By Jared Olar
Long before people looked to the Internet and television as a convenient source of entertainment and news throughout the day, people tuned in their radios to their favorite stations to get local and international news, enjoy music and shows, listen to a religious program, or catch a broadcast of a baseball or basketball game.
While the Golden Age of Radio’s well-loved dramas, serials, and comedy shows are a thing of the past, radio stations are still important sources of news, music, sports, or talk shows.
In our area, the radio station that has been on the air longer than any other is 5,000-watt WMBD (1470 AM), which broadcasts day and night out of Peoria. WMBD began broadcasting in 1927. Long-time listeners will remember past announcers such as Milton Budd, Bob Carlton, and John Williams, while not all that long ago central Illinois farmers regularly tuned in at noon for Colleen Callahan’s farm news program.
1470 WMBD also has been the home of Bradley University basketball for more than six decades, with Dave Snell doing the play-by-play for a quarter of a century. WMBD also carried St. Louis Cardinals baseball games until 2014, when the Cardinals games were moved to WMBD’s sister station WIRL (1290 AM). As for news and news talk shows, WMBD was a CBS affiliate until 2001, when it became a Fox News Radio affiliate.
The station has had a news-talk format for several years, but those who are middle-aged and older will remember when WMBD played “adult contemporary” or “easy listening” music. But perhaps the best way to identify a true long-time WMBD listener is if you remember the morning news program announcer Bob Carlton reading the daily school lunch menu for the students – Carlton always concluded with the lilting tagline, “And you’re gonna get a cookie!”
Those who wish for a glimpse into WMBD during the Golden Age of Radio may visit the Pekin Public Library and ask to see the library’s vintage archive copy of a printed album published in 1939, entitled “Radio Station WMBD Personalities – Peoria, Illinois.” Compiled in 1938, the album is filled with photographs detailing the radio station’s operations and facilities, and highlighting the station staff, guests, and celebrities whose voices were heard on WMBD back then. In those days the station’s studios were in the Alliance Life Building in downtown Peoria (now the Commerce Bank Building, one of the most beautiful buildings in Peoria’s skyline).
Among the photos in this album are two that recall the catastrophic tornado that wiped out much of South Pekin in 1938. One of those two photos shows WMBD news announcer Gomer Bath interviewing tornado survivor Verna Houston from her hospital bed at Pekin Hospital. Verna, who was only a child, had been orphaned by the tornado.
Among the station’s personalities featured in this album was a man whose name is well known: Jack Brickhouse (1916-1998), who called play-by-play for both the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs. A Peoria-native, Brickhouse began his radio career at WMBD in 1934, when he was only 18 years old. In 1940 he was hired by WGN in Chicago to broadcast the White Sox and Cubs games on the radio, then moved to WGN-TV in 1948.
The back cover of the Pekin library’s copy of “Radio Station WMBD Personalities” is covered with the signatures of station staff – Brickhouse’s John Hancock is in the upper left corner of the back cover.