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How to Create a TV Station: The Birth of WISH-TV

How to Create a TV Station: The Birth of WISH-TV

As the glow of an overhead light brightens the space around him, Steven T. Briggs stands nervously in the center of a large room, overcome with anticipation. With the lights beginning to warm his skin, Steven stares not into but behind a bulky camera with the letters “RCA” blazoned on its side. He fixes his gaze on a man behind the camera and focuses intently on the sound of his voice. “And we’re on in 3, 2, …” As the clock on the wall strikes 5:56:45 pm on Thursday, July 1, 1954, WISH-TV is officially on the air.       

The story of WISH-TV’s genesis is one of innovation, cunning, and improvisation. The skilled journalists and engineers who shepherded the fledgling broadcast station through its first year were nothing short of television pioneers. Their work’s impact is still felt in Central Indiana 70 years later. Thanks to their ingenuity and bravery, millions of Hoosiers have been witness to history. 

WISH-TV started as an idea in the mind of local businessman Charles Bruce McConnell. A graduate of Arsenal Tech High School, McConnell worked as a route salesman at Hamilton-Harris and Company, a local wholesaler that trafficked in cigarettes and candy. By 1931, McConnell worked up the ranks to manager. His career was flourishing. His keen business sense even led him to invent and manufacture a brand of Cocktail Hour Cigarettes. When asked how he could sell so many cigarettes, McConnell showered praise on one thing in particular;radio advertising. 

In the 1930s, the new frontier of radio advertising was littered with tobacco companies promising listeners a magical handheld carcinogen-filled paper tube that would solve all their worldly problems. From relieving boredom to curing muscle aches, companies like Imperial Tobacco, Philip Morris, and the R.A. Patterson Tobacco Company bombarded radio airwaves with ads for their “cool and refreshing” product. 

It was in these commercials Bruce McConnell saw his sales increase, and looking to participate in the advertising gold rush, McConnell hatched a plan to start a radio station of his own. On May 7, 1937, Bruce McConnell, with a handful of business partners, applied with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate a radio station in Indianapolis. 

The FCC initially denied the application, citing fears that the new entity’s signal, operating at 1310 kilowatts, would interfere with the two existing local radio stations. However, after three years, on October 31, 1940, the FCC relented and granted McConnell and his partners at the newly founded Capitol Broadcasting Corporation permission to operate WISH radio (1310-AM). 

Robert McConnell with members of WISH-TV management.
Robert McConnell with members of WISH-TV management.

How and why “WISH” was chosen is unknown, but McConnell and his team immediately set out to build a world-class radio company. Broadcasting to twin 460-foot towers located on the east side of Indianapolis, WISH radio was headquartered out of the second floor of the Board of Trade building on the corner of Meridian and Ohio streets downtown. 

The 5,000-square-foot space was festooned with the most modern equipment and design. Four studios and an auditorium anchored the space, and a special observation hallway was installed so visiting guests could look in on live radio broadcasts and watch engineers at master control guide the signal from the studio out to thousands of Central Indiana listeners. 

When WISH radio debuted on July 26, 1941, its programming lineup was a hodgepodge of shows from local personalities and disc jockeys spinning records to nationally syndicated programs from NBC. In the mornings, WISH radio listeners would wake up to the sound of local news and talk from shows like The Breakfast Club and Sunrise Ranch. During the evenings, they would tune in to dramas and radio plays from NBC, with regular local news and sports updates from Luke Walton. 

In the Spring of 1939, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) debuted the new technology of television to the masses at the New York World’s Fair. By the time Bruce McConnell put WISH radio on the air in 1941, there were only about 7,000 television sets in the United States, the majority of those being in New York City. Television’s popularity was hampered by America’s entry into the Second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. 

As the country was overtaken by the burden ramping up for a war on two fronts, the manufacturing of new television sets in the United States was halted. In Indianapolis, workers at Allison Transmissions produced engines for military aircraft and tanks. All around the city, citizens planted victory gardens and saved scraps of clothing to help the war effort.   

Once the war was over, the American appetite for television grew rapidly. On May 30, 1949, WFBM (Indianapolis-Channel 6) made its debut, lighting up the airwaves for the first time in Indiana. By 1950, over five million television sets had been sold. The nation was changing, and so was Indianapolis. Manufacturers like Ford Motors, Western Electric, and Chrysler built large facilities in the city and flooded Indianapolis with good-paying jobs.   

With the construction of new highways, shopping centers, and manufactured communities like Eagledale on the city’s far west side, many workers fled the inner city for the security of the newly built Indianapolis suburbs. Perfectly manicured lawns, complimented by freshly paved driveways and shiny new cars, were the hottest trend for the white middle class. 

WISH radio also went through a transformation during the early 1950’s. After outgrowing its space in the Board of Trade building, the station moved to a newly built 12,000 square-foot space on the second floor of 1440 N. Meridian on January 28, 1950. WISH radio engineers and staff executed The entire move over six hours, from midnight to six am. The radio station shared the building with a Fidelity Trust Bank branch and the Riddick Piano Company. The new space included a stage and an auditorium large enough to seat 200 visitors (Studio D), where radio performances could be held in front of a live audience. 

