by Dr. John Timm
By 1953, it seems like everyone in my hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin had a television set ... every family except ours. My father was dead set against it. Don’t get me wrong, Dad was a wonderful, generous man; he just wasn’t very enthusiastic about what he had seen so far on TV, nor was he anxious to shell out several hundred dollars for a receiver, antenna, rotor and all the rest.
Fond du Lac is approximately midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, situated at the bottom of Lake Winnebago. WTMJ-TV, 60 miles to the south, had been broadcasting since the late 1940’s and, I am told, had even experimented with TV around the beginning of World War II. Their Channel 3 signal was weak and required a booster to get any kind of decent picture. In 1953 they moved to Channel 4 to eliminate co-channel interference with WKZO-TV across Lake Michigan and built one of the first tall transmitting towers in the Midwest, topping out at 1,017 feet. With a 20’ or 30’ rooftop antenna, you could now get a decent signal fulltime in Fond du Lac. WTMJ-TV was a primary NBC affiliate from the start, based on the longtime network relationship with AM 620 WTMJ.
Meanwhile, WBAY-TV came on the air from Green Bay, 60 miles to the north. The channel 2 signal came in even clearer than Channel 4 and offered CBS programming.
In the midst of all this, on March 16, 1953, WOSH-TV announced that they would also be going on the air in nearby Oshkosh, 20 miles to the north of Fond du Lac, on channel 48 in the new UHF band. At 4:00pm on June 30, the station signed on for the first time.
On a Sunday afternoon drive to Oshkosh during construction, I recall seeing a small derrick at the top of the 356’ self-supporting tower next to the studio building. In anticipation of the TV station, WOSH-FM had turned in its license and they had lowered the FM antenna to the ground alongside the building. A "4-bay television antenna 31 feet high" would soon be topping the tower. A very large sign was painted on the north wall, proudly proclaiming the call letters of the new TV venture.
At the time, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported that "The accent of WOSH-TV activities will be placed on Oshkosh and Winnebagoland doings, both news and entertainment-wise. Services to television owners will include newscasts, sports coverage, three daily weather forecasts, a weekly 'Oshkosh forum' discussion program on matters of local interest, telecasts of Oshkosh choral organizations and other features."
The WOSH radio studios were extensively remodeled to include, among other things, a full kitchen. Other features included "a door in the studio which is large enough to permit an automobile or truck to be driven right into the studio for televising purposes in advertising. The station [also] boasts a Hammond organ and a piano for musical shows."
Technical equipment included "an [RCA] image orthicon studio camera, two 16mm film projectors and a card slide projector," along with an Auricon sound-on-film camera that represented the state-of-the-art in video recording for the time. There would be a staff of 23, including "a full-time artist who prepares art work for TV commercials."
Like many early UHF stations, WOSH-TV picked up an affiliation with ABC, but also carried NBC newscasts which were "flown into Oshkosh daily," pending the construction of a microwave relay system "in the immediate future." The weekday broadcast schedule was from 4:00 to 11:00pm and from 2:00 to 11:00pm on weekends.
Since we still had no TV at home, I had to depend on visits to my friends for viewing. At the home of my best buddy, Eddie, they had a brand new CBS Columbia TV set with UHF tuning and a rooftop bowtie. For whatever still unknown reasons, I became enthralled with WOSH-TV and later, WNAM-TV, channel 42, which came on the air almost in sight of the channel 48 transmitter in Neenah-Menasha, just up the road a few miles from Oshkosh.
The WOSH-TV sign-on power was "about 1,500 watts," according to newspaper reports, but a 15,000 watt amplifier was on order and would enable the station to "double its coverage." I doubt that the amplifier ever found its way to Oshkosh. In truth, the pictures from both WOSH-TV and WNAM-TV were snowy most of the time and disappeared completely on occasions, even though their signals had a mostly straight shot over the waters of Lake Winnebago. When this happened, Eddie’s parents would roll their eyes and ask politely that we tune elsewhere.
Maybe Eddie’s parents had a conversation with my father. In any event, he finally relented and we went shopping for our own TV set. But built-in UHF capability cost about $40 extra and Dad’s friend at the local appliance store told us that WOSH-TV was "going under and WNAM-TV was soon to follow." So, we ended up with a 21" RCA with VHF-only tuning. At least we had now joined the rest of the free world and had TV.
My Dad’s friend at the appliance store turned out to be right. It was all over within less than a year. At 10:30pm on Tuesday, March 23, 1954, WOSH-TV ceased broadcasting. Among reasons cited at the time were a lack of support from local merchants who were unable to afford "the high cost of television" and the fact that national and regional advertisers were depending on "high powered, big city VHF stations for coverage of Oshkosh and the Fox River Valley," according to the station’s General Manager, William F. Johns, Jr. He went on to say "it has now been proven ... that UHF-TV, both transmission and reception, is considerably inferior to VHF." About the same time, WNAM-TV had already seen the handwriting on the wall and merged with at least one other applicant, applying for VHF channel 5 in Green Bay. Soon, the UHF band in the Fox River Valley would be completely vacant.
Like stations in numerous smaller communities like Ashtabula OH, Princeton IN, Chambersburg PA, Danville VA and elsewhere, WOSH-TV envisioned a locally oriented station, serving community needs. Certainly they made a good run at it, given the completeness of their facility and their ambitious local program lineup. In their early enthusiasm, they had even purchased a vehicle and camera for "local news coverage."
A few years ago, during some construction at the site, the contractor exposed the north wall of the studio building and the letters "WOSH-TV" appeared once again like a ghost from the past. Today, there are many UHF’s licensed to small towns, but they are mainly programmed to reach nearby population centers and feature home shopping or network programming exclusively, often being LMA’ed to another station in the larger market. To my mind, stations like WOSH-TV represent what might have been.
This article originally appeared in Peter Q. George's "UHF Morgue" at his former RadioDXer site and is republished here with his permission. Reformatting and editing by K.M. Richards.
Site concept © Clarke Ingram. Site design by K.M. Richards.