by Carl Feathers
Turn back 40 years, to January 9, 1955. Supper dishes are done. Your high-fat, high-cholesterol meat-and-potatoes meal is beginning to settle down. You walk into the living room and turn your new television on -- a Philco 21-inch set housed in a maple cabinet. It's the centerpiece of your living room, and rightly so. It set you back $454.95, plus tax.
Your new set is of the latest design, for it features a UHF tuner that reaches above the paltry 12 channels on VHF to the ultra-high frequencies (UHF) of television land. Your acquisition of the set has made you very popular with relatives and neighbors. During the holidays, there was a constant parade of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and shirttail relatives who stopped by watch your set, one of the few in the neighborhood with UHF capabilities. But tonight, it's just the spouse and kids. You glance at your watch, note the time and turn the set on. The tiny dot in the middle of the screen grows steadily until its ghastly glow probes every corner of the room. The speaker crackles and hisses as you turn the tuner to the magic number on the UHF dial, "15."
You're just in time for the sign-on of WICA-TV, Channel 15, broadcasting live from its modern studios on Jefferson Road in Ashtabula. You tinker with the fine tuning dial on your set until the picture is clear (for the time being). Then you settle down in the easy chair and get ready for the news. Announcer Charles Mandrake comes on the screen with a picture of the U.S. Capitol behind him. In the news tonight: Frank J. Lausche was sworn in as Ohio's 5-term governor; Diamond-Alkali in Painesville announces plans to locate a radiation research center in Painesville; and 2-year-old Larry Knapp of Andover removed the labels from all the cans in his mother's cupboard, making a guessing game out of meal preparation.
At 6:40 p.m., the signature tune of "Music for You" announces that it's time for a visit with Mrs. Fern Dingley and her local guest artists, Mario Brindzi and Mrs. Vincent Gigliotti. You doze and read the paper while Brindzi sings "The Lace-Edged Shawl" and Gigliotti gives her cello arrangement of Handel's "Largo." Your favorite show comes on at 7:30 p.m., I Led Three Lives, a half-hour drama about an American who posed as a Communist. It's a regular on Monday nights and one of the few big-name WICA-TV programs.
At 8:30 p.m., another film program, The Big Picture, informs you about the activities of the South Korean Army. Halfway through the show, the film breaks and your screen turns white. The infamous "one moment please" slide appears. Mandrake returns to the screen at 9 p.m. with a final update on the news, and the station signs off for another day. Your time in front of the TV screen is limited not by your couch potato discipline, but the availability of material on the local channel.
It has been exciting to watch this hatcheling medium peck its way out of the shell and into your living room. For now, you are content to have an image, any image on your screen. But in a few months, the constant parade of mediocre talent, public service films and cowboy movies no longer entertain. The stronger signals of the Cleveland and Erie television stations carrying network programming to your living room woo you from your initial allegiance to the local station. Then one evening in the summer of 1956, you turn back to Channel 15 out of curiosity. Only snow greets you.
The history of television broadcasting in Ashtabula County is a short but fascinating one. WICA-TV beamed its first program, Charles Mandrake's newscast, over the airwaves at 6 p.m. September 19, 1953. No public announcement of its final telecast appears to have been made, but the Star-Beacon last printed a TV grid for the local station June 21, 1956. The station returned to the airwaves briefly in the mid-1960s. Many of the same factors that doomed it a decade before put it off the air again in 1967, this time for good. In the early 1950s, however, the prospects for a local television station were very bright. Prior to 1952, television stations had been limited to large markets and a narrow band, VHF, or very high frequencies. Stations in Cleveland and Erie, Pa., tried to service this area, but the long distances, poor receiving equipment and weak radiated power of the stations made reception poor, at best.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) controlled the allocation of television channels. The small number of channels in the VHF band made it very unlikely that a community the size of Ashtabula would be assigned a channel. Indeed, as the number of stations grew in metropolitan markets, so did interference between stations occupying the same channel in neighboring cities. The problem became so great that in September 1948, the FCC placed a freeze on new television station licenses. But research by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in the late 1940s offered hope. Their answer was the UHF band, which would open up channels 14 to 83 (VHF is assigned 2 through 13).
