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Milwaukee's Second TV Station Began 50 Years-Ago This Weekend

Started by Dick Nitelinger, Saturday Sep 06, 2003, 03:43:12 PM

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Dick Nitelinger

As I said in my thread about WVTV's 50th anniversary, Milwaukee's 2nd TV station was WCAN-TV, which went on the air 50 years ago this weekend.

WCAN radio was owned by Midwest Broadcasting, and broadcast on 1250 AM. Midwest Broadcasting president, Lou Poller had owned WPWA radio in Aston, PA and had hired a struggling singer named Bill Haley as a D.J. and program director!

In 1952, the FCC lifted its "freeze" on new TV licenses. Milwaukee had originally received channels 3, 10 and 12. With the lifting of the freeze, Milwaukee received channel 4 instead of channel 3. That was assigned to WTMJ-TV, which had gone on the air in 1947. In addition, the FCC designated certain frquencies as "non-commercial/educational". Channel 10 was assigned for that purpose. The Hearst Corp., had applied for the frequency prior to the freeze, and started a lengthy court battle over the FCC's educational chennal assignments. In addition, it petitioned (with some help from Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy) the FCC to assign another VHF frequency to the area - channel 6.

In addition to the educational assignments, the FCC also provided for an intermixture of new UHF stations with VHF in the same cities. Therein was a problem. UHF was not anywhere near as desireable as VHF. Most TV's already manufactured weren't capable of receiving a UHF signal. A converter (either an internal "strip" or and set-top box) was required. UHF was also more directional that VHF, meaning that set owners had to be more careful about pointing their antennas at the transmitter. (Congress did not require that all TV sets be capable of receiving a UHF signal until 1964!)

A such there were lots of applicants for channel 12 (the only available commercial VHF frequency), but few for the three available UHF licenses. Only Bartell Broadcasters (WOKY radio) and Cream City Broadcasting (WMIL Radio) had applied for UHF licenses.

Poller had originally applied for channel 12, but fearing long FCC hearings, amended his application to channel 25. Bartell Broadcasting received a CP for channel 19, while Cream City received one for channel 31. Poller received one for WCAN-TV on channel 25 on 4 February 1953.

Since there were three available UHF frequencies with only 3 applicants, those applications were unopposed. Poller could get on the air quickly.

Thus he began to construct facilities at 723 North 3rd Street.  He also signed an affiliation agreement with CBS.

The station's official debut was on 7 September 1953. Actual broadcasting started at 11:25 p.m. the previous evening, 6 September, when Hal Walker interviewed workers who were installing the transmitter on the tower in inclement weather. That tower was built atop the Schroeder (now the Hilton) Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

WCAN-TV became a powerful force in Milwaukee TV. Because of the intermixture of UHF with VHF, Milwaukee residents bought many UHF converters and/or all-channel TV sets. Poller was also a ceaseless promoter.

Poller continued to fight the FCC's assignment of channel 6 to Milwaukee. He and other owners formed the Ultra High Frequency Television Asociation in October of 1953, in order to lobby Congress.  

On 31 December 1953, the District of Columbia circuit court of appeals denied WCAN-TV's motion for a temporary injunction restraining the FCC from allocating channel 6 to Whitefish Bay. The FCC proceeded with plans to hold hearings on the applications from Hearst Radio, Inc., Cream City Broadcasting, Inc., and Independent Television, Inc., who had also applied for the license.

During the FCC hearings for channel 12, the four applicants maneuvered with each other over their financial ability to operate a TV station. At the same time, WCAN-TV continued its objections to the assignment of channel 6 to Whitefish Bay, stating that Hearst Radio, Inc. intended to build new studios at North 19th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, with a transmitter and tower located in the former town of Granville - neither in the village of Whitefish Bay. It also contended that CBS had in its contract with WISN radio, a clause which would give that station a CBS affiliation should it ever operate a television station in Milwaukee.

On 9 March 1954, Edward R. Murrow denounced Senator Joseph McCarthy on See It Now. WCAN-TV was the only Wisconsin CBS affiliate to carry the show.