Inside this new radio studio, personalities like Bill Faulkner, Luke Walton, and Reid Chapman became household names across Central Indiana. John Fraim would read the news, while “Chuckles” Chapman told jokes, and Virginia Byrd played the organ. It was also inside this building that Bruce McConnell, now joined by his son Robert, who served as General Manager of WISH radio since 1947, got the idea to enter the rapidly growing television business. 

The first weathercaster of WISH-TV, Phyllis Cline.
The first weathercaster of WISH-TV, Phyllis Cline.

On June 18, 1952, Bruce McConnell and his Universal Broadcasting Corporation submitted an application to the Federal Communications Commission seeking approval to build the second television station in Indianapolis, staking a claim on Channel 8. In the application, McConnell vowed to build a $1 million, 1,000-foot tower that would have emitted the strongest signal in the nation and had the largest antenna in the state. 

The FCC was also fielding television station applications submitted by Indianapolis radio stations WIRE, WIBC, and WLW (Cincinnati). With this crowded field came controversy as the race to start the city’s next TV station had begun. 

Almost immediately, rival stations cried foul over McConnell planting his flag at Channel 8. Before WISH’s application to the FCC, the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation, which operated WLW (Cincinnati), was actively seeking to claim Channel 8. But for an unknown reason, once WISH also petitioned for Channel 8, Crosley mysteriously withdrew their application and filed instead for Channel 13. WIBC and WIRE also submitted applications for Channel 13. With the much more powerful Crosley Corp. encroaching on their territory, there was little chance the FCC would favor either of the smaller operations in granting a television license. 

Officials at WIBC and WIRE warned examiners at the FCC that McConnell may have bribed Crosley to seek greener pastures elsewhere on the dial. The license was delayed for almost one year as examiners investigated the bribery claims and WISH’s fitness to run a television station. Finally, after Bruce McConnell submitted an affidavit denying any impropriety, the FCC granted WISH permission to operate a television station in Indianapolis on December 4, 1953. 

By 1954, America had over 20 million television sets. The country’s appetite for television seemed insatiable, and Bruce McConnell was hell-bent on feeding the people of Central Indiana. 

The first step in building the new station was building the 1,000-foot-tall tower. A location was selected on the east side of Indianapolis. The 40-acre lot was situated at the southeast corner of English Ave (now called Rawles Ave) and Post Rd. Under ideal conditions, WISH engineers expected the signal from the tower to have a 75-mile radius.

Since television stations are only as good as their shows, Bruce McConnell wasted little time finding talent and programs to broadcast on his new station. On February 15, 1954, McConnell announced that WISH-TV would enter a distribution agreement with ABC Television to broadcast select programs. No details about which ABC programs WISH would air were given at this early date. It was later announced that WISH-TV would also briefly carry programming from NBC. In fact, during its first year of operation, WISH-TV would carry programming from all networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Dumont) simultaneously. 

For local programming, it was announced that WISH radio favorite John Fraim would jump to television as the first WISH-TV news editor, while Luke Walton would provide sports updates each evening. In addition, it was announced Catherine Daniels would adapt her popular weekday 1 pm WISH radio lifestyle and cooking program for WISH-TV.

As engineers worked feverishly throughout the spring and early summer of 1954 to prepare the station for air, Bruce and Robert McConnell oversaw the addition of a third story to the Riddick building. The new space was desperately needed if WISH intended to house its radio and television operations under the same roof. Construction was completed that June. It was announced that most of WISH-TV’s local programming would originate from Studio A and Studio D. A new kitchen was added to Studio A for Catherine Daniel’s midday lifestyle show.   

Robert McConnell at the grand opening of the new WISH-TV studios in 1965.
Robert McConnell at the grand opening of the new WISH-TV studios in 1965.

One of the most important days leading up to the debut of WISH-TV was June 26, 1954, when Stokes Grisham, the chief engineer for the station, and his team flipped the switch and began to broadcast a test pattern across Central Indiana on channel 8. Reports came in from as far away as Bloomington, Indiana, from viewers receiving the signal on their television sets. This was impressive, considering work on the main tower was only half completed at the time. WISH-TV was temporarily broadcasting from the WISH radio tower.    

After five days of running the test pattern and fine-tuning equipment and programming lineups, station owner Bruce McConnel, general manager Robert McConnell, chief engineer Stokes Grisham, and program director Steven Briggs determined that WISH-TV was ready to take its place in Indiana television history. 

It was decided that the first program to air would be a 15-minute station introduction, during which viewers would meet the staff, tour the facility, and receive a programming preview and lineup from station management. Rather than claim the spotlight himself, Bruce McConnell tasked his son Robert with hosting the dedication program with Steven Briggs.       

And so, on July 1, 1954, for the first time, the lights inside the WISH-TV studios at 1440 N. Meridian sprang to life and the large RCA cameras stood at attention, their gaze fixed intently on a nervous Steven T. Briggs. “And we’re on in 3, 2, …”