On December 30, 1949, experimental station KC2XAK in Stratford, Connecticut rebroadcast the VHF signal from New York station WNBT on the UHF band. Fifty experimental UHF receivers built for occasion were placed in homes, businesses and other locations around the community to assess the quality of the reception. Shortly thereafter, the first commercial UHF station, in Portland, Oregon, went on the air.
Local media entrepreneurs Robert B. and Donald C. Rowley watched these developments with acquisitive interest. Their father, the late C.A. Rowley, had laid the groundwork for a media empire in Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga counties. Rowley's AM radio station, WICA, went on the air in 1937. In 1940, C.A. Rowley made preparations for the addition of an FM station, a dream he did not live to see fulfilled. Rowley died August 10, 1945. But his sons sustained the dream. By 1949, WICA-AM and WREO-FM were broadcasting 18 hours a day, with the FM station boasting 48,000 watts, the second most powerful station in Ohio. But the AM station was stymied by FCC regulations that focused its broadcast pattern on Lake Erie and the southern regions of the county to avoid infringing upon stations from Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The signal fell off substantially beyond Saybrook Township to the west and Kingsville Township to the east.
Frank Bernato, who was engineer for the radio stations, said he recalls going to Washington D.C. with the Rowley brothers to plead their case before the FCC. Bernato said the FCC officials recommended WICA apply for a spot on the UHF band and assured the Rowleys that Ashtabula would be given a favorable channel, close to those on the VHF band. The Rowleys filed their application and waited. Meanwhile, UHF technology improved and the FCC eventually lifted its freeze on new stations. The FCC's new allocation plan, announced in April 1952, provided for 2,053 television stations in 1,291 communities in the United States, its territories and possessions. The agency's plan would put a television station in virtually any region of the nation. True to their word, the FCC assigned Ashtabula an excellent spot on the UHF spectrum, Channel 15.
Robert Rowley died in 1950, leaving Donald as president of WICA Inc. and publisher of four Northeastern Ohio newspapers, including the Star-Beacon. Rowley needed a man to take over the organization of the new television channel, and selected John A. Colin for the job. Colin had served as legal counsel for the media conglomerate and had always been interested in the newspaper and broadcasting business.
Colin was named general manager of WICA-TV. He began laying the groundwork for a new station, from filing the FCC paperwork to planning the layout of transmitters, film chains and the studio. This was concurrent with the station moving its radio studios from Center Street in Ashtabula to Jefferson Road, which would also become the location of the television studios and transmitter. Another task assigned to Colin was negotiate an affiliation with a major television network. Network affiliation would be essential to the economic survival of a new station. With it would come the popular programming of the day, but more importantly, the national advertising dollars that would pay the electricity bills, purchase the equipment and compensate the employees. But networks were not interested in spending their money or efforts in a market the size of Ashtabula's. "This was one of our great problems," said Colin, who still maintains a law practice in Ashtabula. "I had to visit New York, Chicago and other cities to get these networks to give us an affiliation. The closest we came to getting one was either CBS or ABC, but no promises."
Even without network affiliation, the station's management decided to move ahead on the project. Colin said Rowley was committed to making WICA-TV a local television station that would feature hometown talent and address community issues. The absence of network programming would be compensated for by running free public service films and renting low-budget motion pictures from film services. "He became convinced we didn't have to have a network," said Bernato. "We could get a lot of free stuff, old movies, cowboys and wrestling shows. It think that hurt us. People wanted something better."
More than a year passed from the time the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lifted its freeze on the construction of new television stations before WICA-TV received its transmitter May 6, 1953. It was a busy year for John Colin, the station's general manager, and Frank Bernato, its chief engineer. Like many others who were involved in setting up a new UHF channel, they had to sell their prospective audience on both a new station and the UHF concept.
