Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If last week’s installment, touring the broadcast facilities of Peoria, felt rushed – well, you’re not going to find much respite this week, either. As a result of some scheduling quirks that required us to be in St. Louis in time for some dinner and late-night station touring, by the time we made it down the road to Springfield, Illinois on a warm July afternoon in 2012, we had barely an hour to zip around town and see what there was to be seen.
Even before I-55 deposited us in the state’s capital city, we had one more quick stop to make on the road: the old Route 66 town of Lincoln, halfway between Peoria and Springfield, is home to WLLM (1370), right there along the old 66 bypass on the west side of town, and now crowned by translator W287BP on 105.3. (Lincoln is also home to WLNX 88.9 at Lincoln College, which was off the air for the summer.)
It’s about 25 miles down I-55 (which was built, much of it, right over the existing US 66 right-of-way) to the East Sangamon Avenue exit on Springfield’s northeast corner. Before we zip into Springfield itself, we turn eastward and follow Illinois 54 a few miles out to Riverton, where Mid-West Family Broadcasting’s WMAY (970) has its four-tower array and where the entire Mid-West Family cluster has its studios. In addition to news-talk WMAY, this building houses rocker WQLZ (92.7 Taylorville), AAA WLCE (97.7 Petersburg) and AC WNNS (98.7 Springfield).
WMAY radio dates back only to 1950, and much of its early history was spent trying to become a TV station. Over the course of more than a decade, beginning in 1952, the owners of WMAY attempted to activate the channel 2 allocation in Springfield. For a few years in the late 1950s, they even held a construction permit for WMAY-TV, which might have been the second VHF station in the region; in the end, though, despite appeals as high up as the U.S. Supreme Court, channel 2 was reallocated to St. Louis, 90 miles to the south, becoming the new VHF home of the former WTVI (Channel 54, later KTVI on channel 36), and WMAY-TV was not to be.
Returning to the I-55/East Sangamon interchange, right alongside the Saga Communications studios (more on their cluster in a moment), we head south on I-55, which skirts the east side of Springfield following the routing of old 66, which itself bypassed Springfield along what’s now Dirksen Parkway, parallel to the interstate.
Turning westward on Cook Road, we find the 1960s-era studio building of Springfield’s dominant local TV station, WICS (Channel 20). As always with central Illinois TV, Doug Quick’s website has the most comprehensive history imaginable; in a nutshell, though, WICS was part of the early UHF boom of 1953, signing on as a quasi-sister station to WCVS (1450) and sharing that station’s studio location in a downtown hotel and its transmitter site south of town on South Fourth Street.
In the hands of Prairie Broadcasting (owned by two of the Balaban brothers, whose sibling Barney ran Paramount Pictures and owned TV in Chicago), WICS survived and eventually thrived, fending off VHF challenges from giant WCIA (Channel 3) 90 miles away in Champaign and from that proposed channel 2 in Springfield.
Today, channel 20 is paired with WICD (Channel 15) in Champaign to create a two-station ABC group covering the entirety of the sprawling central Illinois TV market; the longtime NBC affiliation those stations enjoyed was swapped out to WAND (Channel 17) in Decatur a few years back.
Returning eastward again to Dirksen Parkway and East Cook Road, we find the tall tower that’s home to two of Saga’s full-power signals here, news-talk WTAX (1240) and top-40 WDBR (103.7). In 2012, this was also home to two Saga translators, the 107.5 that relays WTAX and a 101.1, W266BZ, that’s been shuffled around to various formats over the years. (It’s now carrying variety hits “Abe FM,” formerly on a full-power 93.9 to the north in Sherman that’s now carrying classic hits “Cool” WQQB. WQQB used to be on 101.9, another full-power Springfield signal that’s now country “Wolf” WLFZ. Saga’s final full-power voice here is classic rock WYMG on 100.5.)
WTAX, incidentally, boasts a history that goes back to 1923 and the town of Streator, up north of Peoria. As we saw with WJBC in Bloomington a couple of weeks ago, WTAX went mobile in 1930, relocating here as the second AM in Springfield, initially sharing time on 1210 with the city’s oldest station, WCBS, before WCBS moved up the dial to 1420 and then 1450.
Wait – what? WCBS in Springfield? Yes, indeed: long before it occurred to the big radio networks that their New York flagships should carry the networks’ own names in their callsigns, those calls were in use elsewhere. “WNBC” was in New Britain, Connecticut, and WCBS was Springfield’s first radio station, way back in 1922. By 1946, the networks repatriated their letters. “WCBS, Inc.” remained the licensee name in Springfield, but a payment from CBS persuaded the company to rename its station on 1450 (an ABC affiliate!) as WCVS.
Today, that callsign lives on here at the Neuhoff Communications cluster on South Fourth Street as WCVS-FM (96.7 Virden). The former WCVS on 1450 is now WFMB, running ESPN sports, and the cluster also includes country WFMB-FM (104.5 Springfield) and top-40 “Kiss” WXAJ (99.7). That self-supporting tower next to the studio building has seen lots of history, having served not only as the WCBS/WCVS AM tower but also as the original TV home of WICS.
And before we hop on I-55 for the 90-minute drive south to St. Louis, we can’t leave a state capital without the obligatory picture of the statehouse, right there in the middle of town. Someday, we’ll get back here, soak in some Abraham Lincoln history, and show you more of this interesting broadcast market, too!
And don’t miss a big batch of Springfield IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: St. Louis