By the end of the 1920's, Sears had realized that it was a retailer and not a broadcaster.  The International Harvester Company as well as WENR Radio, who shared the 870 frequency with WLS were interested in purchasing the station, but Sears felt that a sale to the Prairie Farmer Magazine would be a wiser choice, given their close association in years past as well as their longtime service to the farmer.  The Prairie Farmer, first published back in 1841 was a publication designed for rural America. The paper had covered the stations sign-on in 1924 and had even purchased airtime on WLS for several years, featuring John Turnipseed and the Lazy Farmer on Friday evenings.  When Sears approached Prairie Farmer with their offer to sell, owner/publisher Burridge D. Butler researched the idea.  The company's sales force spent two months canvassing Midwest farmers, asking them which station they listened to most.  The answer over and over was WLS. [see table]  As a result, on September 15th 1928, Sears Roebuck sold the station for $250,000 to ABC, The Agricultural Broadcasting Company, a newly formed holding corporation with capital stock of 2500 shares valued at $100 each.  Prairie Farmer Magazine was the majority stockholder with over 1200 shares. The terms also granted Sears the right to buy back WLS within 13 months if the station "... is not or cannot become self-supporting."  (The Prairie Farmer eventually purchased the remaining shares.)  Sears was also granted up to 12 free broadcast hours a week for the duration of the original note.  On October 1st, an official on-air ceremony featuring Butler and E.H. Powell of Sears aired at 7:00pm to herald the change in management.  After the transaction, WLS' main studios were moved from Sears on Homan Avenue to the Prairie Farmer Headquarters on Chicago's near west Side at 1230 West Washington Boulevard.

 

The Prairie Farmer and WLS Offices at
1230 W. Washington Boulevard

An early shot of one of the WLS music studios, prior to the sale to Prairie Farmer.

 

Since the stations main concern was the farmer, much of WLS' broadcast day catered to the rural areas of the Midwest.  Informing the farmers was as equally as important as keeping them entertained.  Market reports aired twice daily direct from the Union Stock Yards through remote broadcast lines.  WLS used these new remote lines extensively, and promoted themselves accordingly as being on the cutting edge of this new medium.  State Fairs, corn husking contests and even live coverage from the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago were just a few of the many remote broadcasts that WLS aired.  

The remotes began in May and by August had devoted 10% of it's broadcasting time to the World's Fair. During "Farmer's Week," the station broadcast all their programming, except for news, from various parts of the fair. A survey among gate workers at the fair revealed that the question that was most asked by incoming patrons was "where is WLS broadcasting from?" Rufus Dawes, president of the Exposition commented at the time that WLS helped break fair attendance records during "Farmer's Week "Without WLS, this would not have been possible."

 


The Prairie Farmer WLS float in the 1933 Chicago World's Fair during the "Farmer's Week" parade.

 


As a part of "Farmer's Week" at the World's Fair, this WLS Barn Dance was the biggest ever put on.  Nearly 35,000 spectators attended the show at the Court Of The States. The Barn Dance played at the fair for four successive weeks on Wednesday nights.

 

Up-to-the minute livestock and produce reports were also featured and weather reports became an integral service, as the forecasts often determined whether hay should be cut, and where prices for produce and grain would be set.  Many of the Prairie Farmer Magazine editors and reporters such as Floyd Keepers, Clifford Gregory, Check Stafford and John Lacey among others, were heard on WLS.  Due to their prominence in the magazine, the company felt that these trusted names lent credibility to the new radio acquisition.  The weather proved to be a big factor in the development of WLS as an effective and trusted institution.  When a tornado ravaged southern Illinois in 1925, WLS rallied to the aid the victims by setting up the Storm Relief Fund. When the station joined the Prairie Farmer, it also began to promote the Prairie Farmer Protective Union.  This organization provided legal aid to it's members, as well as act as a liaison between farmers and local law enforcement.  These organization came to the aid of farmers over and over throughout the years and solidified WLS' place as a good neighbor.  These actions were huge considering that radio ownership was modest in the 20's and 30's and WLS was only on the air part of the day, having to continue to share their frequency with WENR.

   
An early adoptee of remote broadcasts, WLS was proud of their use of new technology.

