Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If you’re the parent of a child of a certain age, “Danville” is the hometown of the cartoon characters Phineas and Ferb, and the home base (at the center of the “Tri-State Area”) for their very creative adventures. (And yes, your editor is the parent of two children of that certain age…)
There are also more than a few real-life Danvilles out there, including broadcast communities of license in states as far-flung as Vermont, Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas. But the Danville that has our attention in this week’s column is the one at the eastern edge of Illinois, 120 miles due south of Chicago. We pulled into town late on a summer Friday night in August 2011, on the heels of the Bloomington/Evansville trip we’ve been documenting in recent weeks on this page. And while we expected to just get a quick cruise past the Danville tower sites the next morning, we ended up taking rather a deeper dive into Danville’s remarkable broadcast history.
Today, that unassuming building above is the 1500 N. Washington Avenue home of Neuhoff Broadcasting’s trio of Danville stations, WDAN (1490 Danville), WDNL (102.1 Danville) and WRHK (94.9 Danville). But behind its relatively recent stone facade lies a little piece of early UHF television history, not to mention a lot of local radio along the way.
WDAN is by far the oldest radio station in this part of the world, having signed on at 1500 on the dial back in 1938 from studios in the basement of the Wolford Hotel in downtown Danville and a self-supporting tower next to a tiny transmitter building out here on Washington Avenue at what must then have been the very edge of town.
A decade or so later, WDAN moved its studios up to an expanded building next to the tower here on North Washington – and just a few years after that, the station’s owner, the Danville Commercial-News (owned then by Northwest Publishing, an arm of the larger Gannett company), received one of the first UHF construction permits to put WDAN-TV 24 on the air from this site.
WDAN-TV signed on December 19, 1953 as an ABC affiliate, operating from a new TV studio attached to the back of the radio studios and using a new guyed tower that replaced WDAN’s original 328-foot self-supporting AM tower.
With a small staff that briefly included a young Gene Hackman (did you know he was from Danville?), WDAN-TV struggled through the 1950s against VHF competition from surrounding markets, including the region’s powerhouse, WCIA (Channel 3) just 35 miles to the west in Champaign. Early hopes that it might make its own move to VHF were dashed when channel 10 was instead assigned to Terre Haute, Indiana, 50 miles to the south. In 1960, Gannett sold WDAN-TV to Plains Television, which owned lower-power WCHU (Channel 33) in Champaign, the nominal NBC affiliate for the region and itself a semi-satellite of WICS (Channel 20) in Springfield, some 120 miles to the west.
With the sale of the TV station, Gannett moved WDAN radio’s studio downtown to the Commercial News building, leaving the renamed WICD-TV alone on North Washington for seven years.
In 1967, following some false starts including the collapse of a new tower, Plains combined the former WCHU and WICD-TV into a new Champaign-licensed WICD-TV, operating on channel 15 from a high-powered transmitter midway between Champaign and Danville. The era of TV on North Washington was over, and WDAN radio returned to its original home in the early 1970s when Gannett sold the station to a group of local owners. By then, WDAN had added automated WDAN-FM at 102.1, which in turn became WMBJ and then WDNL when the stations were sold again in 1977. After a stint with Majac Broadcasting (which also owned in Binghamton and several other NERW-land markets), WDAN and WDNL ended up with Illinois-based Neuhoff Broadcasting in 1991. A few years later, Neuhoff bought the new in-town competition, WWDZ (94.9), moving it to North Washington as WRHK, “K-Rock.”
And that brings us to our visit in 2011, when we pulled up to the residential neighborhood around the stations on a Saturday morning just in time to see a station staffer driving in to get some gear ready for a remote. Conversation ensued, and that led to a quick tour of this most historic little building, where “K-Rock” makes its home in the showcase studio behind the big window in front, with another window in turn looking into WDAN’s talk studio.
There was an actual local talk show happening on WDAN that morning, while WRHK and WDNL (hot AC “D-102”) were running automated. And back there behind the WDNL studio, that big wood-paneled room shown near the top of the page? That’s the very room that was added on in 1953 to be the studio of WDAN-TV, long, long ago. (I somehow missed seeing the actual WDAN and WDNL transmitters, which I think are behind the racks in that back room.)
