The History of WCHU, Channel 33, Champaign, IL

and WICD, Channel 24, Danville, IL

1959 - 1967

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 WICD and WCHU 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!

This "dream" ended being much less than it's the original plan.  As told in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television," the Champaign WICS extension become a much less significant addition to the television landscape than a plan that was set forth in 1957.

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

As described in much greater detail in "Pictures on the Prairie," channel 33 would not become a full powered TV station. Plains Television along with the Balaban brothers was busy purchasing other broadcast properties at the same time. It is possible the “downgrading” of the proposed channel 33 may have been to save money. For whatever reason, the building of a television station to serve Champaign-Urbana with “lesser facilities” would finally take place 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 more like 150-feet. All of a sudden 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. More details of the shaky start of WCHU is included in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television History."

Here are 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 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. 

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)

*  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 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 window.  Carol Fisher was the original "weather girl" of WCHU. 

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

Because of the technical limitations of taking the off-air signal of WICS, Springfield and rebroadcasting it on Channel 33 in Champaign, it's a sure bet the color signal would have been less than desirable by the time it reached viewers television sets on the low powered WCHU. Then, the low powered off-air signal of WCHU, Channel 33 would have been received in Danville, some 30 miles away (much farther than what the signal normally would have reached), and re-broadcast again to viewers in the Danville, Illinois area. It's no wonder no effort was made to upgrade the transmitter of WICD, Channel 24 to broadcast color.  The overall quality of the signal would have been degraded considerably for viewers of Channel 24.

1/108
A Selection of NBC
Shows from 1959-67

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

(TV Guide® courtesy of J.R. Evans)

"Uncle Otto's General Store" was the WCHU/WICD local children's show which ran on weekday afternoons on Channels 33 and 24.  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 mixing 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)

(TV Guide® ad courtesy of J.R. Evans)

"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.

(YouTube)

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

(YouTube)

Here's one of the Bob Hope Comedy Specials as broadcast on November 29, 1962, with the original commercials.  His guests: Jack Benny and Bobby Darin.
(YouTube)

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 part motivational piece as well as outlining the new cars for the upcoming sales season.  

(YouTube)

This installment of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" aired on April 15, 1962.  This is a fascinating tour of Disneyland "after dark" and features scenes from the southern California theme park.  This is personal for me as even though I had been there before as an infant, 1962 was the first memorable visit I made with my family to "Disneyland" later in the Summer of 62.

(YouTube)

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).
(YouTube)

1/7
A Selection of Syndicated
Shows from 1959-67

 

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 the construction of studios was completed within the small confines of the Inman Hotel in downtown Champaign. 

By localizing the WCHU product it could better attract a Champaign-Urbana audience to add to the audience of WICS in Springfield.  Local News at WCHU/WICD was provided by the Dunkel/Eaton Report which originated in both Danville and Champaign.  Dunkel was in Danville and Eaton was in Champaign.  It was a local version of NBC's  Huntley/Brinkley Report.

 

Children's shows of the era included "Clicka T. Clack and his Friends" and "The Funny Company" on WICS which 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, long time weathercaster, began at WCHU as a puppeteer on Uncle Otto's General Store and alter egos of "Honk and Toot."  Keith was also a booth announcer at the station and pre-recorded all of the commercial station breaks, and became a weathercaster when weather "girl" Carol Fisher left the station in 1964.

In January of 1965 Plains Television Corporation filed with FCC for a license to broadcast on Channel 21.    That Channel 21 signal would have replaced those on Champaign's Channel 33 and Danville's Channel 24.  It would also eliminate the need for the translator at Channel 75 in Mattoon which re-broadcast WICS.  This new facility would be able to broadcast a signal with a
50 mile radius from a tower midway between Ogden and Fithian, 2 1/2 miles south of Interstate 74.  The station would have a maximum height of 1,349 feet with a power of 225 kilowatts.  Plus, the new station would be able to broadcast NBC shows in full color to the entire area!

 

After a holdup, for an unknown reason, the filing finally was sent to the FCC for consideration during March of 1965.  A press release at the time said that if the FCC approved the license within 60 days, a new tower and facility could be operational by the fall of 1966.

Finally, in June of 1966, the announcement was made that what was originally Channel 21, would now be Channel 15, a joint operation of stations WCHU and WICD and would be on the air by late 1966 or early 1967.  It was promised that viewers would have better reception from the new tower which would be the tallest structure in Illinois and Indiana.   The tower site would be near Homer, 17 miles east of Champaign(actually Urbana), and would be 1, 345 feet tall and the station would broadcast a power of 55 kilowatts(a little short of the original plan).  Later along with the filing, a change was made to the specs to include a high gain antenna with a corresponding increase in power to 1 1/4 million watts.  WCHU General Manager, James T. Kelly once again promised a stronger signal to the rural areas and many towns including Rantoul, Paris, Paxton, Charleston and Monticello.

 

Why was the broadcast channel 21 changed to channel 15?  It's unknown, but it was a wise decision ultimately.  Some of the factors could have been since WCHU would receive an off-air signal of WICS at Channel 20, some co-channel interference would have been experienced.  Another reason could have been the confusion of viewers between the transmitter points who would have had a difficult time tuning each station in with the slide-rule UHF tuners prevalent on sets of the era.  The original allocation of channel 15 was set in Bloomington.   WBLN which operated at channel 15 during several years in the 1950's was no longer on the air, and the license appeared to have been surrendered to the FCC.  No other filing for the license was ever made.  The change to request channel 15 would eliminate much of the interference of the nearby stations, plus give the new station a much better lower dial position.  From a marketing standpoint, the use of 15 and 20 made perfect sense while the call letters were similar for WIC....S for Springfield and D for Danville, which was the county seat for Vermilion County which hosted the transmitter and broadcast tower.

Since the FCC allocation table spaced UHF stations in the same metro areas at 6 channels apart, it seemed like more than a coincidence that 15 was 6 away from 21.  In fact, the allocation table for Champaign-Urbana had 21, 27, 34, 40, 46, 52, 58 as possible channels for full power stations.  It may have been that the allocation for channel 15 was originally assigned to Champaign-Urbana.  In order to squeeze more channels in, it became obvious that not all allocations would be filled by most communities.  For example, Lafayette, Indiana had the allocation channel numbers 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48 and 54.  WFAM, which is now WLFI originally broadcast on channel 54 during its early days, later going to the more preferable lower dial position of channel 18.  Meanwhile, the Lafayette allocation for channel 24, was moved to nearby Danville, Illinois where it was used by WDAN-TV and WICD from 1953 to 1967.

 

 

Here's Douglas Kimball in a closeup from the ad to the right.  He 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, DaleColemanand 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 spreading 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 announcing 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. 

(from TV Guide® and the Doug Quick Collection)

Seemingly an example of bad programming judgment, or "it seemed like a good idea at the time!"  The management of WICS/WCHU and WICD in an effort to sell more prime time commercial time preempted the new science fiction show "Star Trek" to show the off-network syndicated show "Laramie."  Well, at least "Laramie" was in color!

 

(from TV Guide® and the Doug Quick Collection)

Sources:

Broadcasting-Telecasting Magazine

TV Guide®
WICD-TV

Danville Public Library

Urbana Courier

Urbana Free Library

You Tube

"Total Television" by Alex McNeil

 

Contributors:

Bob Lee (Screen Grabs)

Keith Page
Ted Sondergren

Dave Boyer

J.R. Evans and his TV Guide© Collection

 

 

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

Updated 12.07.2019

© 2002-2019 Doug Quick.

Produced by Doug Quick

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