BRINGING CHICAGO UHF TELEVISION TO LIFE
Shining a spotlight on those who took risks with a broadcast medium that many thought would never survive
In the spring of 1971, Pastor Owen C. Carr approached his church's board of directors with an inspiration. A television station dedicated to spreading the word of God and Christianity across the Chicago area. Seeing Chicago as the "City With No Doors," Carr's then congregation, The Stone Church, raised $135,000 by the end of September 1973. At the same time, Christian Communications of Chicagoland was incorporated.
By the summer of 1974, the Chicago Federation of Labor was looking for a buyer for its construction permit and five million watt transmitter for WCFL-TV, channel 38 which they had since the 1960s but never built. Receiving a letter of credit from the First National Bank of Evergreen Park, the equipment was purchased for $600,000. The transfer was approved by the FCC in November of 1975.
"It was almost like running to keep the kite in the air."
During the same time, Carr hired the man he felt to be the best person in the business to spearhead such an endeavor, Jerry K. Rose. On May 26 they received permission to change WCFL-TV to WCFC- Winning Chicagoland of Christ, and at 5:00 pm, May 31, 1976, from the Olympic Studios on the city's near west side, Chicago's first Christian television station signed on with the Holy Bible opened to the first chapter of Genesis, read by a proud Pastor Carr.
What was it like at the start? Certainly no one in Chicago had attempted such a move before. Even by the mid seventies, UHF, though as readily available to viewers as VHF, still found itself a distant second. And Rose had an additional problem, that of the long divided religious communities of Chicago that did not exactly welcome an Evangelical television station with open arms. In fact, Rose was initially hesitant on coming to Chicago because of the situation here...
I knew how difficult it was. I built one in Dallas. Dallas was the most friendly city to do that because it was a Bible belt town and you had a lot of churches that would work with you. You had a lot of spiritual Christian activity in that city. Everything about Chicago screamed out against it. Seventy-two percent Catholic and we were building an Evangelical station. A very strong Jewish city. They were against it. Even Moody, the Christian groups were against it because it was an incredibly fragmented city. We came from a Pentecostal charismatic background, they resisted it. So you come into a city and all the religious groups are against you. Pat Robertson said 'The one place in the world I would not try to build a Christian television station would be Chicago. I don't think it's possible.' And I talked to Jay Kessler, who was the head of Youth For Christ International and I said 'Jay? Why me? Why has God sent me here to do this?' He said 'Because I think God needed somebody totally ignorant of all the circumstances. Anybody who knew anything, who knew it couldn't be done, wouldn't even try it.
So Rose took to the streets to meet the citizens of Chicago. He went to Wheaton College and spoke there. He went to Moody and he spoke to the Catholic community. And he went to the Jewish community and said that there's got to be something that they could work together on. And they did and the Jewish community aired programming on WCFC for years afterward. Rose felt that the Christian community needed to know about the Jewish community to stop the stereotypes that pervaded the city at the time. The first four years WCFC aired were hectic and Rose found himself spending long hours at the station...
The first couple of years...it was just a struggle to stay alive. I think five six years deep into it that it was obvious that we were going to be around. And it started growing and the first couple of years we had pretty significant growth but keeping it going was a pretty difficult thing.
For the first four years it was a matter of constantly running, trying to keep it alive. I would come in 7-8:30 in the morning, leave at 10:30 at night, get home at 11:30 and then turn around and do it again the next day. You couldn't get away from it. It was almost like running to keep the kite in the air. And you knew if you ever slowed down it felt like it would fall to the ground so you had to keep running.
And then I was able to get some people around me that could help me better build it. And the first two years...well the first year...it was just incredible because that was just constant...it was scary. You try to trust God, that it was His station but nevertheless it was difficult. But the commitment was there.
But Rose's faith, both in God and the station, could not be quashed. And after six struggling years airing at first just three hours a day, people began to take notice, especially people across the country who spotted the station on their cable systems. By the time Rose sold the station they were probably the most successful Christian station in the country.
The growth of Christian television has been pretty dynamic. A few years ago I was the elected president of The National Religious Broadcasters. And that's when we went through that big hassle with the government on accountability with the Baker and Swaggert thing and all of that and we really took some big hits. It hurt our station tremendously because I had both of them on our station. And as the president of The National Religious Broadcasters, I had to manage the crisis from the association's standpoint. And Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Baker were friends and people had known for a long time, Jimmy more so than Jim Baker. So I had to deal with it, which was difficult. But we took a huge hit. I think with Jim Baker it was one thing but Jimmy had set himself up as the good guy and they were the bad guys. Jim Baker was the cancer in the side of the body of Christ and he was the good guy. And when it happened to him, well it just blew people away. Because they didn't expect it from Jimmy Swaggert. And then I took his program off. So then there was the question from all the Jimmy Swaggert loyalists- 'How can you do that? He's asked for forgiveness so why don't you forgive?' I was in a no win situation. But it was interesting, in the media and the secular marketplace, we never missed a beat. I was at a Emmy meeting and Jay Levine came up and Jay is a pretty strong aggressive investigative reporter and he said 'How are you doing?' And I said fine and he said 'Well you shouldn't worry. You guys have a stellar reputation in the city. You have a lot of respect from the city and I don't think anyone connects you with it.' And interesting enough they didn't. More Christians, I think, took me on than in the secular marketplace. And always they came to us as a reference source. Not as part of the problem. And I became in a sense a reference source, talking about the issue, rather than being considered part of that problem. Which I found very interesting during that.