In writing this history of WDAN and WDAN-TV, I am absolutely indebted to the research of a former general manager of WDAN/WDNL. Doug Quick later moved into TV and spent many years at WICD/WICS, and he’s chronicled an absolutely remarkable chunk of central Illinois broadcast history at his website, www.dougquick.com, which is well worth an extended visit. Don’t miss Doug’s amazing tour of the 1938 WDAN studios, which survive as storage rooms in the basement of the old Hotel Wolford, now a senior housing facility!
Before we leave Danville, there are a few more sites worth mentioning. Two blocks south of the old Hotel Wolford, birthplace of WDAN, we notice a TV antenna perched atop another downtown building. This is W31BX-D, a digital translator of WDAN-TV/WICD’s longtime competitor WAND-TV. If you’ll allow us another moment of digression, the TV market that developed in central Illinois is a bizarre one indeed. It’s 120 miles down I-74 and I-72 from Danville, on the Indiana line, to the state capital of Springfield – and it’s all part of one big agglomerated TV market. That’s partially a result of the long semi-simulcast of WICD and Springfield’s WICS, partially a reflection of the enormous VHF reach of Champaign’s WCIA (Channel 3), and partially the result of the FCC’s removal of an early channel 2 allotment from Springfield. (Poor WMAY-TV, which actually held a CP for channel 2, was never built and the channel was later reused in St. Louis and Terre Haute.)
The upshot is that for most viewers in the region, full three-network service was a rarity. WCIA, with the CBS affiliation, was easily viewed in Danville and Champaign-Urbana, as well as in Decatur, 40 miles or so southwest of Champaign, but it wasn’t easy to pick up in Springfield and vicinity until it eventually spawned a high-powered translator there (which much later became a standalone UPN/My Network outlet.) The WICD/WICS combination covered most of the region with its two UHF signals carrying NBC. As for ABC, the demise of WDAN-TV left that network to reach the entire sprawling region on Decatur-licensed WAND (Channel 17). WAND eventually added that Danville translator to better serve the easternmost end of its market, and what was once W68AA evolved into today’s W31BX-D.
(There have been affiliation swaps along the way, too: Sinclair, which ended up with WICD/WICS, lost NBC in 2005 and ended up swapping affiliations with then-LIN-owned WAND. Fox, if you’re wondering, is on a pair of sister stations in Champaign-Urbana and Springfield. And there are completely separate PBS outlets in each of those cities, too…but we’ll get to that when we begin recapping another 2012 visit to central Illinois in a few months’ time…)
There’s also more radio in Danville: in 1953, just as WDAN-TV was getting ready to sign on, the city got a second AM outlet. WITY (980) runs 1000 watts full-time, using three towers day and night from its site on Spelter Avenue just off US 150/Illinois 1 due south of town. Originally a sister station to WITZ in Jasper, Indiana, which we showcased a few weeks back, WITY just celebrated its 60th anniversary as a proud stand-alone AM voice in town.
And aside from several rimshot FMs – WYXY 99.1, to the west in Savoy, is part of Saga’s Champaign-Urbana cluster, while oldies WSKL (92.9 Veedersburg), country WKZS (103.1 Covington) and religious WFOF (90.3 Covington) all transmit just across the state line in Indiana – that’s about it for this small but very historic radio market.
Thanks to WDAN/WDNL/WRHK’s Ken Kirby for the impromptu tour!
But the wait is over. The Tower Site Calendar, 2014 edition, has gone to press, and you can be the first to reserve your very own. We’re finally shipping the calendars beginning today, and we’ll send them right off to their loving homes, spiral bound, shrink wrapped and best of all, with a convenient hole for hanging!
This year’s gorgeous electronic pinups include the iconic towers of Catalina Island, a combiner system in St. Louis, the twin towers of KNRS in Salt Lake City, a historic rooftop site in Jamestown, New York and many more!
If you want a tower calendar on your wall NOW, you can pick up the current edition for just $5 with your 2014 order!
Click here to order your new calendar!
Then check out our store page for our other great merchandise, including the last-ever FM Atlas, the new NRC AM Log and a model of the KSAN tower.
And don’t miss a big batch of cross-country IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: WLUP/WWWN, Chicago, 2011