Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of our favorite categories of stations to write about is that small band of survivors that make up the earliest educational AMs in the nation. As early as 1922 (even earlier, in Wisconsin), a handful of universities began applying for radio licenses, and despite decades of regulatory action that strongly discouraged them, an even smaller handful still survive.
Because early educational radio was in large part an outgrowth of the university extension movement, nearly all of those surviving AM pioneers are at land-grant schools, the vast majority of them in the Midwest. In addition to the aforementioned Wisconsin station, other educational AM survivors can be found at Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Iowa State, and until fairly recently at Ohio State, South Dakota, North Dakota and Kansas State, too.
And there’s this week’s subject: WILL (580) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, another proud survivor of the Class of 1922.
This was WRM when it signed on in the spring of 1922, a project of the Electrical Engineering Laboratory, which outfitted it with a powerful (for the time) 400-watt transmitter for its broadcasts from the campus. By 1925, WRM was in the hands of the university’s public information department, and in 1928 it was rebranded with the WILL callsign and moved to 890 kc, where it shared time with several other regional stations including KFNF in Shenandoah, Iowa and later WBAA, another educational pioneer from Purdue University in nearby West Lafayette, Indiana.
WBAA stayed put on the 890 frequency when it migrated up the dial to 920 in the NARBA shuffle of 1941; WILL, meanwhile, had made a shift in 1935 to its current home at 580 on the dial, where it was operating with 1000 watts by day and, for a time, 250 watts at night. That low spot on the dial, combined with the phenomenal ground conductivity of the upper Midwest, gave WILL impressive coverage of much of the state, as long as the sun was shining; relegating the educational stations to daytime-only status (as eventually happened to WILL) allowed the commercial stations exclusive access to the ears of prime-time audiences, and the regulators of the day were happy to comply.
WILL’s current transmitter site, on the “South Farms” that make up the southern edge of the big Urbana-Champaign campus, dates roughly to that late-1930s move to 580.
Its current configuration, running 5000 watts by day into two 340-foot towers, dates to approximately 1950. The directional pattern puts a null to the west-southwest to protect co-channel WIBW in Topeka (and, until the 1990s, its channel-sharing educational partner KKSU at Kansas State), but still cranks out plenty of signal northward toward Chicago and southward into southern Illinois farm country, not to mention eastward toward Indiana.
More recently, WILL has again been allowed to run 100 watts at night from this site, using that same pattern.
WILL’s 1950-vintage transmitter, a lovely RCA BTA-5U, still sits here, but the main transmitter these days is a newer Gates Five that sits amidst a selection of old studio gear in the little white transmitter shack next to UIUC’s experimental farms.
While we’re down here on South First Street, south of downtown Champaign and Urbana, we’ll show you a quick picture of one of WILL’s close neighbors, too: WDWS (1400) and sister station WHMS (97.5) have studio and transmitters just to the west of WILL, down Windsor Road at the intersection with South Neil Street (US 45), the old main drag into Champaign from the south.
WDWS was the Champaign News Gazette‘s station when it signed on from here in 1937 on 1370 kc, and it’s still newspaper-owned all these years later.
WILL makes its studio home in Campbell Hall, which opened on campus at the corner of Goodwin and Clark in 1998 to replace “temporary” radio quarters. That space had been in use since the 1940s, when WILL(AM) spawned a new FM sister known initially as WUIC and then as WILL-FM (90.9), and it was home for decades to the headquarters of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, one of the predecessors to today’s public radio networks. The radio stations were joined by WILL-TV (Channel 12), which signed on in 1955 after a lengthy fight against commercial interests that didn’t want educational TV taking up a rare VHF assignment in central Illinois.
WILL-TV’s master control and rack room sit just off the big lobby atrium, where a hallway leads back to a fairly spacious TV studio.
Most of the guts of WILL radio are to be found upstairs, where a complex of radio studios surrounds a central rack room/master control.
