ABC7 celebrates 60 years of broadcasting

September 18, 2008 4:51:02 PM PDT
Sixty years ago, ABC7 first went on the air. Known then as WENR, the coverage lasted just a few hours. At the time in 1948, radio was king and TV was in its infancy.

"There was nothing but slides and film , were no commercials, was no such thing at that time," said Joe Kresnicka, retired WLS-TV dir. of engineering.

Kresnicka ran the audio board on that first night. He'd go on to become Channel 7's chief engineer.

"Harvey came on board a year later, did 5 minutes of news," said Kresnicka.

But news was secondary back then as WENR became WBKB. Channel 7 produced programs that were seen around the country-- Burt Tillstrom; Kukla, Fran And Ollie; and Super Circus with Mary Hartline, Claude Kirschner and Scampy The Clown.

"Everything was new. There was a creative energy involved in all aspects of broadcasting. Nothing was old and tired. It was all new and fresh," said Bruce DuMont, Museum of Broadcast Communications.

They called it The Chicago School of Television, a personal connection with viewers, mass appeal, and- typically - done on a cheap budget.

"Ingenuity maybe, perhaps, ideas: let's do this or that. Nobody else did it, but we did it and it went on and on," said Kresnicka.

Along the way, they learned that TV could be used to sell -- and more than just TV sets.

In the 1960's, WBKB became WLS-TV as the TV station took the call letters of its more famous radio sibling.

"WLS stood for World's Largest Store. It used to be owned by Sears - the radio station - then it switched over to include WLS-TV as well," said DuMont.

Around that same time, a news team came on the air that people still talk about today-- Joel Daly and Fahey Flynn? with John Coleman on weather and Bill Frink on sports. They were supported by memorable promotional campaigns that injected humor into the serious business of news.

"The big breakthrough or innovation was we broke down the walks between news, sports and weather, which had been separated by commercials, and the personalities doing those various segments then were able to communicate one with the other and show the family or team concept," said Daly.

Some critics derisively called it "happy talk," but the concept of interaction among news anchors won over the audience.

"It wasn't until it happened here in Chicago and infected the country that it really became a family kind of thing - a team," said Daly.

Channel 7's identity in Chicago became connected with the faces you've watched on the news all these years -- with the exception of a young woman who came here from Baltimore in 1984. Oprah Winfrey took over the morning talk show and built a success story that made her the queen of television.

WLS-TV has shared a lot of history over these past 60 years the station hopes to share many more years to come. The fact is-- the reason WLS-TV can celebrate its 60th anniversary is because viewers have been there watching all along.

Special thanks to the Museum of Broadcast Communications for sharing its archives.

As WLS-TV heads into its 61st year, things are changing. ABC7 is now available in a number of places -- cable, satellite and in high-def. Plus, it's always online at abc7chicago.com and on wireless devices at abc7togo.com


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