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The History of WCHU, Channel 33, Champaign, IL
and WICD, Channel 24, Danville, IL

1959 - 1967

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A Lesser Facility is now Planned

Due to a request filed by Plains TV against competitor WCIA being denied by the FCC, it appeared that Plains decided to "punish" viewers by downgrading the plan to build Channel 33. The original plan was to build a full-powered television facility that could have brought NBC programming to east-central Illinois.  After the FCC decision, the application for a full-powered UHF station,  filed in 1956, was pulled from consideration. 

Plains Television,  along with the Balaban brothers, was busy purchasing other broadcast properties at the same time. The “downgrading” of the proposed channel 33 may have been to save cash. For whatever reason, building a television station to serve Champaign-Urbana with “lesser facilities” would finally occur in 1958-1959.


By “lesser facilities,” the plan would downgrade the power output of what would become WCHU from a proposed 200kw to 5.5kw, and instead of a 650-foot antenna, it would be 150 feet. Suddenly, the signal of this proposed east central Illinois property would decrease from a 50-mile radius to a mere 15 miles!


In November of 1958, construction began with a completion date of April 24, 1959. Ultimately, that's when WCHU went on the air from the Inman Hotel in Champaign to broadcast the off-air signal of WICS, static and all. 


NBC for Champaign-Urbana, but not much more


Before WCHU, NBC programming was seen over all of east central Illinois on WCIA and in color, too! Channel 3 had picked up a secondary affiliation with the network and its primary affiliation with CBS. This would monopolize the two strongest broadcast networks for WCIA. WCIA would air an occasional NBC program such as “Dragnet,” “Grouch Marx-You Bet Your Life,” “Colgate Comedy Hour,” “Your Hit Parade,” and other special events from 1953 to 1958. It was also WCIA's only source of color programming outside of a very rare CBS color presentation during that period. WCIA had converted to broadcast color from network programming in 1955; now, with the loss of NBC, WCIA would not be able to “show off” to central Illinois color TV viewers.

This was also bad news to other east central Illinois NBC viewers. Unless you lived in the very near proximity of Champaign, you would lose NBC programming entirely. It was also temporally bad news for those who invested in color televisions throughout the area, as WCHU would not broadcast NBC color until 1961.


wchu_antenna_downtown Champaign_1960_tjblakeman.jpg

In the above photo taken sometime around 1960 or so of downtown Champaign from the railroad overpass that is above University Street the tower and antenna of WCHU, Channel 33 is clearly visible. The top mast is actually the antenna of the low powered TV station that only gave the station a range of around 15 miles!   

(Photo courtesy of T.J. Blakeman)

Realistically, though, the color quality would likely have been less than perfect since Channel 33 would still be re-broadcasting the over-the-air signal of WICS. That additional video generation in the broadcast chain may have distorted the signal of WCHU enough to smear any acceptable color video when the station broadcast color in 1961.


When  WCHU signed on in April 1958, it was found that the daytime signal of WICS was far less than adequate for rebroadcast on WCHU. During the evening hours, though, the reception of the off-air signal of WICS was far better. At the time, WICS broadcast its signal from a new 900-foot tower/antenna at Mechanicsburg, Illinois, 65 miles from WCHU. That location, tower, transmitter, and antenna were set up to reach Champaign and to serve the future and the soon-to-go-on-the-air WCHU.

To address the issue, an application was filed just a short time after its initial sign-on to construct a receiver/microwave link antenna/tower in an area at the highest elevation in Champaign County, northwest of Champaign. The FCC granted the application, and a 150-foot tower/antenna was built, along with an off-air receiver and the microwave link that would relay the signal of WICS to the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign.

With this new link, WCHU expanded its broadcast day with a much more reliable programming source. Channel 33 began its broadcast day at the same time as WICS in Springfield on September 13, 1959. The station included some local origination within a newly constructed studio on the second floor of the Inman Hotel.

It's pretty obvious today that the lessening of the facility of WCHU was a mistake by Plains Television. This ridiculous business choice would create a culture for the station, positioning it as the weaker, less relevant station in the market, a stigma attached to WCHU and later WICD for decades!


Here are the people in charge, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Eskew who was placed at the helm of WCHU.  Harry was formerly at "technical services" at WICS while Mrs. Eskew was the former "Traffic Manager" at WICS.  She would now be the Office Manager at WCHU.

