Illinois Public Media celebrates 100 years of WILL-AM
On April 6, 1922, at 8:30 pm WRM—which changed its call letters to WILL in 1928—signed on the air for the first time. On that storied night, four men gathered around a 50-watt vacuum tube in the University of Illinois’ electrical engineering laboratory and broadcast a thirty-minute program that covered Illini baseball and track, stories from the Daily Illini, and brief lectures on “Turning Cream into Gold” and “The Value of Parks for Towns of Illinois.” This inaugural broadcast could seemingly be picked up within a 500-mile radius of the Urbana-Champaign campus.
The technology of radio was just beginning to enter people’s homes in the early 1920s, and universities across the country were naturally at the forefront as their physics and engineering departments experimented with transmitters and receivers. The electrical engineering department at the University of Illinois was no different, acquiring an experimental radio license, and later a limited commercial license, from the Federal Radio Commission.
“We are very proud to be the home of WILL for its first century,” said Robert Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Offering our community, our state, and our world a trusted, honest, and sustained voice is a hallmark of our land-grant mission and WILL continues to define what that looks like for the 21st century.”
That initial broadcast on April 6, 1922, kickstarted weekly Thursday night bulletins from WILL. Most of the early shows consisted of talks by prominent figures on campus and university news. Later with the supplemental equipment in place, WILL began broadcasting even more, from student plays and concerts to classroom lectures and play-by-play reporting of sporting events. University of Illinois’ agricultural college also began using it for extension announcements and later programming.
Known as the “University of the Air,” a third of WILL’s programming by 1933 consisted of classroom lectures. Authorities in politics, finance, engineering, literature, social sciences, law, and agriculture lent their talents to WILL, and no other station in the state had direct access to such a vast resource of knowledge. Another programming mainstay was the children’s show Stories ’n Stuff, which WILL produced and distributed nationally for 16 years beginning in the late 1940s. The goal of the program was to teach children in an engaging and nonpatronizing way.
By 1941, WILL-FM would sign on the air with the first FM license awarded to a university.
“Those early university innovators saw the potential for this new technology and what it could mean for the area’s citizenry. WILL was founded on a progressive concept that all Illinoisans deserve an educational service that informs and inspires,” said Moss Bresnahan, executive director of Illinois Public Media. “While so much has changed over the past 100 years, that foundational idea remains the same. Public media at the local level is an important part of the health of our democracy, a place to share vital information about our region and economy, and a way to present the best that our culture has to offer.”
WILL also has the distinction of playing an instrumental role in the development of public broadcasting as we know it today. In 1949 WILL hosted the Allerton Conference for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters—an idea led by Professor of Communications Wilbur Schramm that grew into a network of educational stations producing and distributing programs. Due to the NAEB’s efforts, congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Out of CPB came the Public Broadcasting System in 1969 and National Public Radio in 1970.
“As we celebrate WILL’s centennial milestone, we’re also celebrating a long legacy of innovation brought about by collaborations among College of Media faculty and students and our WILL colleagues—most notably a conference that led to the establishment of NPR and PBS,” said Tracy Sulkin, dean of the College of Media at Illinois. “As we continue our tradition of training the next generation of media leaders, we are launching new initiatives together, most recently the Illinois Student Newsroom at Illinois Public Media which gives our students hands-on training alongside media professionals.”
You can read “The Early Years” for more on the establishment of WILL-AM and the early years of radio broadcasting in the US. Follow along as Illinois Public Media celebrates WILL’s century of making waves with insights into its past, present, and future at will.illinois.edu/will100.
COMMEMORATING A CENTURY OF MAKING WAVES
On April 6, 2022, Illinois Public Media will be marking 100 years of WILL-AM, the oldest component of the local public media organization, with a commemoration ceremony at Campbell Hall on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. The day’s events will include remarks from University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones, a special performance by the Marching Illini, and the unveiling of the WILL 100 artifacts exhibit in the lobby of Campbell Hall.
Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin and Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen will be issuing a joint proclamation declaring April 6, 2022, “Illinois Public Media Day” in celebration of WILL’s 100-year history and its profound impact on this community.
“WILL-AM has provided a very important voice in our community for 100 years. It brings national perspective with in-depth programming as well as a focus on local issues. As an elected official, I appreciate that WILL takes the time to understand and explain complex topics. And, as a long-time resident of Urbana, I know that when I tune into WILL-AM I will be educated, entertained, and challenged,” said Marlin. “I am grateful and proud that WILL-AM is at home on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”
“Over the last 100 years, WILL has established its stations as a trusted source for news, as well as a spot for entertainment and education. We are lucky to have this gem within our community that among other things provides opportunities for youth to produce documentaries, adult reading mentors in the classroom, and important agricultural information and news,” said Feinen. “WILL is a part of the vibrancy of C-U and part of what makes our community special.”
State Representative Carol Ammons is sponsoring resolution HR0788 in the Illinois House of Representatives, which also declares April 6, 2022, “Illinois Public Media Day” in the State of Illinois in celebration of WILL's 100-year history and its profound impact on the community. State Senator Scott Bennett will have official recognition from the Illinois Senate.