WMBD has had a presence in Peoria for almost 70 years, contributing to the success of the community through broadcasting and community efforts since its inception in 1927. In 1960 Midwest Television, Inc., of Champaign, Illinois, acquired the station, whose call letters are derived from Teddy Roosevelt’s legendary description of Peoria Grandview Drive as the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive.”
Today WMBD-TV, WMBD-AM, and WMXP (MIX 93.9), operate from studios at 3131 N. University, under the leadership of Vice President and General Manager Gene C. Robinson and WMBD/WMXP Station Manager Lindsay Wood Davis.
Gene Robinson has been with WMBD for over three decades, witnessing firsthand the advances in technology and growth of the company. Graduating from the University of Illinois and getting his start at Danville, Illinois, radio station WDAN in 1949, he was news anchor and production supervisor at WCIA-TV in Champaign (Midwest Television, Inc.) from 1956 until 1961. In 1961, a year after Midwest Television, Inc., purchases WMBD, Gene came to Peoria as TV program and operations manager – later becoming TV general sales manager and station manager, prior to assuming the role of vice president and general manager. Former president of the Illinois Broadcasters Association, he has served on numerous community boards throughout his years in Peoria, and currently serves on the boards of the Peoria Area Economic Development Council, Creve Coeur Club, Salvation Army, Community Partnership, and Bradley University Chiefs Club. At a luncheon on Jan. 20, 1995 ,Gene was presented with an Honorary Bradley University Alumnus Award for his contributions to the university.
Lindsay Wood Davis came to Peoria and WMBD in 1989 with more than 20 years of radio experience after attending Northwestern University School of Education. He was voted Radio Broadcaster of the Year in 1994 by the Illinois Broadcasters Association, and WMBD-AM was selected Radio Station of the Year for the past three consecutive years (1992-1994) under his management. He is the coauthor or “Public Interest and the Business of Broadcasting” (Quorum Books, 1988), and has written numerous magazine articles on radio broadcasting. Davis’ current board memberships include the Illinois Broadcasters Association, Heart of Illinois United Way, and Riverfront Re-Development Programming Committee. He is a founding officer of the Peoria Radio Organization.
How is the Peoria area unique in the television and radio industry today? How does it compare to other markets the size of Peoria?
Gene: Peoria television is unusual in that is consists of exclusively UHF stations. There are no VHF stations here. Originally, Channel 8 was allocated to the Peoria market, but in the early- and mid-1950s, de-intermixture was an issue. In its wisdom, the FCC finally, in 1957, decided to move Channel 8 to the Quad Cities and make Peoria an all-UHF market. As a matter of fact, WMBD was really a late entry into the market because the original owners were applicants for Channel 8. As a result of court proceedings, they were not able to put anything on the air until Jan. 1, 1958, when Channel 31 began.
Lindsay, what are your thoughts on the radio side of the industry in Peoria?
Lindsay: Peoria is so often a microcosm of the U.S. in many areas; that includes radio markets as well. We’ve had an explosion of new stations – all of them FM. Today, nationally, about 75 percent of radio listening is to FM, and 25 percent to AM; that’s not far off the numbers here. But we have a lot more radio stations here. Up until 1946 or 1947, WMBD was the only radio station in the market. With the advent of FM, what is now MIX 93.3 went on the air, and there were only two. Now we have 15 commercial radio stations in the Peoria Radio Organization (PRO). Add that to our four television stations, and this is a busy market. But that’s true around the country as well.
Gene: Another thing that is not unique – but it does set Peoria radio and TV apart – is that we remain an attractive test market for national advertisers, which does bring additional advertising dollars (which many other markets enjoy) into our community.
Is that as true today as it was when you started here?
Gene: No. Peoria at one time was one of two or three leading test markets – perhaps the leading test market in the country – and that’s certainly not the case any more. We nevertheless remain on a lot of test market lists, and that benefits all of the media in our market.
Lindsay: One of the other microcosmic things about Peoria is that there’s been a huge turnover in broadcast ownership since the mid-80s. If you go from about 1985 to 1995, in those 10 years this market has pretty much turned over entirely in ownership, except for the stations in this building, which have been the same since 1960. That makes us really unique.
Gene, how have television and radio changed the most in the more than three decades you have been involved in the Peoria market?
Gene: Technology has certainly changes. I came here shortly after our company bought the radio stations and the TV station; from that time until today there has just been a myriad of changes technologically – everything from the introduction of videotape, to color telecasting, to AM stereo, to digital audio. Now we’re getting into digital video – and on and on. The technological advances have been tremendous. As Lindsay pointed out, we have seen a huge number of ownership changes in the market both in radio and television.
