In 1945, Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg decided to purchase WFIL Radio in Philadelphia from the Lits Brothers Department store. WFI came on the air at 10:16 am on March 18, 1922 with WDAR, the Lits Brothers station starting later that year. Eventually, WDAR turned into WLIT. Finally, WFI merged with WLIT combining the call letters into WFIL.
The purchase price for the station was $190,000. When buying the outlet, it was an AM station with an FM outlet that no one listened to. However, Annenberg was really attracted to the fact that WFIL Radio had the right to build a television station, a medium Walter thought would be a powerful tool.
One day, Annenberg called his advisors into a room to discuss the possibility of starting a television station. All were opposed, all except Walter. He won. For the cost of a three-cent stamp, he filed for the construction permit. He knew that Philly was supposed to have three TV stations and he would have one of them. The license was approved in 1947 and WFIL-TV became the 13th TV station on the air in the U.S.A in September of that year. It was also the very first ABC-TV affiliate outside of the ABC O&O's. Once on the air, the station ran at a loss for only a half of a year.
University of the Air
Now Annenberg had to program the station. Two of his creations were the WFIL Studio Schoolhouse (also with a radio version) and the University of the Air. Temple University Professor and Broadcast Pioneers member John Roberts would play an important part in these shows. On January 2, 1951 at 11:10 am, the experimental, educational programs began. The show was stripped across the board, Monday thru Friday with two courses being offered each day.
Roger Clipp, Director of the Triangle stations (Walter's properties) talked universities and colleges into being a part of this venture. While they provided free talent (and thus free programming to WFIL-TV), Clipp mentioned that it would be great advertising for the schools.
Clipp had programming on in the morning that cost the station next to nothing and it would win many awards. It was truly a feather in Clipp's cap.
Clipp earned his bachelor's degree from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Just out of college, Roger started working in a banking career, but the stock market crash of 1929 finished that. Then he went to NBC Radio as an accountant. Then he became Assistant Manager of the NBC O&O's. In 1935, Clipp moved to Philadelphia to become WFIL's Business Manager. There, he worked his way up the corporate ladder until he was GM, General Manager. Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia's fourth President, Jack Steck once referred to Clipp as was "a very unreasonable, temperamental man (who was) very cruel and pretty vicious."
In 1947, the National Committee of the Democratic Party met to decide where to hold their '48 convention. Two cities wanted it; San Francisco and Philadelphia, and many historians felt that San Francisco had the edge. The committee from Philly had an "ace in the hole." It was Roger Clipp.
Clipp told the Democrats that if they chose Philadelphia for their convention, it would get on television. And Clipp didn't mean just WPTZ, WFIL-TV and WCAU-TV which would sign on just before the conventions. Because of coaxial cable, it would be broadcast live on stations along the East Coast as far north as New England, and as far south as Central Virginia. Clipp thought that 10 million people could see at least a part of the conventions on TV. It sounded good, but ten million viewers? Well, 90% of them would see it in taverns or department stores. San Francisco had no TV stations on the air yet.
Roger Clipp was successful in getting the Democrats to bring their 1948 convention to Philadelphia. Not only that, but the Republicans came to Philly also.
1948 became the first large television opportunity but the 1940 GOP Convention was also on television. It also was in Philly and broadcast live over W3XE (later WPTZ, WRCV-TV and KYW-TV) and a couple other outlets. The 1944 conventions were not broadcast live because of World War II.
WFIL-TV was filling the afternoons with British B movies, maybe worst. After all, Hollywood wouldn't sell TV anything good as they considered them competitors. The movies were bad and when the cost went up, the contract wasn't renewed. WFIL-TV Station Manager George Koehler (a member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia) was "pulling his hair out" trying to think of a replacement.
George had a show on the air called "Parade of Stars," with films of pop stars. Bob Horn was the host. Koehler asked popular WFIL Radio DJ Bob Horn to transfer his successful radio program "Bandstand" to television and have it replace "Parade of Stars.". It would be a huge gamble.
The show started on Monday, October 6, 1952 with sidekick Lee Stewart. They talked, played records and aired a few publicity interviews. A year later, Stewart was removed from the program and given his own TV show. The music took to the foreground with local neighborhood kids (including Jerry Blavat) dancing in front of the cameras. In 1956, Dick Clark took over the show.
In August of 1957, Dick Clark talked the ABC Television Network into a 5 week trial. It was an immediate national hit. FYI, Walter Annenberg was named Person of the Year by the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia in 1983. Broadcast Pioneers member Roger Clipp received the same honor in 1978 as did Broadcast Pioneers member George Koehler the year before. Dick Clark was Person of the Year in 1980 and Professor John Roberts (weekend news anchor of WFIL-TV from 1952 until 1972) receiving that honor in 1987. Roberts from a former president of our organization.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Annenberg, Clipp and Koehler photos originally donated by The History of Rock 'n' Roll Website
University of the Air photo originally donated by Broadcast Pioneers member John Roberts
Dick Clark photo originally donated by Broadcast Pioneers member Jerry Blavat
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