WBAY 70: The early days
By Kris Leonhardt
Part IV in our series on WBAY’s history
The station went on the air on March 17, 1953, to serve an area that was considered both heavily industrialized and a rich dairy land.
WBAY was the first television station in Green Bay and second in the state – second only to Milwaukee’s WTMJ.
A July 1953 Oshkosh Northwestern article states that the station operated “in an area which had as of May 1, 1953, more than 60,000 television sets.”
“When the station goes to 100,000-watt power soon, it is expected at a conservative estimate that there will be more than 200,000 sets in eastern and central Wisconsin and in upper and lower Michigan,” WBAY-TV officials speculated.
In December 1953, a 750-foot antenna began operations at 100,000 watts from the top of Scray Hill.
Area music and appliance stores quickly picked up WBAY’s presence and power in its marketing of television sets and TV antennas.
Broadcasting in those earlier days ran from 2:30 p.m. to midnight, before signing off.
“We had five-minute weather casts; we had 10-minute sportscasts. Part of the reason that is, is because sports would supply us with film. We could get NFL films; we could get Wisconsin Badgers films, and they were supplied a couple of days after the game,” explained WBAY web manager/digital director and station historian, Ted Miller.
“Whereas, with local news, we didn’t have the cameras.
“We had newscasts, not like today; they’d be like 5-10-15 minutes of news.”
One after going on air, plans came together for a 17-hour telethon called the “Celebrity Parade for Cerebral Palsy.”
The event was to be broadcast over both WBAY-TV and WBAY radio for the first time May 22-23, 1954.
“This telethon, they call it a grassroots telethon. The United Cerebral Palsy had offices all over to take care of CP (cerebral palsy). They had offices in one of the hospitals here. There wasn’t a CP building at the time, but they had offices and so they would go from state to state, city to city that had TV stations,” explained Miller.
“They would bring stars. At the time, TV was very young so the networks were like, ‘You’re going. You’re going to travel the country; you’re going to meet the people; you’re going to sell TV sets. More people watch TV; more people watch ads.
“So, they would come with these big stars to town. They’d come to the WBAY building — it was still called the Columbus Building at the time — and people got to meet them.
“The first telethon in 1954, Tommy Bartlett was one of the masters of ceremonies, along with a Capitol Records recording artist, Helen O’Connell.”
The show originated from a remote studio set up on the stage of the Central Catholic High School auditorium in Green Bay.
“They started at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night and continued until 3 a.m. on Sunday morning. On Sunday morning, anyone could come to the auditorium and watch the telethon live in person and every kid that showed up would receive a plastic spaceship bottle,” Miller said.
Funds were collected and brought to the studio, where those fundraising were able to meet the stars.
Viewers were also able to phone in donations.
“That was 1954, a year after we went on the air, and we’ve had a telethon on WBAY every year ever since,” he added.
Next week: A growing industry