Smile Politely

WILL celebrates a century of public service

In 1924, the mighty Michigan Wolverines arrogantly stormed into Champaign, eager to spoil the commemoration of Memorial Stadium, and announce to a college-football-rabid nation that the Maize-and-Blue were to be reckoned with.

The Illini and coach Robert Zuppke were counting on their star junior Red Grange to serve as a rebuttal to their rivals, and did he ever. By the time the dust had settled, #77 in orange and blue accounted for six touchdowns, dominating Michigan in epic fashion in a 39-14 victory, earning himself the nickname of “The Galloping Ghost.”

At this point in time, the television was still a mere concept in some inventor’s minds.  Penicillin was several years away. The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had yet to be run. Howard Carter had not yet pried open King Tut’s tomb. Charles Lindbergh had not yet flown the Atlantic.

You get the idea. It was a long time ago.

Preceding all of that, however, was the innovation of WILL out of Urbana, then going under the callsign WRM, in spring of 1922. “Easily” broadcasting to a 500-mile radius across Central Illinois, the original WRM station’s programming was campus news and live performances by the orchestra and glee club, listened to across the state (so long as weather conditions were reasonable in the evening).

WRM was a trailblazer for radio in the United States in a time when radio was in a “wild west” period of touch-and-go regulation and the federal government had yet to finalize means to bring order to the medium, but WRM (a randomly assigned callsign that they chose to embrace as an acronym for “We Reach Millions”) from its inception was serving the public.  Agriculture reports, university news, and even basketball scores, which was a major breakthrough at the time, were bolstered by enriching live musical performances, some even played in the electrical engineering laboratory (in the case of a damaged wire to Smith Memorial hall).

“This was a really new unknown technology at the time,” says Maurice “Moss” Bresnahan, WILL’s executive director. “It seemed miraculous to be able to hear voices and music from hundreds of miles away. Just like on campus today, the were scientists here trying to use this new technology to advance education, to improve people’s lives. This was the latest, biggest thing. I’d like to remind people that we pre-dated the BBC by six months, and a large part of that was to pull together these agricultural communities downstate, to bring news and culture to these regions which didn’t have that at the time.”

Transition to the WILL callsign and familiar 580AM occurred through the early 1930s and into the 1940s. In 1942, the FM branch, under callsign WIUC, was the first FM station in the country to be licensed to a university. It was redubbed WILL-FM in 1954, and began broadcasting under the now-familiar 90.9 frequency later that same year. 

The television branch of WILL’s long history began in earnest in 1955, as WILL-TV began nightly broadcasts from their studio beneath Memorial Stadium. The FM and TV footholds made by WILL proved to be in-roads to innovating both NPR and PBS, cementing their legacies of programming that serves the greater good with culturally-enriching and educational content.

In short, it has been a momentous century.

WILL is celebrating their 100th year in service by recognizing both the radio and television (WILL-TV est. 1955) respects of their contributions to Champaign-Urbana and the state of Illinois. There is special programming to commemorate the occasion, via daily installments of the Illinois History Minute, which is featured during Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. They can also be listened to on their website

Another addition on the horizon will be an homage to the station’s orchestral origins.

“We have a great tradition of classical music,” states Bresnahan, “and one of the ways we’re celebrating is we have commissioned a fanfare, assembled by a local composer and performed by a local brass quintet made up of Illinois faculty, as a way to pay tribute to that tradition.”

WILL is not only celebrating their past, but is hoping to secure another century of high-quality educational programming via donations. Bresnahan passionately spoke of the commitment of the station’s impact on the community, and hopes that the public recognizes the dedication to public service he and all of WILL works hard to provide amid an ocean of corporate media:

This idea that the innovators of WILL had 100 years ago, they could see early on that this technology was dominated by commercial interests. The first broadcasters were radio manufacturers, airing with the primary purpose being to sell more radios. The innovators realized that this was a powerful technology and somebody ought to use this to teach, to illuminate, and to educate. That’s our origin. That hasn’t changed at all. The media landscape is still very commercial, very chaotic, yet we’re among the only locally owned outlets, and focused on education and public service. We’re still, after 100 years, doing exactly what the innovators intended.

You can make a 100th anniversary donation to WILL here.

Top photo by Andy Long.

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