I guess the thing that remains the same is that Peoria, throughout that entire time, has been fortunate enough to have had some really good people pass through the radio and television stations. A lot of them stayed, but of course a lot of them moved on to larger markets. That’s been a constant in the 34 years that I’ve been here.
Lindsay: Thinking about the number of prominent broadcasters who started in Peoria, we are kind of a test market for broadcasters as well as for products. We’re celebrating our 60th year of doing Bradley basketball, for instance. We’re selling sweatshirts and T-shirts listing all of the people who have broadcast the games. For 60 years, the list isn’t all that long – I think it’s only been about 17 people – but Dave Snell’s longevity has something to do with that. When you look at the list of people who have been a part of that, you start our with Jack Brickhouse, a real Cooperstown Hall of Famer. He has been inducted into some nine different halls of fame. From Brickhouse, you can move on through the list of other broadcasters – people who are working for the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Lakers, San Francisco 49ers, San Francisco Giants, and Detroit Tigers – all over the U.S. They came out of Peoria.
How has the advent of cable TV changed things locally over the years?
Gene: Cable TV probably hasn’t changed things as much as folks thought it would 10 or 15 years ago. Certainly there’s been a change, predictably, with the share of the over-the-air viewing audience declining, but certainly not as much as many people had predicted many years ago. I think that’s leveled off now, but cable has certainly had an impact.
What about interactive media, with the involvement of cable companies, telephone companies, and computer companies? What should we look for in Peoria in the future, and how soon?
Gene: Interactive media is certainly coming; in some regards it’s here. It will come to our company. Advanced (High Definition) Television is probably only four or six years away for a market like Peoria. The FCC is still trying to iron our the final game plan, as to how HDTV will be implemented. That opens the door for interactivity even in an organization like this because, under the current HDTV plans, every station will have the equivalent of perhaps five or six channels available. Some of those channels can be interactive – in other words, two-way communication streets. It is going to have an impact, there is no question about that. With the entry of telephone companies into the communication mainstreams, it may impact the cable companies more than over-the-air broadcasters, insofar as delivering programs and interactive services.
Lindsay: We all talk about this tuff. It’s exciting, it’s coming, and there’s going to be change. But you know what people want to know? They want to know whether it’s going to rain tomorrow morning, and if they’re going to have to put a slicker on the kid when they put him on the school bus. They want to know what happened at the city council meeting last night. That’s real interactive, because if they don’t like what happened at the city council meeting last night, they pick up the phone and they call. In some ways we still run real, old-fashioned radio in that sense.
Technically, AM radio was developed at the turn of the century, so WMBD-AM is utilizing very old-fashioned technology, as is any AM radio station. We absolutely try to keep up with the times. In 1960 when Midwest Television, Inc., bought this station, it wasn’t far after the advent of tape really took over in broadcast studios. We’re right now discussing tapeless radio – real soon! I mean, in 18 months or so there won’t be any tape left in our facility! That’s a huge change.
My dad lived through tremendous change when he was in broadcasting. I sort of watched it. He was in Chicago radio, and he said the biggest change he ever saw was the opening of the land line that allowed the network programs on TV to go across the country – that was the biggest single change. Sometime in 1956 radio changes. He knew exactly when it happened. Certainly changes to FM are big. Now we’re talking about a lot more satellite-delivered stuff. Are we talking about direct delivery to a car? I don’t know – maybe so.
There’s always going to be a place for something local. We so local live radio here, and it’s very fulfilling because you are speaking to and with and for local folks right here in Central Illinois. That’s fun radio.
Criticisms of radio and television news, as with all media, often center around accusations of concentrating on negative news, taking statements out of context, giving a one-sided story, etc. Ho do you deal with such criticisms?
Gene: First of all, I think many of those criticisms can be leveled against all news media – not just radio and TV. Do those abuses exist? Yes they do. Do we try to minimize them? Of course. Can we avoid airing negative news on our radio and television stations? No, because that’s reality. The world faces it every day and our job is to report the news, be it good or bad. We hope there’s a balance, because there are a lot of good things happening in our community, state and country. We certainly want to be the conduit that reports the good things in addition to our obligation to report the unpleasant things. As far as abuses, certainly they are there. I think that both news content and other editorial content have drifted somewhat more into the sensationalistic vein. Whether you’re talking about the Morton Downeys or the Joe Pines of yesterday, or even some of the prime time news magazines today, there’s no question there is more of a sensational spin on it. The industry’s reaction to that is that we are simply doing what our listeners and viewers tell us they want us to do.