Until 1952, UHF had been experimental. Only the 12 VHF channels were available, 2-13, and they were concentrated in metropolitan areas. (Channel 1 existed prior to 1940, but was lopped from the VHF TV band and reallocated to the FM band.) The FCC's Sixth Report and Order addressed the problem of weak or nonexistant reception in VHF fringe areas by allocating UHF licenses to both small communities and educational channels. "The plan was to have local television in all these communities that were a distance from VHF stations," said Colin. WICA's allocation would allow it to cover the region from Cleveland to Erie and south to the Warren/Yougstown area.
But the new UHF stations in small markets faced substantial obstacles and competition. Networks had little interest in affiliating with them, making programming and advertising dollars difficult to obtain. But even more daunting were the technical hurdles. In theory, UHF offered better reception since it was not affected by man-made interference. But the receiving equipment was still in its infancy and had not been adapted to the many idiosyncracies of UHF broadcasting and receiving. "The higher in frequency you go, the more temperamental things get," Bernato said. "The UHF was real cranky as far as surrounding objects went." For example, lead-in cable from the UHF antenna was extremely sensitive to interference from metalic objects. If the wire came too close to a gutter or storm window frame, poor reception could result. Worse, television receivers manufactured prior to 1952 lacked a tuner to access the UHF channels. A new television was out of the question for most families. A Philco 17-inch table top model went for $234.95. The same brand's 24-inch console (the largest screen available) was $604.95. An antenna was not optional and added to the cost.
VHF set owners had two other options for receiving Ashtabula's new station. For $38, they could purchase a Silverton UHF converter that would enable the set to receive all UHF channels. A more economical alternative was a tuning strip manufactured by Astatic Corporation in Conneaut. The strip was pre-tuned to Channel 15 and replaced one of the VHF channels. "They weren't that good," Bernato said. "They drifted in and out and you had to keep tuning them to get the picture in."
Colin and station owner Donald Rowley launched an extensive public relations program a year before the station first signed on the air. Newspaper stories about the city's future television built excitment and anticipation. Advertisements encouraged VHF set owners to purchase their adapters or tuning strips so they could tap into the local programming. A float announcing the new station was constructed and hauled through every parade in Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga counties in 1953. Station representatives also set up at county fairs and festivals to explain and demonstrate UHF equipment. "You had to promote," Colin said. "We did an entire year of promoting. We had no sets out there were capable of picking up UHF."
Meanwhile, Bernato and his crew of six engineers worked on the technical aspect of the new station. Studio and transmitter rooms were added on to the radio station's new facility on Jefferson Road, which had opened in January 1953. The station's transmitter, on order for over six months, arrived with much fanfare. The 3,000-pound unit, manufactured by the RCA Victor Division of the Radio Corporation of America, operated at 1,000 watts with an effective radiated power of 19,220 watts. Its engineering allowed the addition of linear amplifiers that could boost the effective power to a million watts. And if and when an acceptable system and standard could be adapted, the station was prepared to broadcast in color. But according to Colin, the transmitter almost didn't make it out of the box. The addition in which it was to be installed was still under construction when the equipment arrived; a canvas served as a roof. "Along came one of the worst storms of the year," Colin said. "Water got into the canvas and came down all over this expensive transmitter and slide machines. All of us were out there with hair dryers trying to dry that equipment out. Our fingers were crossed when we switched that stuff on for the opening."
Equally harrowing was the erection of the television's 1.4-ton, 53-foot antenna on top of the 310-foot FM tower. Steeplejack Ray Mercer and his assistant Dan Guiline of New York raised the antenna during a two-day operation in late August 1953. Mercer first had to attach a utility pole to the top of the existing tower. Pulleys attached to the top of the pole were then used to raise the UHF broadcasting antenna to the top, where it was bolted in place. Amazingly, Mercer's chief complaint was not the height or danger involved in the work, but how far down he had to climb to get a drink of water!