In May of 1954, the U.S. Senate held hearings regarding UHF broadcasting. WCAN-TV president Lou Poller testified, and argued that all television broadcasting be shifted to UHF. Poller took out a two page ad in the TV GUIDE issue of  28 May 1954, in which he put forward his thoughts on the subject, and announced that he was going to file an application to transfer WCAN-TV's programming to channel 12.

The three other applicants for channel 12 agreed to merge with the Milwaukee Area Telecasting Corp., and its application was approved by the FCC on 11 June 1954. (The merger agreement gave the other parties the option to purchase stock in the new corporation.) The commission turned down WCAN-TV's request to switch from channel 25 to channel 12.

WOKY-TV had gone on the air on 3 October 1953. Some months later, a consultant, Thad Holt, approached WOKY-TV owner Lee Bartell re: taking out an option to purchase his station. Holt had been retained by CBS, although Bartell did not know that at the time.

In 1954, Lou Poller announced that he was going to build new facilities for WCAN-TV. At first, they were to be somewhere in the vicinity of North 60th and West Capitol Drive. Later, it was announced that he had purchased an old warehouse facility at 5445 North 27th Street, which was converted for TV use.

In September of 1954 it was announced that WOKY radio and WOKY-TV had cancelled their affiliations with the ABC network. The television cancellation became effective on 1 October; the radio 31 December. WOKY-TV was sold to CBS on 22 October 1954 for $350,000. In their affiliation agreement with WCAN-TV, CBS had a clause allowing it to terminate with a 6-month notice. that it did. CBS applied to change WOKY-TV's call letters to WXIX.

Lou Poller then agreed to sell his new facilities to CBS. The announcement was made on 13 November 1954. CBS took over the facilities in Early February of 1955. On 27 February of that year, all CBS programming shifted to WXIX, on channel 19.

Poller received the former WOKY-TV facilities, so that he might continue broadcasting as an independent station, but he never did. Both WCAN-TV AND WCAN radio went off the air. (WEMP radio then shifted from 1340 to 1250 AM. A new station, WRIT then went on the air at 1340 AM. In the 50's and 60's it was a powerful top 40 AM station - challenged and beaten only by WOKY.)

Lou Poller later sued CBS, Bartell, and Holt, claiming that they had engaged in a conspiracy to eliminate UHF broadcasting in Milwaukee - and perhaps the nation. CBS received a summary judgement agains Poller, but that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962. (I don't know what happened thereafter. While Poller was entitled to a trial, it is likely that the matter was settled out-of-court.)

Although WCAN-TV was on the air for approximately 18 months, the facilities Poller built were used for many, many years.

The studios and offices at 5445 North 27th Street became WXIX, and were then sold to Storer Broadcasting in 1959, after CBS affiliated with WITI. WITI used them until 1978. Those facilities then became the original home to WCGV-TV, until it was purchased by Sinclair, and operations consolidated with WVTV. (Interesting that channels 18 and 24 are now owned by the same company. WVTV can trace its lineage all the way back to WOKY-TV on channel 19, and indeed CBS used WOKY-TV's license and WCAN-TV's facilities.) The transmitter and tower were used by CBS, and then sold to Cream City Broadcasting in 1959. Cream City operated WXIX as an independent station, and built a small (10'x12') studio in the penthouse which housed its transmitter. When the ownership was restructured and the calls changed to WUHF, it continued to use those facilities. Gaylord Broadcasting bought the station, and moved to its curent location on North 35th Street, but continued to use the tower until it constructed its own. The facility then became the first home of WDJT-TV. It then became the home of W08BY (later WMKE-LP and now WMKE-CA). That station still broadcasts using the transmitter and tower atop the Hilton Hotel, bit has moved its facilities to South 27 Street.

What a history!