Lindsay: This is a company that really does try to be responsible – I’m talking news in sort of a pure sense now. Sometimes we define news more narrowly than our listeners and viewers might define it. We wouldn’t’ think of a public service announcement for Heart of Illinois Harvest, for instance, as news; yet our listeners may very well think it is. So it’s difficult to define. There is a real attempt to be responsible. But it would be very irresponsible to try to sugarcoat necessary news that not everybody wants to hear. Just because somebody may not want to hear that some problem exists, doesn’t mean it isn’t our responsibility to put it out.
Gene: An example might be the O.J. Simpson hearing this past fall. There was a lot of criticism of the three networks and local stations for the amount of time devoted to the hearings this past fall, and the preemption of so much of the regular schedules on all three networks. Yet when it all shook out, viewership for all three networks during that time went through the ceiling. So it’s a tough balancing act.
Some people maintain that there is a danger that networks, stations, or media companies sometimes create the news, rather than report the news – effectively setting the agenda of what’s important. For example, many observers will claim that Larry King really created Ross Perot in the last presidential campaign. What is your reaction to that?
Gene: It can certainly happen. I think you have given a good example with the Larry King/Ross Perot connection. But even the largest media conglomerate in this country isn’t the only voice in particular communities. There is tremendous diversity of thought in an individual community, so how much the media influences news events and shapes public opinion is hard to say. Certainly newspapers have had the ability to dominate as a community’s news source for a long time.
Lindsay: William Randolph Hearst caused the Spanish-American War.
Gene: Does a potential problem exist? Yes, I guess it does. To a dangerous extent? I don’t think so, because of the diversity.
Lindsay: You also have to remember that we are a different breed than a newspaper. The FCC still maintains regulations concerning diversity that are very, very stringent.
Gene: Those will be relaxed in the future, only because there is such tremendous diversity.
Lindsay: The FCC’s response to this diversification of our industry has been to relax some of those bonds, and I think legitimately so. In the days when there were three television stations and five radio stations, that’s one set of circumstances. Now we have a plethora of cable channels available and 15 radio stations. It’s a different reality, and the FCC has responded to it.
Gene: I think Lindsay’s right; they are responding to it, so the rules will more than likely change. We operate the only AM/FM/TV combination in the Peoria/Bloomington television market. If an individual wanted to come into this market tomorrow and buy an AM/FM/TV combination or put a new one on the air, they wouldn’t be permitted to do so. We operate this combination because we were “grandfathered” in. Our company bought these stations before that rule existed, and now that rule is more than likely going to be overturned. I don’t think, as the operators of an AM/FM/TV combination in Peoria, we can be accused of too much control over public opinion.
Talk radio has changed the face of the radio industry in recent years. What are your comments on this growing phenomenon?
Lindsay: Talk radio, nationally, has been good for AM radio. AM radio needed a resurgence and it was a cheap way, originally, of programming stations in which operators were very hesitant to invest large sums of money. National, satellite-fed talk radio was the response of broadcasters and the market to a situation of decreased value, and therefore a decreased inclination to invest. It certainly has struck a chord in America and it does very well in all kinds of markets. Is it the end-all and be-all? No, certainly not. Talk radio, fed nationally by large satellite operations, is a much more recent phenomenon. Last year Rush Limbaugh was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago – certainly the youngest person ever to be inducted. I think it was strictly because, sure, he’s a phenomenon, but look at what he has done for AM radio around the country. It was a legitimate salute to him.
Talk radio, when you think about it, is a very contentious thing, usually. But talk radio on a local level isn’t necessarily so contentious. For instance, talk radio includes hat went on the air locally following the earthquake in Japan. We had Peorians who wanted to know what was going on in a place where they may have lived, or where they may currently have relatives or friends living. We are an international, and in some ways very cosmopolitan marketplace. That’s the way Peoria is certainly different from many cities its size. People in Peoria know where Kobe, Japan is because so many of them have gone there because of Caterpillar. That is talk radio – not the political, contentious sort that most people would think of – but local, responsive radio. It’s good for radio.
The radio industry wandered around for a while trying to define what the WMBD-AMs and the WGNs of the world are. We finally settled on “full-service.” I’m not sure what it means, other than it is what we are.
Gene: Just as WGN Radio in Chicago has over the years, WMBD also is evolving more and more toward talk, toward information, toward news – to the place where both Lindsay and I see, in the not-too-distant future, a time when it will probably be rare to even read a record played on WMBD radio.
The relationship of TV station, in a relatively conservative community like Peoria, with a national broadcast network no doubt provides some interesting situations at times. How do you handle it when the network feeds you a show that is controversial with local viewers, some of whom may not want you to air the program?