As test signals were first beamed across Ashtabula County in August 1953, Sales Manager Donald Fassett and his staff -- Robert Rydberg, Irvine Bleasdale, Joseph Yourcheck, Vernon Webster, JoAnn Klasen, Jean Moss, Jeannette Kolasinski, Patricia Nelson and George H. Murray -- drummed up sponsors. Fassett, who retired from the radio station in 1979, said the sales department had one of the toughest assignments in the new venture. "We had a heck of a time selling advertising," he said. The station was not yet on the air and advertisers were reluctant to put their dollars into an unknown when radio and newsprint advertising was proven and readily available. Further, the absence of popular programming made it difficult to drum up sponsors for the old movies and locally produced shows that would become the station's mainstay. But Fassett and his staff did succeed in signing on several major sponsors. The Illuminating Company sponsored one of the station's most popular shows, I Led Three Lives. East Ohio Gas signed on as an advertiser for a live cooking show that required construction of a kitchen set in the studio. Fassett and other station employees exchanged their business suits for carpenter's aprons and constructed the set. "We did everything back then," he said.
Radio station personnel were pressed into service to fill new positions in the television side of the operation. Fred Baker had signed on with WICA in December 1951 with the hopes of getting a radio announcer's job. He ended up in the advertising department, but when the television project was announced, made the transition to the new film and slide department of WICA-TV. "I was responsible for the movie and the slide projectors," he said. "There was a girl who worked with me. We prepared the films and the slides for each day's run. It involved inspecting, cleaning them and getting them ready...loading the projectors. It was just about the same type of work a projectionist would do in a movie theater."
Fassett said slides were a big part of the station's programming. Usually, the slides illustrated an advertiser's message. While the slide was on the screen, an announcer in a studio off camera would narrate the image. Fassett recalls R.W. Sidley in particular using many slides. An amateur aviator, Fassett shot the photographs as he flew over the company's sprawling facility in Thompson. Slides were an essential part of the station's operation because there was only one television camera for the entire station. The behomoth had a turrent with fixed focal-length lenses that could not be changed while feeding an image to the control board. If the camerman needed to switch to a different lens, he had to signal the control room to cut to a slide or film, make the change, then return to feeding his signal from the camera. Fassett said the use of one camera was an economic necessity. "They were fabulously expensive," he said. "They were a huge thing and they were very, very expensive." Colin said the staff learned to become very creative, both in spite of and because of the restrictions. "We were pioneering," he said. "There was no book on this. There was no where you could go and get anything on how to operate a station in those days. It was by guess and by golly." Fassett said the station became a model of efficiency for other developing stations. Station owners from New England and Canada sent their staff to WICA-TV to see how local personnel handled broadcasting with only one camera.
By mid-September 1953, WICA-TV was set to go on the air, a scant seven months after the FCC gave its final go-ahead to the license. The Rowleys had applied almost four years earlier and had a standing order for equipment with RCA, allowing them to kick into high gear as soon as the FCC gave its blessing. Earlier in 1953, WICA's radio studios had been relocated to a new building on Jefferson Road where the transmitters and towers were. In constructing the new building, Rowley included room for television studios and transmitters. WICA had the distinction of being the first radio and television station with studios and transmitters for both operations housed under one roof.
WICA was one of the first UHF stations to go on the air and was believed to be the first to occupy Channel 15. It was a great occasion for Ashtabula County and the local newspapers -- Conneaut News-Herald, the Star-Beacon, Geneva Free Press and Painesville Telegraph -- ran a special supplement announcing the debut of the new station at 6 p.m. September 19, 1953. It was a great occasion for Ashtabula County -- WICA would be one of the first UHF stations to go on the air, "An aspect of WICA-TV's opening night will be spontaneous 'television parties' in the homes having sets converted for receiving UHF transmissions," the newspapers reported. "Many owners of unconverted sets are expected to swarm in on friends and relatives who have converted to see how the picture and sound come through."
