In 1962, when many of the UHF construction permits that were acquired in the fifties were being returned to the FCC, broadcasting veteran John Weigel had $2000 and a vision...
The Video Veteran spoke to John Weigel over the phone at his home near Spring Green Wisconsin.
John Weigel began his broadcast career in radio in 1935. He was the commercial announcer for the first radio network broadcast of The Lawrence Welk Show (for Miller High Life), worked as a campaign announcer on the 1956 Eisenhower ticket; a commercial announcer for Col. Robert McCormick, patriarch of The Chicago Tribune, during his Saturday evening radio broadcasts; and free-lanced industrial film productions.
With the availability of channels 14 to 83 in 1951, a wave of construction permit applications besieged the FCC. Many were applied for and received here in Chicago, but the stations were never built. While each owner of these early permits have their own story to tell as to why their stations never saw the light of day, it's safe to bet that the dim view of UHF and the difficulty in receiving the channels at the time had a lot to do with their decisions not to follow through. By 1962 many of these early permits were being turned back to the FCC. When the permit for channel 26 (originally slated to be WHFC-TV) became available, Weigel quickly jumped at the opportunity...
Well, you know all those channels were granted but nobody built. You couldn't receive the stations. You needed a special gadget on your set. I knew it had a potential, a future. Sponsors were taking numbers to get on the existing VHF, you knew it had to expand. Some cities like Peoria, where all they had was UHF, they bought sets that could do the job. And then as if by divine intervention, a couple of weeks after I applied, Congress passed the 'all channel law.'
It would seem that Weigel picked a good time to start a UHF station. With $1000 of his own money and $1000 from his lawyer Daniel J. McCarthy, they hired an engineer to draw up the plans and a lawyer to submit them for approval by the FCC.
I had a dream of a tremendous facility.
The new station went on the air February 6, 1964 with its new call letters WCIU- which Weigel had chosen to mean "Chicago Illinois UHF." Weigel hosted the opening ceremonies himself. Starting on a shoe-string budget, Weigel knew the station needed to offer a programming alternative. The decision to make the station available to the ethnic communities was Weigel's own. Knowing the popularity enjoyed by former WBKB emcee Bob Lewandowski, Weigel was quick to sign him up as host of one of the station's first programs...
He had a big following. Very loyal. But we tried every ethnic area. We didn't know what would fly. And it turned out that the Hispanic was the strongest minority market. There were niches that weren't covered by the present stations. That's why we programmed bullfights from Mexico and 'Amos 'N Andy.'
Weigel's decision to carry the controversial 1950s sitcom drew heavy fire from protest groups who saw the series as racist and degrading to blacks. Indeed the series was later removed from syndication and is rarely seen today. Weigel remembers...
Who the hell are they trying to kid? I looked at the ratings and 'Amos 'N Andy' in Alabama and Mississippi was number one!
Another one of Weigel's creations was "The Stock Market Observer," which was recently replaced on WCIU by WebFN. Since the station broadcast from the Board Of Trade building, the show almost seemed a natural. Decades ahead of its time, the series, hosted for years by former WGN-TV newsman Jack Taylor, was watched religiously by corporate ceo's and executives.
Channel 26 was only able to broadcast in black & white. In fact it wasn't until the late seventies that the station aired its first program in color, long after all the stations in town, including the other UHF stations (with the sole exception of WXXW) had already been doing so.
We had to come in on a shoe-string. We bought used equipment, a used transmitter. We bought used RCA facilities. It's a rough game because you're talking about big money. We started channel 26, we had oh maybe three or four hundred thousand dollars in the bank. And now there's rumors that a UHF station in Houston Texas was bought for over $100 million dollars. I think 26 on the market today would bring in well over a hundred million. But you know something, its only money And I say that without humor, its only money. I paid all the technical help, writers, directors, producers $100 a week because that's all we could afford. Bruce Newton, a very capable artist from channel 7 designed our stationery, designed the props. Just a tremendous talent. All these people...we were working for the future of the station. A hundred dollars a week. I was the CEO, I made fifteen thousand a year, my sales manager made twelve. I had a sales manager who used to be with NBC.
The dream Weigel envisioned for WCIU eventually came true, but sadly Weigel was not part of it. In 1965, not much longer than a year after channel 26 signed on, Weigel was involved in a hostile take-over of the station that also included his wife. The Shapiro family took control of the station and ousted Weigel but kept the corporate name. Today Weigel Broadcasting owns several stations in addition to WCIU including low-power WFBT-channel 23 here in Chicago. John Weigel, bitter over the treatment given him by his peers in the business, left broadcasting and moved to Kenosha. For a time he ran a diary farm but eventually retired and now lives in the home built on it. He has no feelings for channel 26 and reflects on those days with a bittersweet taste. He is also the father of WBBM-TV sports anchor Tim Weigel.
But if not for John Weigel's vision and perseverance, WCIU may have never gone on the air at a time when many were turning in their construction permits and there would be no home for The Stock Market Observer, A Black's View Of The News, Soul Train, Mulqueen's Kiddie A-Go-Go, and Svengoolie. John Weigel, a man with a vision and one of the Men of UHF.
THE MEN OF U H F CONTINUES
ALSO IN SECTION TWO OF THE VIDEO VETERAN-
All content copyright 2000 Steve Jajkowski