Gene: That’s going to happen. We are very, very careful about prejudging a program to the extent that it does not go on the air, although we have done that. But we have to be very careful because, first of all, I don’t believe in that kind of censorship unless the public is going to be best served by that kind of control. I think it’s very rare that is can be justified. But do we get complaints? We sure do. We try to respond to those complaints and I think we do a good job of it. Do we pass those complaints along to the program supplier at CBS or a syndicator? Yes. We meet with CBS officials, and we will have the opportunity to share some of the recent comments we’ve had about CBS News with the president of BS News and the president of the CBS Broadcast Group. Will they hear from me at that time? Yes. Have they heard from me in the past ,either by phone call or by letter, when I think there was something I should communicate that affected this community? Yes. We do try to be responsive.
Lindsay: He does get the calls, because I see them on the call sheet. We know who’s called into our main switchboard every day and what they wanted to talk to us about. Gene handles such calls with great grace. You don’t have any idea of the vituperation that can come through the phone line! Gene’s in a hot chair some days, I have to tell you.
Gene: Well yes, it goes with the territory. I’m not any different than the general manager of any network affiliated TV station in the country in that regard.
WMBD is historically known for its community involvement. How important is this? What difficulties does it create when, for example, you are involved in community efforts and may have to report news (positive or negative) about the organizations with which you are involved?
Gene: Our news people – those people who gather and report news on our radio or TV stations – know that whatever our involvement is in the community, whether individually or as a station, has no effect on their ability or responsibility to reporting the news that’s important to the community. And Lindsay and I wear more than one hat. Certainly we wear the hat of a media organizations with the responsibility to report the news, but we also wear the hat of a businessman living and working in this community, and providing employment for people in the area. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we don’t have difficulty separating what we do as a media organization reporting the news, and what we do as business people responsible to the community.
Lindsay: I would agree that it is not difficult to do, yet it is something we do everyday. We serve on enough boards. For instance, I serve on the United Way Board now, but Gene was serving on it at the time when all of the Joseph Aramony stuff happened. Let me tell you, that had to be a hot and heavy moment, because here is United Way – something we all love and work hard for – and all these accusations are flying around out in Virginia. That has to be covered by the news. Obviously it was going to be covered nationally, but it had to be covered locally, too.
Gene: I currently serve on the Board of the Peoria Area Economic Development Council. With regularity, information comes before the Board that is very sensitive, that should not be published because of the sensitivity of bringing new business and employment to the community. And I can promise you that I would never leave one of those board meetings and go to our newsroom about that kind of information.
Lindsay: You just can’t do it. Riverfront development, which I am involved in, is the same sort of thing. Lord knows there’s a lot of interest in the riverfront, yet in order to make this work for everybody, people can’t be worried about whether we’re going to go off and tell everybody everything. You can’t do it.
As far as the community involvement of our stations, that’s something we can look back on in the historical documents as certainly predating both Gene and me. WMBD has been involved in in-depth community support projects since the 20s. You look at some of the stuff they did and you say, “I though of doing that but I didn’t know if I could,” and you realize they did it 50 years ago! Whether it’s something recent that we’ve been involved in, like Heart of Illinois Harvest or Christmas in April – which is a great project both radio stations and TV are involved in – these are the kinds of things where you see a physical change in your community and you feel very good about that.
What are your general feelings about the direction Peoria is going in business and economic development?
Gene: I feel very positive about what is happening in Peoria. Our brightest days lie ahead of us, and certainly the riverfront is a part of that. I think the community was lax in allowing the riverfront to go the direction it did and really not do anything about it for such a long time. In one of the first editorials I did on our radio and some TV stations in the mid-70s, I proposed an entertainment amphitheater on the north side of Murray Baker Bridge.
I’m very bullish on Peoria. The diversification we’ve seen over the past several years since the less-than-pleasant early 80s has made the community stronger. The effect of the 1982 Caterpillar strike on the community, as compared to the current strike, is a good example. We have a bright future ahead of us, both economically and in the quality of life.
Lindsay: I see the growth not only in the city of Peoria; what’s happening in East Peoria is just terrific. There’s a city on the make. I think it’s really exciting to see that town really getting a hold of itself. Look at Washington; there’s a pretty little town that clearly has a future ahead of it. I think it’s neat to see that sort of thing.
At the same time, we can get some of the older housing stock in Peoria back into really good shape; we have some gorgeous neighborhoods. I think we’re seeing the reversal of what happened back in the bad 1980s. A lot of those houses just didn’t get maintained in the early and mid-80s. Now if we can just get a whole of them and get them back up where they belong, it will be great for the community.