 

Entertainment fare was another big part of WLS' appeal. Programs included The Smile-A-While Show, The Dinner Bell Program which aired at noon, Everybody's Hour conducted by the WLS Orchestra and Old Kitchen Kettle.  Red Foley, Gene Autry - the singing cowboy, George Goebel, Pat Buttram (who went on to star in movies and as "Mr. Haney" on the TV show Green Acres) and many others appeared on WLS and the National Barn Dance.  Martha Crane, Lois Schenck, Mary Wright and later Helen Joyce and June Merill offered tips and advice during Homemakers Hour, while the news of the day was handled by Julian Bentley, Ervin Lewis, Howard Black and a young reporter named Herb Morrison.

 


Burridge Butler shares the microphone with US Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace in 1935.

 


WLS Program Director 
Harold Safford.

 


WLS Station Manager
Glenn Snyder

 


(L-R:) William Cline covering the 1933 World's fair; "the dean of livestock market reporters" Jim Poole;
Dave Swanson of the Producers Livestock Marketing Association reports on the latest off the ticker.

 

Throughout the heyday of the Prairie Farmer, listeners were able to keep up with their favorite radio stars via several publications.  The Prairie Farmer Company mind you, was in publishing!  Listeners were treated to "Stand By!" magazine every other week, which featured interviews with the WLS stars, a gossip column called "Fanfare by Marjorie Gibson," a questions and answers section, as well as news of interest authored by Jack Holden and Check Stafford, cartoons and other features such as "Homemaker Tips and Recipes."   It also contained a schedule of upcoming WLS programming.  Then annually, WLS would release it's version of a yearbook called the "WLS Family Album," which not only published pictures of the station's performers, but also featured portraits of station personnel and their families.  Prairie Farmer owner/publisher Burridge Butler and Program Director Harold Safford went out of their way to portray WLS as being a part of the family!  The conservative and no-nonsense Butler even crafted a station code of ethics, known as "The WLS Creed."

           

(L-R): Julian Bentley, Check Stafford, announcer/writer Chuck Acree, Martha Crane, organist Ralph Emerson.

 

History was made as the words Herb Morrison spoke May 6th, 1937, will forever be etched in broadcasting history. His anguish was felt coast to coast as the Hindenburg, a German airship filled with hydrogen, burst into flames before his eyes and was destroyed in a matter of seconds.

When the Hindenburg arrived at the Lakehurst Naval Station in New Jersey, it appeared to be just a routine story. The airship had already carried over a thousand passengers on ten round trips across the Atlantic. Morrison smoothly described the scene as the huge airship approached its mooring mast, then panic set in when the Hindenburg exploded.

"It's crashing. It's crashing terrible. Oh, my...get out of the way, please. It's bursting into flames. And it's falling on the mooring mast. All the folks agree this is terrible, one of the worst catastrophes on the world. Oh, the flames, four or five hundred feet in the sky, it's a terrific crash ladies and gentlemen. The smoke and the flames now and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity and all the passengers."

    

After Morrison recovered from the initial shock of the tragedy, he went on to calmly describe what he had witnessed. The Hindenburg explosion killed 35 of the 97 people on board and one person on the ground. A cause of the disaster was never discovered.

Listeners in Chicago and across the country didn't hear Morrison's coverage of the disaster until the next day because his report wasn't broadcast live from Lakehurst. He and engineer Charley Nehlsen had been experimenting with field recordings on huge acetate discs.  They realized the gravity of their recordings as they found themselves being followed by German SS Officers!  After hiding out for a few hours, the two managed to make a clean getaway and get back across the country to WLS.  The chilling account aired the next day on the station and was the first recorded radio news report to be broadcast nationally by NBC.

 

Click for more about the National Barn Dance.

The National Barn Dance, featuring acts such as Patsy Montana, George Goebel, the Arkansas Woodchopper and Mac & Bob aired live from Chicago's Eighth Street Theatre from 1932 to 1957. (click on picture for more)

 

         

(L-R)    Comedian Pat Buttram,    Jack Holden,     Marjorie Gibson,   "The Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry

In 1932, WLS was authorized to increase its power to 50,000 watts, first on an experimental, then later on a permanent basis.  Of course it continued to share the 870 kHz frequency with WENR until 1954.  As a result, both stations had only part-time schedules.  When one station would sign off, the other would sign on.


Theuring square dance caller Tom Owens.

In 1938, the station moved its transmitter and tower to it's current site (near I-80 and US 45) in Tinley Park.  Then, in 1941, both station's frequencies were shifted from 870 to 890 kHz.