The first man to be seen and heard on the new station was Charles Mandrake, veteran WICA radio announcer and assistant program director. Following his identification of the station, Mandrake delivered a 10-minute news program. A film program, The Christophers, followed. Andrew Holecko presented a sports report at 6:40 p.m. A 35-minute inaugural program followed. The Star-Beacon gave the following account of WICA's first three hours on the air: "Saturday night's inaugural television program went off 'quite well,' officials said, although some sets experienced difficulty in bringing in as good a picture as expected. Adjustment of sets has, in many cases, not been perfected due to the last minute rush which took up most of the time of local television dealers and repair men." Local television had come to northeast Ohio.
On October 3, 1954, the station celebrated its first anniversary with an open house and afternoon of local programming. A look at the program grid for that special afternoon provides a revealing look at the kind of programming WICA hosted:
12:30 p.m. Fred Dense, an organist from Painesville, gave a program of organ melodies in the studio. His program was repeated live (videotape was not introduced until 1957) at 4 and 5:45 p.m.
Colin recalls the open house as extremely successful. Over 2,500 people toured the studios and watched the programs being aired. Up to 300 crammed in one studio, hoping to have their faces beamed across the county as the station's only camera panned the audience. The marshy land around the station was transformed into a parking lot. Colin said many of the visitor's cars got hung up in the muck and had to be rescued by station personnel who dashed between tractors, studios and desks.
It didn't take long for the novelty of local television to wear off and the frustrations of UHF reception to wear thin. The fascination of seeing your neighbor sing a song in a 21-inch box was not enough to capture and hold a television audience, let alone to convince an advertiser to spend money on the station. And in that was the demise of WICA-TV. Consider the WICA programming line-up for January 10, 1955. After the news and weather, viewers would be treated to Telecomics, Americana, a film program by the Christophers, Your Business and a full hour of wrestling (film). That same night, the network affiliates from Cleveland and Erie, Pa., would beam the following shows across the lakeshore: Dinah Shore, Milton Berle, Fireside Theatre, Warner Brothers Presents, Wyatt Earp, Danny Thomas, The Phil Silvers Show, Red Skelton and The $64,000 Question. Three years earlier, these shows would have been no competition for local programming. Snow, ghost images and other symptoms of a weak signal would have marred the viewing. But Colin said that the FCC granted the VHF stations substantial power increases shortly after the local UHF channels started going on the air. Not only could these small stations not access the network's programming and advertising dollars, they had to compete against them.
"Lo and behold, just about this time, the FCC allowed VHF stations all over the country to come in with full power enough to encompass us and get the picture we get today," Colin said. "When the FCC did this, there were 100 or more stations that went off the air, they couldn't handle this." The financial loses were tremendous. "The equipment we had was the best money could buy," said Frank Bernato, who was station engineer. "I understand that Rowley invested $250,000 in equipment...it was just that UHF had its problems and the receiving equipment was not the best in the world. WICA-TV struggled along despite the stiff competition for viewers who could now get programming without having to purchase adapters, a new set or antenna. Signal strength, however, was not an issue. Colin has in his possession letters from viewers in New York, Michigan, Indiana and Connecticut reporting reception of Channel 15's signal. "The problem with UHF was we simply couldn't get enough viewers in the area to make the business pay," said John Strasen, former WICA-TV program director. "You got to have a bunch of people watching if you wanted to sell ads, and that's what it was all about."