- Dick


Kevin Arnold

I am unfortunately old enough to remember channel 18's facilities on top of the then Schroeder (now Hilton) hotel.  They ran a children's program in the afternoon called "Mac the Mailman" which was a combination of live banter from Mac (Ward Chase) and cartoons.  I won some contest or another and was a guest on the show.  I toured 18's studio and the memory brings back quite a laugh.  The small studio mentioned indeed was just a room with a desk and a curtain.  The back wall had a door and a 3 x 3 window thru which the camera peered.  The camera was operated by an engineer seated at the the control console just outside the studio.  He would reach over with his right hand to move the camera when necessary. Quite a jury rig.  The news teletype was in the bathroom opposite the toilet.  One could read the latest news while in the "library". The place was as cramped as you could get. But it did make money for Gaylord. Back then cartoons were 18's domain on Sat morning.  A set top converter box generated a ghosty picture that required constant tweaking to watch those old Popeye cartoons.  

Thanks Dick for the memories.
Kevin Arnold

Dick Nitelinger


That's a great description!

What's interesting is that Cream City broadcasting was one of the first groups to apply for and receive a UHF CP, but never went on the air in 1953. It then turned in its CP and applied for channel 6 (which Hearst had been successful in getting the FCC to assign to Milwaukee), but then withdrew after it concluded that Independent Television, Inc., was probably going to get the license. (Hearst having purchased channel 12 by that time.)

Gene Posner got together with the Sampson brothers and one other investor and finally bought WXIX in 1959. They bought the transmitter and tower atop the hotel, but didn't have any studios. The cheapest way was to simply put one in the same place!

I wonder if there are any photos of that old "studio" around?  

- Dick



Apparently MUTV (Marquette's TV Station) used to broadcast some of their shows on Channel 8 when it was on top of the Hilton.  

I was talking to a former GM who was explaining to me how the annual "Staff Bonding" event started and he said that it began when the entire staff used to take a bunch of 3/4" tapes to the 'shack' on top of the Hilton so that Channel 8 (W08BY) could meet it's local origination requirements w/ the FCC (It aired "The Box" now MTV 2).  (They did this once a year from what he said.)

He described the facility to me as "A small room with a transmitter, a 3/4" tape machine, a satellite receiver, a VHS machine and a switcher."


John L

Yeah that 1 room yer talking about was probably the old WUHF-TV studio and transmitter facility.

Didn't WDJT-TV have their first studios on top of the Hilton, using maybe the same or even greater space?  I believe they stayed there until they became CBS. Because I remember them needing a new studio and such to also be able to build a news set to offer Local News as part of being a CBS affiliate.

About this 50th anniv of Milwaukee's 2nd TV station, are you saying that after WTMJ-TV, that WCAN-TV signed on, then WOKY-TV followed by WTVW (WISN-TV) or whatever call letters ch. 12 had before changing them to WISN?

-John L.

Dick Nitelinger


That's the chronology.

WTMJ-TV was the first, followed by WCAN-TV and then WOKY-TV.  

WMIL-TV was announced for channel 31, but never went on the air.

WTVW went on the air in October of 1954 - roughly the same time that WOKY-TV was sold to CBS.  Shortly before that, both the TV and radio affiliations WOKY had with ABC ended, which should have been a clue that something was up.

WTVW went on the air in October of 1954 under an ABC programming deadline - specifically "Disneyland".

That golden anniversary is next year!

The independent WXIX went on the air in July of 1959, and the calls were changed to WUHF on 1 January 1963.   That's the studio we're speaking of. Gaylord bought the station in 1966, and by May of 1968 had moved the station to its currrent home on 35th Street - although they continued to use the transmitter and tower atop the hotel until they built their own in the "Milwaukee River tower farm".

- Dick


Dick Nitelinger

As a point of interest, I was born in 1957, and so wasn't around for WCAN-TV or WOKY-TV, but back in 1999, a friend of mine suggested that I write something on Milwaukee UHF stations.

I moved to Charlotte a few months later. While there, I continued my series re: Milwaukee horror hosts. I had sent Tom Snyder something in early 1999, inquiring as to his work with Milwaukee's first horror host, Bob Hersh. I got a call from his producer at CBS.

