By John C. Alsedek:
Growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania during the early/mid 1970s, I can just remember the arrival of cable TV. Cable television (i.e., programming delivered to homes via coaxial cable rather than over the airwaves) had first come into existence in 1948 (in Mahanoy City, just up I-78 from my hometown of Harrisburg); however, it would be another twenty years before it started to become commonly used. It opened up a whole new world of television for me—specifically, the UHF stations in Philadelphia and New York City that had previously been wholly unavailable (NYC) or nothing more than snowy phantoms (Philly).
Each station had its own particular appeal to me. WOR Channel 9 (NYC) had the least amount of programming that actually interested me, but it was also the home of Boris Karloff's Thriller—and since it generally didn't have a regular spot on the schedule (it often aired when there were issues involving NY Mets games), I'd give it a look more often than I would have otherwise. WPIX Channel 11 (NYC) would become a fave in the late 1970s, seeing as it was the home of The Twilight Zone, The Odd Couple, and The Honeymooners. WTAF Channel 29 (Philly) had UFO and Star Blazers, along with some oddball stuff I never found elsewhere such as Science Fiction Theater and the all-but-lost Kraft Suspense Theater (the subject of a future column).
But my real favorites were Philly's WPHL Channel 17 and WKBS Channel 48. WPHL had a great Saturday morning counterprogramming block to run against neutered network cartoon dreck such as Super Friends, Ultraman, Johnnie Sokko and His Flying Robot, WWF wrestling, and (yes!) Soul Train. Plus they had their own horror host, the late great Dr. Shock (more on him next time), who did two separate broadcasts on Saturday afternoon and evening. But for me, WKBS was THE go-to channel. It had everything a pre-teen could ask for, seven days a week. Weekdays it was The Banana Splits, Battle of the Planets, The Monkees, McHale's Navy, and a bevy of Hanna Barbera cartoons. Weeknights, it was Sanford and Son, You Bet Your Life, The Honeymooners, Night Gallery, and Dark Shadows. Saturdays included WKBS's answer to Dr. Shock, Creature Double Feature. And Sundays included Abbott & Costello movies and old Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials.
WKBS first went on the air on September 1st, 1965, six months after WTAF and just two weeks before WPHL; its studios were located in South Philadelphia, and its transmitter—including a brand-new 1,100-foot tower—was part of the Roxborough tower farm (more about that in a few weeks). This was in the early days of the UHF station expansion, as it had only been a year earlier that the FCC had mandated that TV manufacturers had to include UHF tuning capability; as a result, all three stations struggled at first to build their respective audiences. But WKBS didn't have the financial worries of the other two stations and quickly became the market's top independent station for more than a decade.
The reason WKBS had a financial edge was that it was part of the Kaiser Broadcasting System (hence the call letters "KBS"). Kaiser Broadcasting was part of the larger Henry J. Kaiser Company, a multi-industrial outfit best known at the time for Kaiser Automobiles but today most familiar because of Kaiser Permanente. Kaiser Broadcasting was building a small but ambitious network of stations in many of the U.S.'s biggest markets, including Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, and of course Philadelphia. Kaiser Broadcasting's schedule consisted of a mix of syndicated programs and self-produced shows, with each Kaiser station sharing the shows it produced with the others in an arrangement similar to that of Mutual Broadcasting in radio years earlier. Among those shows was an absolute trailblazer: The Della Reese Show, a variety/talk program that was the first long-form series of its type to be hosted by an African-American woman.
However, that wasn't the series that proved most successful for Kaiser Broadcasting. Instead, it was a middling NBC show that had barely limped through three seasons before being cancelled: a science fiction program called Star Trek. Kaiser hit on the idea of running Star Trek at 6 p.m. on weeknights as counterprogramming against network news programs—and it worked, garnering excellent ratings and occasionally winning the time slot from 1969 until well into the 1970s. What was a little ironic is that WKBS’s own try at doing a prime-time newscast (10 p.m.) didn’t pan out, and while WKBS retained its small news department, it was relegated to doing short news updates.
WKBS retained its spot as Philadelphia’s top independent station till the mid-70s, when WTAF became a strong competitor, eventually taking over as Philly’s #1 at the end of the decade. But by then, Kaiser Broadcasting didn’t actually own WKBS anymore; they’d sold their stations to Field Communications, which had been a minority shareholder in Kaiser since 1973. The change was initially a positive one: Field Communications did a nice job of branding their new purchases, creating the well-known "The Choice is Yours" jingle that was paired with market-specific graphics for each station. The Field-helmed WKBS continued to garner good ratings and all seemed well.
But that would change very quickly in 1982. Disputes between the dual heads of Field Communications, half-brothers Frederick W. Field and Marshall Field V, left the company in an untenable position. As a result, all the TV stations under the Field Communications umbrella were put up for sale. The plan was to sell them as a package, but when that failed, the stations were sold separately. Over the course of the next year, all of them sold except for WKBS. It wasn’t that there weren’t offers, but none of them were sufficient to move the Fields to complete the sale. The Providence Journal Company, owners of perennial 3rd place Philly indie WPHL 17, very nearly pulled off a merger of the two stations. However, the price still wasn’t enough for the Fields, and on August 30th, 1983, WKBS signed off for the last time following a Penn State football broadcast. Instead of the "Star-Spangled Banner," WKBS played Simon & Garfunkel’s "The Sound of Silence" as a collage of station employees ran across the screen and the station manager read a poignant editorial. And then WKBS-TV Channel 48, Burlington/Philadelphia, went dark for good.
However, while that was the end of WKBS, one of its shows (by way of Field Communications sister station WFLD) endures to this day: MeTV’s Svengoolie! We’ll be talking Philadelphia-area horror hosts of the seventies next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.