosted a program on WBLN during the station's 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 that he brought because it was too shiny. We were told not to wear white because it didn't project well on TV."
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!
WBLN's Broken Promises
The June 14th edition of TV Guide included a local news release from WBLN which announced a boys baseball league formed by the local American Legion post and sponsored by local businesses that would play games from a baseball diamond constructed next to the Channel 15 studios. Each game played from the field would be televised from 4 to 5:30pm with the play-by-play furnished by sports director, Don McKellar. The broadcasts were to begin on June 16th, 1958.
A TV Guide advertisement during the week of what would be WBLN's last also teased an upcoming high budget syndicated series called “The Grey Ghost” an adventure series based during the Civil War. “The Grey Ghost” was syndicated from October 57 to July 1958 and consisted of 39 half-hour episodes. WBLN was to broadcast the series beginning sometime during the Summer of 1958.
Unfortunately, circumstances would prevent those broadcasts from happening.
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)
On Again...Then Off for the Last Time
On Thursday, June 5th, 1958 WBLN once again, as it did in early 1957, went off the air. A “station official” said the interruption was caused by transmission tube failure.
Would the Real Owner Please Stand Up
Interestingly enough, Worth Rough was reported to be president of “a” corporation operating WBLN, but he also said he is no longer directing the operation of the station, except in a technical capacity.
Rough admitted he had taken a job with another company, but remained technically in the WBLN position pending FCC approval of a “stock transfer.” The new principal stockholder of Channel 15 was reported to be Amos Barton, a Towanda, Illinois construction firm owner. Mr. Barton had already been acting station manager for several weeks before the tube failure and going off the air. He was also on staff as the moderator of “Thinking About Life” the religious local production which included a panel consisting of local religious leaders.
It's also unknown whether Amos Barton was related to WBLN personality “Uncle Johnny” Barton. “Uncle Johnny” hosted “Hillbilly Jamboree” on the station as well as holding a position as a disc jockey at Country-Western station WHOW Radio in nearby Clinton, Illinois.
WBLN Financial Settlement in Jeopardy
At the same time, WBLN went off the air for the final time, a notice from a bankruptcy judge in Springfield announced that a settlement that was made on October 10th of 1957 between the station and several creditors which would stave off bankruptcy was now in jeopardy.
One claim for payment was made by Motion Pictures for Television, Inc. which supplied syndicated programming for WBLN. An August 20, 1955 edition of TV Guide included an article on syndicated programming identifying Motion Pictures for Television as being the syndicator of “Janet Dean,” “Duffy's Tavern,” “Flash Gordon” and “Sherlock Holmes.” “Janet Dean,” and “Sherlock Homes” was indeed broadcast on WBLN being confirmed in TV listings in TV Guide in 1958.
Several creditors were slated to receive 10 cents on the dollar as part of a settlement. Among the creditors was General Electric Co., which sold the station the Channel 15 1,000-watt transmitter and other broadcast equipment. Even with a 10-cent on the dollar arrangement, GE was to receive $22,500. There were other creditors as well but who they were are unknown.
When the station went off the air for the final time the ownership of the station asked for a court order which would nullify the payment plan. WBLN it appears had failed to comply with the original settlement and once the station left the air, it would have no way to continue to pay a settlement.
The Federal Court issued an order setting July 1, 1958, as the date for a hearing in a suit that was filed by Motion Pictures for Television, Inc., as well as a meeting with other creditors of WBLN. It's unknown the outcome of that hearing or the meeting.
It was also released that when the station went on the air for the second time in December of 1957 a successful plea was made to community residents to purchase stock in WBLN to give Channel 15 $15,000 in working capital. When WBLN left the air in June of 1958, I would assume those community residents lost their investment.
By June 5th, WBLN would be off the air....and this time for good.
(from the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph)
WBLN Studio from 1958 or 1959 after the station signed-off the final time. It was located in the area northwest of the (now) Veterans Parkway and Illinois Route 150 intersection in southeast Bloomington area. It no longer exists.
The then vacant studio after the station signed-off. Notice the map with land masses beginning to peel off the background.
Upper level shot of master control where the video/audio is mixed and sent out to the transmitter for broadcast.
WBLN Studio from 1958 or 1959 after the station signed-off the final time. It was located in the area northwest of the (now) Veterans Parkway and Illinois Route 150 intersection in southeast Bloomington area. It no longer exists.
Click on the Photos above to see more information about each one.
All studio photos provided and used here are from the Ken-Way Studio Photograph Collection, courtesy of Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives at Illinois State University.
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)
(above): The initial application for WBLN to return in 1982 owned by a religious for-profit company.
(right): the application was granted in 1983 with studios at 1328 East Empire in Bloomington.
In the early 1980s, a local religious group Grace Communications Corporation, a for profit organization, filed for a television station permit to broadcast on channel 43 after it was vacated by WEEK-TV in the mid-1960s. Even though the call letters were the same, WBLN this time around wasn't related to the former WBLN that left the air in 1958. The station broadcast religious programming, which probably encouraged those watching to "support" the TV station by sending donations. When it wasn't doing that, it also aired other secular programming, syndicated TV shows, cartoons, etc.
As I'm not interested in researching the history of religious broadcasters, there won't be anything posted about this station until it was purchased by a non-religious owner some years later. It will be added later as my research continues at a later time.
Sources and Contributors:
All narration is from "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television" by Doug Quick, the curator of this website.
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)
the Complete 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