(photo Urbana Courier)

WCHU-TV Employee Roster 1962-1964

(as remembered by Ted Sodergren)

station manager: Jim Kelly
sales: Joe Norris
traffic: Shirley Eskew
program director: Bob Lumpp (weather announcer as needed)
weathercaster: Carol Fisher
chief engineer: Harry Eskew
control room engineers: Gerry Probst and                  Gene Euling
director/photographer: "Deke" Kurtz
news announcer/reporter: Charlie Anderson
announcer/interviewer/booth announcer: Keith Page
"Uncle Otto" and production: Dave Otto
studio production staff: Ted Sodergren, Joel Hartman
receptionist/traffic assistant: Barbara Bluege

All text materials and photos contained in the section above have been used by permission. They are owned by Ted Sondergren who has graciously allowed them to be included in this website. 

WCHU Staff


The original staff of WCHU included Vice President Milton Friedland, who had been with WICS since 1953 and would oversee the operation at WCHU as well. Others managing both stations included Jerry Merrit as chief engineer and Jack Hoskins as program director.


The on-site staff included both Mr. and Mrs. Harry Eskew. Mr. Eskew was from technical services at WICS and would supervise the new station. His wife was a former traffic manager and would serve as the office manager at the station. Jerry Dodds was the station's only account executive, and Bob Daniels was the announcer. Others in the operations and engineering staff were Roger Thorp and Glen Horton—a small staff for a small station.

Read more about Ted Sodergren's Story of working at WCHU during the early days. Just click on the button above.

(All photos above are ©Ted Sodergren and are used here by permission)

Memories of Ted Sodergren


*  Note the monitors labeled with "20" "33" and to the far right "24."  The video monitors included three Admiral table model TV sets which would have used the "off-air" tuners to monitor the three stations.  The second monitor probably monitored the video before being sent to the transmitter, with the one in the middle picking up the "off-air" signal.  

The video switcher is directly in from of Mr. Probst with the Gates audio board model called  "The Yard" sitting on top.  The control room operator had to do both audio and video switching.  Also to the far right is probably the commercial scripts for live and recorded reads....done by the "booth announcer" and at the far left could have been the program log....and the list of phone numbers of other staffers and probably the main control of both WICS and WICD.  This equipment also is full of tubes and other heat-producing electronics needed to have additional air conditioning....notice the wall unit at the upper right-hand side of the picture.

** This photo also shows the reel-to-reel tape with the continuity log for the commercial copy.  Apparently, much of the "booth announcing" was pre-recorded on reel-to-reel tape for each day's broadcast schedule.  There was another "Magnicord" reel to reel recorder/player which could be alternated from one to the other as commercials switched.  The rack on the wall was probably for reel-to-reel tapes with individualized commercial audio on them for playback.  

Also, note the larger monitor just to the far right.  It appears to be an RCA color TV which was used to monitor the "color" off-air signal of WCHU and it's broadcast of NBC color programming.

The television station license and various operators licenses are displayed just above the control room door.  By the way, it appears the air conditioners exhaust was blown into the hallway.

*** The "Window on the Weather" would include a shot of the current weather conditions in downtown Champaign as viewed from the studio window. Carol Fisher was the original "weather girl" of WCHU

WCHU Gains Color for NBC


In August of 1960, WCHU announced they would soon be broadcasting in color, potentially in time for the 1960 World Series. According to Milton D. Friedland, color would be a permanent addition to television because RCA and NBC had invested heavily in developing the technology. The estimated cost of implementing color-casting at WCHU was between $15,000 and $20,000. Friedland revealed that shows such as "Jack Paar, Perry Como, and Dinah Shore" would be broadcast in color on WCHU. However, WICS had already been broadcasting in color for three years at that point, while WICD (see WICD early history at WDAN-TV History), WCHU's sister station in Danville, would not be able to do so due to financial impracticality. 


Only NBC programming was broadcast in color. Similarly, WCIA had been broadcasting network color shows since 1954, while CBS had limited color shows available and would not have regular color programming until 1966. This was partly due to RCA/NBC holding the patents on the technology necessary for color broadcasting. William Paley, the CBS President, was determined at first not to purchase RCA technology.  (He would later be forced to purchase RCA equipment and cameras but had technicians remove the "RCA" logo from anything visible.)