Under the overall banner of “Illinois Public Media,” WILL’s radio services now include the news-talk format on AM 580 and the mostly-classical programming on WILL-FM (90.9), which blankets much of central Illinois from its 105 kW grandfathered facility on the WILL-TV tower off I-72 near Monticello, 25 miles to the southwest between Champaign and Decatur. And because that signal is a little far out of town (even with all that power), it’s augmented into the central part of Urbana and Champaign by W266AF (101.1), a 250-watt translator broadcasting from the STL tower behind Campbell Hall.
The translator is actually fed by WILL-FM’s HD2, allowing it to run a slightly different program feed that provides classical music in morning and afternoon drive, when the big regional 90.9 signal is simulcasting AM 580’s NPR newsmagazines.
Heading into downtown Champaign (west of the Urbana campus), we pass the other UIUC-associated radio station. WPGU (107.1) is a commercial modern rocker, but it dates its history back to 1953 and a carrier-current student operation that was located at the now-demolished “Parade Ground Unit” dorms. It’s been on FM since 1967, and today it operates from storefront studios on Green Street that are shared with its sister Illini Media outlets, including the Daily Illini newspaper and the yearbook.
WPGU’s antenna sits atop the “Tower at Third” student housing building a block south of Green, two blocks west of the studio.
We’d love to have spent more time seeing the commercial stations in town, but we were on a tight schedule to get over to Bloomington, an hour or so to the west (we’ll see those stations next week), and so we just did some quick drive-bys on our way out of town.
At right is the other big commercial radio cluster, Saga’s Illini Radio Group, with studios on West Bradley Avenue, out on the west side of Champaign. From here, Saga/Illini runs four full-powered stations, WCFF (92.5 Urbana, with adult hits as “The Chief”), WLRW (94.5 Champaign, “Mix 94.5”), WYXY (99.1 Danville, “WYXY Classic”) and WIXY (100.3 Champaign, with country), as well as three translators fed by HD subchannels. Those translators, on 92.1, 97.9 and 99.7, are all on the tower out back here, as is WLRW; it’s also home to one of the lowest-powered AMs in the country, urban WBCP (1580 Urbana), with 135 watts by day and 6 watts at night.
There is absolutely nothing about central Illinois TV history that we can tell you that Doug Quick hasn’t done more comprehensively at his excellent DougQuick.com website, and it was a most unfortunate scheduling quirk that while we were in Champaign, Doug was away on vacation from his day job as anchor/weatherman at WICD (Channel 15), and so we didn’t get the chance to stop by the station’s studios in a converted S&H Green Stamps store on County Fair Drive on the west side, right by the spot where I-72 begins.
WICD, now an ABC affiliate, is the result of the 1967 merger of the former WCHU (Channel 33) in Champaign with the original WDAN-TV/WICD (Channel 24) in Danville (we explored its history here on a previous Illinois visit.) It’s paired with Sinclair sister WICS (Channel 20) over in Springfield, 90 miles or so to the west, and the two stations also operate the Fox pair of WCCU (Channel 27) here and WRSP (Channel 55) in Springfield.
They all compete in the larger Springfield/Champaign/Decatur market that’s defined largely by the sprawling signal reach of CBS affiliate WCIA (Channel 3), which signed on in 1953 as the lone VHF commercial signal in what would otherwise be a UHF island. It’s still at its original 509 South Neil Street location in downtown Champaign after all these years, but its original ownership (Midwest Television, which now owns KFMB in San Diego) has long since given way to Nexstar, which also runs sister MyNetwork outlet WCIX (Channel 49) from here.
And that’s really just scratching the surface of this market: we didn’t make it out of town to any of the big TV towers out in the farmland between the cities (the better to serve the hyphenated market), nor did we get down I-72 toward Danville, where NBC affiliate WAND (Channel 17) completes the big-four network lineup. We’ll have to make it back to central Illinois sometime to see much more here.
Thanks to WJAR’s Mark McMillen for the tour!
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Next week: Bloomington, Indiana