Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
There are certain pairs of similarly-named cities in adjoining states that just can’t seem to avoid causing confusion. Quick: are you sure you know the difference between Greenville, South Carolina and Greenville, North Carolina? (Or Greensboro, North Carolina, for that matter?) Frederick, Maryland and Fredericksburg, Virginia? Sioux Falls, S.D. and Sioux City, Iowa?
Another one of those that throws us – or at least threw us, until we had the chance to visit both of them – was the pair of midwestern Bloomingtons, less than 200 miles apart from each other on opposite sides of the Indiana/Illinois line.
We visited Indiana’s Bloomington a few years back, and found it to be a delightful leafy college town an hour or so south of Indianapolis, down where the flat center of Indiana starts giving way to the hills of southern Indiana.
The Bloomington of Illinois, by contrast, is as flat as central Illinois gets. It’s a college town, too, home to Illinois State University (in adjacent Normal) and several smaller schools – but it has more of a commercial and industrial base than its Hoosier doppelganger, too. (State Farm Insurance, for instance, calls Bloomington, Illinois its home.)
The Illinois Bloomington is also home to one downright remarkable AM radio station. WJBC (1230) has been around since 1925, but it didn’t arrive here in Bloomington-Normal until 1934. That’s when the economic conditions in its original home of La Salle, Illinois worsened and its owners packed up WJBC for a 60-mile trip straight south on US 51.
WJBC thrived in its new home, where it was the lone radio station in town (and where it remains the only AM station even now). And unlike so many small AMs over the years, WJBC has continued to thrive all these years later. In a community of barely 100,000 people, WJBC maintains a full schedule of live and local talk hosts from 5 AM until 6 PM daily, not to mention a newsroom that’s won honor upon honor over the years, including a wall full of Murrows. (A big part of the secret these days is an extremely aggressive local news website that rivals the local daily paper in readership and revenue.)
Even more remarkably, WJBC has maintained that local presence despite a series of out-of-town corporate owners – in fact, the day we visited was the last day WJBC and its sister stations were in Townsquare’s hands before being swapped over to Cumulus in exchange for a pile of former Citadel properties in the northeast.
Today’s WJBC sits on Greenwood Avenue on the south side of town, on a frontage road off the old US 66 within sight of the I-55/I-74 split. It’s a site that’s been part of WJBC’s history since 1949, when the transmitter moved here from Normal. The original glass-fronted transmitter building became the “back room” to a new studio building in 1970, and more recently an office addition on the south side of the building has nearly doubled the size of the facility.
WJBC’s studio and newsroom now sits proudly right at the center of this sprawling facility, between the newer sales and business offices to the south and the old lobby and programming offices to the north. (You can just see the original 1970 lobby entrance at the far left of the studio picture near the top of the page.)
Over the years, WJBC grew its broadcast offerings, putting WJBC-FM (101.5) on the air in the late 1940s. The FM station took on its own identity as WBNQ in 1967, and it’s been joined in later years by another FM sister, WBWN (104.1 Le Roy), and later still by a new WJBC-FM, on 93.7, extending the reach of WJBC’s news-talk format northeastward to Pontiac, Illinois.
WBNQ’s top-40 format and WBWN’s country format (“B104”) come from studios just down the hall from WJBC.
WBWN’s transmitter is southeast of Bloomington off US 150, but WBNQ and WJBC still come from the original 1949 transmitter building that’s attached to the back of the studio/office complex. It’s pretty clear, looking around this room, that Radio Bloomington’s engineers upgraded their AM and FM transmitters in lockstep: the old RCA BTA-1R1 for the AM is matched by a BTF-10D for the FM. The Gates MW-1 that was powering WJBC the night we visited matches an FM-20H3 for the FM, and the Collins 831 that was powering WBNQ matches a Collins 820 “Power Pebble” along the row of AM gear.
There’s one more technical note to offer before we move on from WJBC/WBNQ to show you the rest of this market: if you’ve ever slammed a cart into a cart machine (or into a wall, for that matter), you have WJBC’s engineers to thank.
In 1959, WJBC’s Ted Bailey and Jack Jenkins developed an early version of the broadcast cart machine that the station used to play commercials, and the device caught the eye of a Collins salesman who was visiting WJBC.
Collins quickly struck a deal with WJBC to market the cart to the industry, and WJBC’s general manager founded the Automatic Tape Control company (ATC) to build the machines for Collins.
The cart was a smash hit at the 1959 NAB show, and the rest was history…including the little closet office on the ground floor at WJBC that’s supposedly the very room where those original cart machines were developed, or at least where their inventors worked.
By 1959, WJBC had outlasted Bloomington’s original attempt at a local TV station. WBLN (Channel 15) signed on in 1953 from a studio and tower at US 66 and 150 on the south side of town, but as Doug Quick’s extensive chronicle recounts, it struggled mightily without a stable network affiliation or, often, a working transmitter. By 1958, WBLN was dark for good, and its channel was eventually reassigned down the road in Champaign, where it’s now WICD.
Bloomington eventually ended up appended to the Peoria TV market, 35 miles or so to the west, though antenna users also had pretty easy access to stations from Champaign and Decatur, in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a new WBLN took to the air in Bloomington, on channel 43. It became Fox affiliate WYZZ, and eventually ended up being operated out of Peoria as a shared-services partner to Nexstar’s CBS affiliate, WMBD-TV (Channel 31). Today, WMBD/WYZZ operates a Bloomington-Normal bureau out of the old WYZZ studios on East Lincoln Street, a few blocks east of the old US 66/Veterans Highway.
Connoisseur Media is the other big radio group operator in town competing with WJBC/WBNQ and their sisters.
Two of Connoisseur’s Bloomington FMs, WBBE (97.9 Heyworth) and WWHX (100.7 Normal), operate from a tower just south of the original WBLN television site, where US 150 meets the old 66 on the south side of town near the Bloomington water tower.
WBBE does adult hits as “Bob 97.9,” while WWHX is a top-40 competitor to WBNQ as “Hits 100.7.” The third station in their cluster is rocker WIHN (96.7 Normal), or “I-Rock.”
Connoisseur’s studios are in a most remarkable location in downtown Bloomington, the “Tower Center” that sits directly below the 42o-foot TeleCourier tower, a rare example of the “Star Tower” pre-stressed tower that we’ve seen in taller form in places such as Cincinnati and Washington. There’s just one broadcast outlet on this tower, translator W261BK (100.1, relaying religious WBNH from Pekin/Peoria); otherwise it’s mostly used by TeleCourier for its paging and two-way radio services, as well as for cellular – but it sure is pretty to look at, isn’t it?
We conclude our look at Bloomington way out on the west side of town, in the farmland west of I-55/74 on our way out to our next stops in Peoria. Connoisseur’s WIHN operates from a tower on Nord Road just west of the freeway; a mile or so west on Washington Road we come to the westernmost tower in town, which carries Illinois State-based public radio outlet WGLT (89.1 Normal). The outgrowth of a student carrier-current station that started in 1966, WGLT’s calls stand for “Gladly Learn and Teach,” a variation on the university’s motto.
And having gladly learned a bit about this particular Bloomington…we headed off to Peoria, which we’ll begin showing you in next week’s installment.
Thanks to WBNQ’s (nay, Radio’s) Brian Davis for the tour!
And don’t miss a big batch of Bloomington IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Playing in Peoria