The decision made by the FCC in the 1950s to establish color TV standards also played a role in the delay of color broadcasting. Although CBS's color system was reportedly of higher quality, it was not compatible with the millions of TV sets used then. RCA/NBC's system, which was compatible, ultimately won out after much debate and haggling between the two companies.

The NBC Peacock as seen by those with color TVs on WICS, CHannel 20

The NBC Peacock as seen by those with color TVs on WCHU, Channel 33

The NBC Peacock as seen by those with color TVs on WICD, Channel 24

Due to technical limitations, the color signal transmitted from WICS in Springfield and rebroadcast on Channel 33 in Champaign would have been poor video quality when it reached viewers' TV sets on the low-powered WCHU. Additionally, the low-powered off-air signal of WCHU received in Danville was well beyond the normal range of Channel 33 for rebroadcast to the Danville area. As a result, it's not surprising that no attempt was made to upgrade WICD's transmitter on Channel 24 to broadcast color since the overall signal quality would have been significantly degraded for Channel 24 viewers. The decision not to equip WICD-TV in Danville for color was that the old 1953 station transmitter was not set up to be retrofitted with the add-on equipment to broadcast color. There could have already been plans to create a full-powered station soon that would broadcast from east central Illinois into west central Indiana. Eventually, that would occur in 1967 with the creation of Channel 15, taking on the call letters, WICD, of its Danville predecessor, Channel 24.

A Selection of NBC
Shows from 1959-67

(right): The opening page of local listings from TV Guide® when the Channel 24 WICD listings were added to the lineup.  Even though Channel 24 had been broadcasting since 1953, the previous owners (Northwest Publishing) chose not to include the station.

(TV Guide® courtesy of J.R. Evans)

(TV Guide® ad courtesy of J.R. Evans)

"Uncle Otto's General Store" was the WCHU/WICD local children's show on Channels 33 and 24 weekday afternoons.  Dave Otto was the star with the puppets of "Honk" and "Toot."  The puppeteer was WICD's Keith Page in his early days of broadcasting.  Keith also supplied the voices of the puppets.  The show also included a studio audience of local kids and a mix of Warner Brothers cartoons.  Shows like this one helped establish the habits of the younger audience to watch local television stations.


(pictures from WICD and the Doug Quick Collection)

"Wagon Train" was NBC's highest-rated show one year after its premiere in 1957.  By 1958 it was in the top 2 shows of all television. It was part series and part anthology focusing on a different set of characters but maintained a regular cast as well. The series continued on NBC through 1962 when it moved to ABC.


From 1956 to 1961, "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show" aired on NBC and was one of the top-rated shows for the network in the top 20 each season. This installment is from 1960 and was broadcast in color on WCHU (not on WICD). 


Here's one of the Bob Hope Comedy Specials as broadcast on April 25, 1962. His guests include Janis Page, Frank Sinatra, and Dorothy Lamour.

Don Adams played agent 86 in "Get Smart" which aired on NBC from 1965 to 1969 and was in the top 15 during its first year, the 1965-66 season. Here is a compilation of the "Best of Get Smart-Season One).

A Selection of Syndicated
Shows from 1959-67

Chevrolet was the major sponsor of NBC's "Bonanza" and if they could have had the Cartrights' drive Chevy's instead of ride horses they would have done it.  This piece features Canadian actor Lorne Greene on the set of Bonanza doing a sales commercial for Chevy dealers as part of a series called "Impact 66". This is the part motivational piece as well as outlining the new cars for the upcoming sales season.  


Plains Televisions Future


To vie for national and regional ad revenue, WICS established two stations to cover Springfield, Decatur, and Champaign-Urbana-Danville. Plains Television planned to cover mid-Illinois within five years. The FCC received the plan in January 1965, which was publicly announced in June 1966. Originally Channel 21 was to replace channels 24 and 33 with a full power station by 1967.


WCHU Increases Local Origination


Local origination was split between WICS and WCHU/WICD and featured newscasters such as Douglas Kimball and the "Standard Oil News at 6 PM and 10 PM" from WICS-TV. The need for local origination became obvious, and studios were constructed within the small confines of the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign. Localizing the WCHU product could better attract a Champaign-Urbana audience and local advertisers to add to the audience of WICS in Springfield and help bring even more viewers to the total audience of the central Illinois NBC affiliates.