WICA-TV plodded along with programming that became increasingly boring and inexpensive. According to program grids published in the Star-Beacon, the last day of broadcast was June 16, 1956. Programming included a full hour of Home Town Teens, featuring "Five Kings," "The Barnyard Five" and "Vlock-Dahl Quartet," no competition for The Lone Ranger, Dinah Shore and You Bet Your Life. "I hate to be negative about it, but for a small town like this, it was state of the art," said Mandrake. "It was similar to the early days of sound recording. All it had to do was make a noise and people would be fascinated. I have to compare the early days of television's local stations to that." "The problem with UHF was we simply couldn't get enough viewers in the area to make the business pay," Strasen said. "You got to have a bunch of people watching if you wanted to sell ads, and that's what it was all about." In contrast to the yearlong build-up that preceded its arrival, WICA-TV left the air without fanfare. "Bingo, we were off the air," said Donald Fassett, who was the station's business manager. "It surprised all of us." "I think there was a sigh of relief among the staff," said Strasen. "I worked the better part of another year clearing up the debris -- mostly empty film cans and stuff that had piled up all over. I returned the free films before they got lost. There was a pile of them. Oh, gee, what a job that was."
Channel 15 remained blank in Ashtabula County for over eight years. But the Rowley Family held on to the license, keeping UHF competition from elbowing into their broadcasting turf. In 1964 Colin and public school superintendents in Ashtabula County began to explore the feasibility of using the channel for educational television. Articles of incorporation for The Ashtabula County Educational Television Foundation were filed and its trustees traveled to demonstration sites to observe educational television at work. But enthusiasm for the project waned and it was put on hold until 1967. In the meantime, station management attempted one last attempt at reviving local television. Without fanfare, at 3:45 p.m. December 15, 1965, the 363-foot tower on Jefferson Road began beaming television programming to Ashtabula County homes. Starting out with a minimum of 2½ hours of programming a day, Monday through Friday, station management promised to air programs of local interest featuring local artists and community leaders as well as programs of general interest. It sounded like the same, tired format all over again. But the environment for a local UHF station looked favorable.
The April 4, 1966, lineup on WICA-TV was: News, weather and sports, The Stewardess Story, With All Good Wishes, Suspension Bridge, Now and Forever, news and weather, Big Band Bash, sports and Theater 15. Eventually, Theater 15 would be expanded to consume four of the seven hours of WICA programming. Promising "full length films produced since 1958," Theater 15 also had the nasty practice of running the films twice in one week. "This is similar in philosophy to that used by theaters and will give viewers two chances to see a movie," explained Robert Rowley, business manager, in a newspaper story. The titles of the some of the Theater 15 films suggest mediocrity and low rental rates: "Crime in the Streets," "The Accursed," "Samson and the Sea Beast," "Temple of White Elephants" and "Black Sunday." The station continued to operate with one studio camera, the same antiquated unit whose technology had imposed severe limitations on local broadcasting a decade before. The purchase of a portable Vidicon camera in 1967 was touted as a way to bring local events to the television audience. Rowley was quoted in a newspaper story as saying, "We plan to utilize a portable mobile unit embodying the camera and new tape machine which we can take to all local events of importance."
The station bowed off the air later that year, December 29, 1967, with an unimpressive lineup of programming for the night: "Taur the Mighty," Death Valley Days, and "The Saracens." "After the second time, we let the license go, once there was no more hope for the educational television project," Colin said. The station's equipment was sold to other stations or donated to schools. The only physical reminder of the station's existence is the 53-foot UHF broadcasting antenna that rises above the FM pylon. The electromagnetic waves that once emanated from the Channel 15 tower have dissipated into the ether of broadcasting eternity. No videotapes or kinescopes of The Hoot and Holler Gang, Happiland or any of the other locally produced programs exist. The memories of those days are getting dimmer, fading to black like the tiny dot on the 1953 Philco that once filled our living rooms with the joys and sorrows of baby television.
This article originally appeared in Peter Q. George's "UHF Morgue" at his former RadioDXer site and was republished from the Ashtabula Star-Beacon in 1995 with their permission. Reformatting by K.M. Richards.
Site concept © Clarke Ingram. Site design by K.M. Richards.