Always a forward thinking man with a clear vision of how the changes in the broadcast industry will affect his station and Christian television in general, Rose believes that the future of broadcasting lay in digital transmission via cable systems. According to Rose, the days of off the air broadcasting are numbered.
You won't sit down and watch television the way you do now. For all these years, basically, I put together a schedule and people had to follow my schedule. At 12:00 I had this program and at 1:00 I had this program and so that pretty much dictated how people have watched television. You'd come home at night and for years if you didn't watch it at night then you didn't get to see it. And then there was a huge revolution called VCR. And for the first time people were able to choose when they wanted to watch a program. Scared the agencies to death, because it also meant that you didn't have to watch the commercials. That was the first major transition in television that began to...it was the beginning of the earthquake that was beginning to erode the foundations of what we understand as broadcast television in America today.
Then all of a sudden, the PCs come along and then you start talking about internet and all of a sudden you're seeing a whole different scenario out there. We're putting in an automation system right now. And in this automation system we'll have a pretty enormous hard drive where we can store all kinds of data. Eventually what will happen is you will be able to go to some source, cable or something, and pick out what you want, when you want it. It will be digital video stores. Video on demand where you just go in and get anything you want. You never have a tape or a hard copy of anything. You just bring it down digitally into your home and then it's put back. So we're seeing incredible changes and what it will mean, I think in the next ten years, that CBS, NBC, ABC, will be totally different. It won't be what we know as networks now. That's why you have all the mergers and they've moved into cable with MSNBC. So the question is, what happens to broadcast TV? Is broadcast TV going to be around ten years from now? The fact is, it may be, but if it is, it's not going to be dominant, it's going to be a player. But it won't be the dominant player. It's losing it's audience fast.
Believing this to be the case, Rose saw an opportunity when Bud Paxson started shopping for stations to form his Pax Network of family oriented programming. With the proceeds from the sale of WCFC-channel 38 to Pax, Rose founded the Total Living Network, a major Christian television network that is popping up on cable systems across the country. Rose hasn't abandoned over the air broadcasts entirely. He also purchased a low-power UHF station in Rockford on channel 51. Known as WCFC-LP, Rose is waiting on FCC approval to change the calls to WTLN. He also owns a full power UHF station in San Francisco, KTLN. WCPX, the successor to WCFC-38 was the second station in Chicago to begin regular telecasts digitally and Rose's first major network program, "Encounters With The Unexplained" with "Law & Order" star Jerry Orbach as host airs on the station. Rose also hosts a talk show himself on WCPX on Sunday mornings at 9:00.
Jerry Rose, who faced unbelievable odds bringing WCFC to the airwaves, first with funding just to purchase the transmitter and construction permit, then with the FCC who insisted that the station show proof of solvency before allowing it to air, and probably most tantamount, the opposition of the city's religious communities who did not support his efforts. In the face of all this, he came out on top. At the time of it's sale to Pax, the station that nobody wanted had won numerous awards in both the Christian and secular worlds and had won the respect of it's peers in the industry. Taking the cue from Pastor Carr, Rose, over the course of twenty-five years, made the Word of God and the message of Christianity available to millions. He certainly rates as one of the Men Of UHF.
There's more to THE MEN OF U H F. Read JOHN WEIGEL, the man behind WCIU Channel 26. Weigel knew he hit the jackpot when he sold time to BOB LEWANDOWSKI, a popular personality in Chicago's vast Polish community and former host of Polka Go Round on WBKB Channel 7. His variety show (done almost always in Polish) made the city sit up and take notice of this small weak powered UHF station. WPWR Channel 50 is the last of the Chicago UHF station success stories. Through the efforts of FRED EYCHANER, a small part-time Aurora-licensed station is a full-time force and a UPN affiliate. It was an honor to interview and chat with one of Chicago television's greats EDWARD L. MORRIS. The late chairman emeritus of Columbia College's television department shaped Chicago's first educational television station WTTW Channel 11 into a nationally respected public television outlet. He was there back when it all started. First with the legendary Capt. Bill Eddy at Paramount's WBKB Channel 4 and later with ABC-United Paramount Theater's WBKB Channel 7. Read STERLING 'RED' QUINLAN. In 1966 he was instrumental in launching Chicago's first commercially successful UHF station WFLD Channel 32 and the first serious competition for long-time independent WGN-TV Channel 9.
ALSO IN SECTION TWO OF THE VIDEO VETERAN-
Interviews with producer/writer/clown Don Sandburg, who gave us the Bozo's Circus that we remember today; Jerry G. Bishop- the original Svengoolie is alive and well on the air in San Diego; ALSO: VIDEO VETERAN SPOTLITES on The DuMont Television Network, WGN-TV's first network affiliation; and Rich Koz, former Jerry G. protégé who made it fine on his own
All content copyright 2000 Steve Jajkowski