Throughout the early 1960s, according to more than one employee of the former WCHU, the small group of local employees lobbied for more local origination with the powers at WICS.  


The Dunkel/Eaton Report on WCHU/WICD


With the addition of studio hardware at WCHU, local News at WCHU/WICD would be provided by the Dunkel/Eaton Report, which originated in Danville and Champaign. Dunkel was in Danville, and Eaton was in Champaign. It was a local version of NBC's Huntley/Brinkley Report.


The complexities of pulling off such a news broadcast from two different locations would have been a great challenge and one requiring great coordination of skills from both stations. Since WICD received programming from WCHU, the Champaign side of the broadcast was to operate as normal. For WCHU to broadcast the Danville side of the local news broadcast, WCHU would have to reverse the process and re-broadcast the signal of WICD. One could only imagine the technical nightmare this would have created for operators at the time. It's unknown as to how long this newscast arrangement was utilized, but it certainly wasn't being used any later than 1963.


Children Programming at WCHU and WICD


Kids were king during the era, often having a couple of hours of local programming directed at them (and their mothers) of the era, including "Clicka T. Clack and his Friends" and "The Funny Company" from WICS. Both included a panel of kids from the Springfield area and a staple of Warner Brothers cartoons. At WICD, it was Uncle Otto's General Store with David Otto.

Keith Page, a long-time weathercaster, began at WCHU as a puppeteer on Uncle Otto's General Store and the alter egos of "Honk and Toot." Keith was also a booth announcer, pre-recorded all commercial station breaks, and became a weathercaster when weather "girl" Carol Fisher left the station in 1964. See the pictures in the gallery above.

WCHU and WICD Network Programming


Through 1964, the stations would broadcast almost all of the WICS programs, including those from NBC. Local commercials would be inserted over the WICS local commercials by cutting off the simulcast of WICS and airing local commercials, mainly consisting of slides, pictures of TV cards, and live audio commercials read by a local announcer. After the local commercial(s), the simulcast would continue, and the WCHU/WICD broadcast would rejoin the WICS signal.

Here's Douglas Kimball, who was actually in Springfield, but it appears that at least part of the newscast originated in Champaign with local news and weather
(from the Urbana Courier)

The 5 O'Clock report as broadcast on
WICS/WCHU/WICD and W-75-AD in the mid-1960s. 
Nick Alexander, Dale Coleman, and Wayne Cox anchored the Springfield newscasts, while Alan Crane and Joe Thompson did the Champaign-Danville newscasts.  Dale Coleman, along with Al Pigg(see WTVP) and Kim Wilson, had the distinction of spending their careers at both WICS and WTVP during the 1950s and '60s. 

(ad from TV Guide®
and the Doug Quick Collection)

Four signals to cover mid-Illinois! WICS, Channel 20, Springfield; WICD, Channel 24, Danville; WCHU, Channel 33, Champaign and W-75-AD in Mattoon. By Summer of 1967 better coverage would be achieved with only two signals.

Milton Friedland, Vice President and General Manager of the Plains Television Stations, announced in a TV Guide ad that construction was once again underway on the new Channel 15 broadcast tower after an ice storm took the first one down early in 1967.  See more on the catastrophic loss of the new WICD broadcast tower in the next segment.

(from TV Guide® and the Doug Quick Collection)

It appears to result from poor programming judgment or a decision made without considering the consequence of WICS/WCHU's decision to air the off-network syndicated show "Laramie" instead of the new science fiction show "Star Trek." The decision was made to sell more prime-time commercial time. Although "Laramie" was in color, it was not available in color on Channel 24. This information is from TV Guide® and the Doug Quick Collection.


"Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television by Doug Quick, the curator of this site.

Broadcasting-Telecasting Magazine

TV Guide®

Danville Public Library

Urbana Courier

Urbana Free Library

You Tube

"Total Television" by Alex McNeil



Bob Lee (Screen Grabs)

Keith Page
Ted Sondergren

Dave Boyer

J.R. Evans and his TV Guide© Collection

T.J. Blakeman



Click on the image at left to
go to the history of WICD 1967-2015

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