As WLS continued to beam farm programming throughout the Midwest through the 1940s and 50's, stars like Jenny Lou Carson, Arkie, Julie & Judy, Rex Allen and Homer & Jethro continued to entertain thousands of listeners. Several other performers, just on the verge of stardom appeared in front of the WLS microphones. Fresh from WHO-AMs "Iowa Barn Dance Show" in Des Moines, Andy Williams and his brothers made their way to WLS as part of the Williams Brothers Quartet in 1939 and 1940. The brothers became regulars on several programs including Smile-A-While. Patti Page, whose career got started on the radio in Tulsa, also made her way to Chicago and the Prairie Farmer. Patti spent some time here before moving on to a successful recording pop music career. She has frequently been known as The Singing Rage Miss Patti Page, and for her recording of  "The Tennessee Waltz."


 Fresh from Iowa, the Williams Brothers Quartet, featuring young Andy Williams (right center).

 Known for awhile as Rhubarb Red, guitarist and pioneer Les Paul appeared on the National Barn Dance and  Miss Patti Page.

The Reverend Dr. John Holland, whose articles appeared in The Prairie Farmer, ministered on WLS via the Little Brown Church of the Air, which debuted back in 1925.  His regular service aired on Sundays and a Morning Devotion was heard daily at 7:00am.  School Time was a groundbreaking educational program that began in 1937.  Airing every weekday in the classroom, the program proved that radio could be used as an educational tool.  Topics including current events, music appreciation, geography and business were broadcast to students in more than 1000 schools throughout the four-state area.

     

(L-R):  Jenny Lou Carson, Pastor Dr. John Holland,  Announcer Jack Stillwill, 
"School Time" featuring Virginia Pickens with her guest, Illinois Governor Dwight Green in 1946.

During World War II, WLS did it's share of patriotic duty.  In 1941, the station, in cooperation with the Great Lakes Naval Training Center aired a weekly 15 minute program called Meet Your Navy.  It was designed to keep listeners informed about the activities of  Naval men and women. In addition to providing recruiting information, the Navy band and Great Lakes Choir would often play on the show, which was picked up nationally by the NBC Blue Network.  The other armed services, such as the Army and WACS were also represented on other WLS programs.  Station employees and performers even planted and maintained a victory garden in suburban Burr Ridge.  Many of the produce items were used fresh, but plenty was also canned in the kitchen at the Prairie Farmer Building!

 
(L-R): The "Meet Your Navy" program aired every Saturday evening during the war years; 
WLS employees Isabelle Cooke and Mildred Zalac in the victory garden in 1943.

The National Barn Dance merrily rolled on from the Eighth Street Theatre every Saturday night, but the post-war world was quickly changing.  The American Broadcasting Company, which was spun off in 1945 by NBC (It was their less visible "Blue" Network, which owned WENR, the "other" station on the 890 frequency) and Paramount Theatres purchased a controlling share of WLS in 1954.  On April 1st, WLS broadcast full time and became an affiliate of the ABC Radio Network.

 
1953 print advertisements announcing WLS merging with WENR to become a full-time station.

 

The Eighth Street Theatre on Wabash and 8th Street served as the home 
of the WLS National Barn Dance from 1932 to 1957.

Faced with dwindling audiences, WLS reluctantly closed down the live version of the National Barn Dance.  The last audience filed into The Eighth Street Theatre on August 31st, 1957, although the program continued on-air in the WLS, and later WGN studios.  According to the South Loop Historical Society, The Joffrey Ballet made its first performance in a major city at the Eighth Street Theater in 1957, and several decades later made Chicago their permanent home. The Eighth Street Theater was demolished around 1960 and replaced with a 75,000-square foot addition to the Conrad Hilton convention facilities.

The WLS microphone was front and center after Richard J. Daley was first elected mayor on April 5, 1955.

By 1959, it was clear that America was changing from a rural to an ever increasing urban and suburban society.  Movies and television had already made their inroads and the Prairie Farmer folks knew it was time to cash out. ABC, sensing that they could get their hands on the huge 50,000 watt clear channel signal from Chicago, was ready to buy.  They already had a television property in Chicago, WENR-TV, later WBKB Channel 7, and were beginning to pursue a license for the new radio band - FM.   Preparations to buy the station began in November 1959 and by March 18, 1960 The Prairie Farmer Publishing Company and WLS Radio became a wholly owned subsidiary of ABC. 

Farm programming was soon to be a thing of the past on 890 kHz. This announcement began to air the weekend of April 30th.


This ad appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday May 1, 1960.


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