One of the nice things that happened for Peoria and all over the county was the refinancing of homes. We saw some money going into homes that people wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to invest in. Just since Amanda and I moved here in 1989, we’ve noticed a lot of the homes on Sheridan Road just south of War Memorial Drive have been buffed and shined and just look so much better than they did 10 years ago. I think that’s great for a community. Like Gene, I think this city’s best years are ahead of it.
Gene: There is sometimes concern expressed about competition relating to Peoria and the Bloomington-Normal community. There should be competition, and I think sometimes there is too much concern. Bloomington-Normal is certainly experiencing tremendous growth, but that benefits the entire Central Illinois area. Peoria, after all, is the hub of Central Illinois, so whatever happens between here and Bloomington or here and Galesburg will only benefit the entire area.
Lindsay: Another benefit we have in Peoria is the ag lab. I think we are the capital of agriculture in American. We have this amazing soil. We have that places where they figure out what to do with the stuff that pops up out of it. You have end-users like ethanol people. This is the ethanol capital of the world – there’s no question about that. Whether its ethanol or fat substitutes or other soybean products, I think that we are at the absolute epicenter of what is happening in agriculture. Sometimes Peorians and people in surrounding towns don’t quite understand that, but that’s okay. The people out in the rural areas do. This is the center and we have that wonderful ag lab facility sitting right here. Every time you drive by it, you should smile, because it’s a wonderful thing to have here.
In your opinion, what are the most pressing concerns in the local business sector and the local economy as we prepare for the year 2000?
Gene: I think some of the greatest concerns center around the stability of the labor force and the ability of businesses to compete in their particular arenas – whether, as in the case of Caterpillar, competing in a global arena or, in the case of WMBD, competing in the regulatory jungle that exists. We’re probably better poised to address those things and survive those problems today than in the past. It’s important to be able to compete in our arena and to have the ability to do our business as we need to do business in order to profit and grow.
Lindsay: An extension of that is the ability of businesses to hire people who are educated well enough to help us compete. We have to continue to support our educational institutions and encourage them to produce top-flight people who can read and write and speak the English language; this is true throughout American , not just Central Illinois, to be sure. That’s my biggest concern. I hate getting these job applications in that have five, six, seven, or eight misspellings. That’s scary; there are people with college degree; they at least need to learn there’s a spellcheck in the computer. This dichotomy between those who have a high level education and knowledge of the computer work, and those who don’t is a real “Haves and have-nots” situation. We have to watch out for what’s going to happen to those technological “have-nots.” I don’t have a perfect answer; I’m simply saying this is becoming a difficulty.
Do you see any trends in your industry beginning in major markets on the east or west coasts that will gradually work their way into Central Illinois?
Gene: From the standpoint of broadcasting, although it exists right now in Central Illinois, we will see the emergence of more duopolies – broadcasting companies being involved in more properties in the market – like an AM and a TV, or two AMs and two FMs under the same ownership. I talked earlier about the regulatory problems; there has been deregulation to the extent that some of these things are happening here now, but not to the extent they are happening in other parts of the country. This phenomenon will definitely have an increasing impact on broadcasting.
Lindsay: It is a big change that is happening; it’s happening here in Illinois. It hasn’t happened very much in Peoria, for whatever reasons, but it’s going to change the face of radio in particular. Sooner or later it’s going to hit television, although the talk is not as pervasive there.
What is your philosophy of doing business within your industry?
Gene: We recognize, first and foremost, that we have tremendous responsibility because we do have an influence in the community. We understand that. That influence has to be handled responsibly. We certainly have a responsibility to return a profit for our owners. But we know that we can’t provide that continuing profit and be as successful as we must be if we don’t first serve the people who listen to our radio stations and watch our television stations, because those are the people who either make us a success or break us. If we treat them responsibly and are responsive to them, we will continue to be successful.
Lindsay: I worked for a man a number of years ago who had a phrase that I believe aptly describes the way to succeed in this market. He put it this way: “Our responsibility is to make a profit and to make a difference.” If you’re not making a difference, it’s a whole lot harder to make a profit. If you really are making a difference, making a profit isn’t so much of a struggle.
Gene: I am so proud of our entire organizations, from the lower levels on up to the ownership. I think, through Midwest Television, we have provided stability and continuity in Peoria since the purchase of these stations in 1960. There was already a legacy since 1927, and I believe we have maintained the legacy of continuing to serve the community. That certainly means a lot to us and I hope it means a lot to the community. IBI