Well, Mike Drew wrote me a piece re: Tom and his new website in early 2000. I sent Tom an email, and he told me that his producer never passed anything along to him, but that he'd love to see any materials I had. I sent them along.

I drove back up to Milwaukee for Easter of 2000. Tom called me in Charlotte. I called him back from my folks' home here, and he called back while I was out. (Sorta blew my folks away to get a call from Tom.) I drove back to Charlotte, and Tom got back to me the day I arrived home. We spent quite a bit of time talking about 50's Milwaukee TV and radio. he turned me on to some of the early history.

I moved back to Milwaukee on 1 July 2000. I started researching various topics, including the general history of Milwaukee TV. I became fascinated by all of the changes and battles which took place during those early years. For instance:

WCAN-TV was on the air for only 18 months.

WOKY-TV was under its original ownership for only 17 months.

WTVW was under its original ownership for only 4 months before being sold to Hearst, and its calls were changed after being on the air for only 8.5 months.

Milwaukee went from a single commercial VHF station, to that same station plus two UHF stations, to two VHF and a single UHF to three commercial VHF and a single UHF (and later a VHF educational), to NO UHF stations, to the 3 VHF commercial, one VHF educational, and an independent UHF station in the course of a dozen years.

Tumultuous times, I guess.

- Dick


Dick Nitelinger

For some memories of that facility see:

and check back later this weekend for an update.

- Dick

John L

Very interesting story Dick about Jayne.  Adds further info here about how WVTV got started after they purchased WUHF-TV and how she turned the station around and make profit.

Not sure when they changed their name to Gaylord Broadcasting, Inc. but before then they were known up until early 70s as WKY-TV, Inc.  Supposedly Mr. Gaylord owned and operated WKY-TV, ch. 4 the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, OK.  They must have changed it to Gaylord Broadcasting sometime after purchasing other stations like WTVT ch 13 in Tampa, KVTV ch. 39 in Houston, don't recall other stations except one that did NOT have and T or V's in its call letters was WAUB, ch. 43 in Cleveland, OH also owned and operated by Gaylord Broadcasting.  

After looking thru the above paragraph for editing I took notice that the headquarters of Gaylord Broadcasting parent TV station also didn't have a T or V in its calls...  WKY-TV.

-John L.

Gregg Lengling

QuoteOriginally posted by John L

Not sure when they changed their name to Gaylord Broadcasting, Inc. but before then they were known up until early 70s as WKY-TV, Inc.  Supposedly Mr. Gaylord owned and operated WKY-TV, ch. 4 the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, OK.  
-John L.

You are right about WKY as a friend of mine was moved here from there at that time to be Chief Engineer.  Bill enjoyed what he got to accomplish here, including the Blue Hole tower.
Gregg R. Lengling, W9DHI
Living the life with a 65" Aquos
glengling at milwaukeehdtv dot org  {fart}

Dick Nitelinger

In the article in The Milwaukee Journal of Tuesday, 9 November 1965, which announced that the sale of WUHF had taken place the previous day, the buyer was identified as WKY Television System, Inc. of Oklahoma City. Edward L. Gaylord was an executive VP of the parent corporation, the Oklahoma Publishing Co.

The purchase price was $700K for the assets and $300K for the contracts to buy films and other obligations.

Gaylord died at age 83 on 27 April 2003 of cancer. In his obit,  it was mentioned that he had taken over as head of Oklahoma Publishing in 1974 after the death of his father Edward K. Gaylord.

They had purchased WTVT in Tampa-St. Petersburg in 1956. They started diversifying in 1962. with the purchase of KTVT in Dallas-Fort Worth.  In 1965, they built KHTV in Houston. They also owned KSTW-TV in Seattle-Tacoma. (There was too much meaning in the call letters of that station, which stand for Seattle -Tacoma Washington, so they weren't changed to have "TV" in them like the other stations they owned. Ditto for WUAB in Cleveland.)

The broadcast division was renamed Gaylord Broadcasting after the purchase of WUHF.

- Dick