Monday, March 25, 2013


     I once worked in the building that was the first purpose-built TV station in Indianapolis -- studios and transmitter both -- and I didn't even know it.

     Oh, my coworkers shared the rumor that, "P. R. Mallory Co. had built it for TV experiments before WW II but abandoned it before making any progress," but that wasn't even close to the whole truth.

     Recently, I was looking around the website of the incredible Early Television Museum and stumbled across a link to W9XBI/W9XMT, an experimental station put on the air in Indianapolis by Jerry Smith in 1938.  His "studio" was the family living room and depending on one's source, the transmitter was in the basement or that same room.*

     W9XBI was transmitting genuine, 441-line electronically-scanned TV, the same thing Farnsworth, RCA, Philco and GE were putting on the air in Philadelphia and New York City.  It was on what was then Channel 3, 60 to 66 mc/s. Programming wasn't much -- a camera pointed out the window, or a test pattern, maybe amateur dramatics from students at Butler University; but it worked and in 1944, local electronics manufacturing giant P. R. Mallory Co (yes, the Copper Top people: the battery business grew so big, they dropped or spun off everything else) bought the station, changed the call letters to W9XMT ("X" for "experimental" back then, and if "MT" wasn't "Mallory Television," I'll be surprised), and built a beautiful new building and tower at 30th St. and Kessler Avenue.  They also set up several employees with TV receivers.  With Jerry Smith still running the station, they proceeded to do television -- a lot of test patterns and shots of the street, but studio programs as well, using Mallory employees and Butler students.  (Go to the W9XBI/W9XMT link and scroll to the bottom for the page for an idealized look at the building.)

     I don't think the basic layout was ever changed; when I worked there, twenty-mumble years ago, it was airing religions programs, with a long, skinny control room looking into a very large production room/studio, a little newsroom/announce booth off to one side and a "junk room" used for storage behind the control room, just about the right size for Mallory's W9XMT transmitter.  It was an odd layout for a radio station, but nearly perfect for a small TV station!  The expansive windows seen in the Mallory ad were mostly glass brick; it had a kind of a blockhouse ambiance in the inner core of studio and control room.

     W9XMT was experimental, non-commercial, and by 1947, Mallory decided it had run its course and shut the station down.  They told Jerry Smith if he could find a buyer, they'd sell the station, but it never came to pass.

     In August of 1948, WXLW radio went on the air from the building and tower, on 1590 kc/s.

     In the spring of 1949, WFBM radio got into the TV business, making a splash by televising the Indianapolis 500 live for their inaugural TV broadcast.

     That same year, WXLW received (or purchased, as there's a "WABW" on the frequency in 1945) a license for an FM station, WXLW-FM, on 94.9 mc/s.  By 1950, it had moved to 94.7 mc/s and was pushing 20 kW into the ether, but FM was a money-loser and at some point prior to 1955, they dropped the license; either it was sold to WFBM or they filed on the frequency, I haven't been able to find out which.  As WFBQ, 94.7 is still on the air and I'm pretty sure it has turned a tidy profit in the years since 1949.

     But this story is not quite over.  In March of 1952, an application was filed for Indianapolis' second commercial TV station by "Television Indianapolis, Inc.," with stockholders including P. R. Mallory Co., WXLW and Butler University.  They received a license but withdrew their application, and it fell to WISH to be the second commercial TV signal in town in June of 1954 -- with WTTV Bloomington  (November 1949) and WLBC Muncie (April 1953) well ahead of them.

     I can't help but wonder about the backstory to the Television Indianapolis license application.  It's unlikely I'll ever know past what I have pieced together here, but with Mallory providing the tech, WXLW the commercial savvy -- and hey, that studio building! -- and Butler the stagecraft and actors, it was something of a W9XMT reunion.

     I wish I'd known all this when I worked there for a few months between better-paying jobs.  Many years later, through an unlikely hamfest coincidence, I purchased the old Hallicrafters SX-28 HF receiver that had been in the rack (and working!) in WXLW Engineering and got it running again.  It's waiting on desktop space in my basement hamshack now.  Was it part of WXLW's original setup -- or did they inherit it from W9XMT?
* WFBM's "From Crystal To Color" [the WFBM Stations, 1964] says basement.  The ETVM website says living room.  David L. Smith's "Images of America: Indianapolis Television" [Arcadia Publishing, 2012] doesn't break the tie either way.


  1. "As WFBQ, 94.7 is still on the air and I'm pretty sure it has turned a tidy profit in the years since 1949."

    Remember that for many years WFBM-FM's expenses were covered by the Muzak feed that occupied its SCA channel. Its high power/tall tower (plus the then-uncluttered FM band) covered the middle third of the state... makinig it a cheap replacement for the previous AT&T leased program circuits.

  2. And would have been even more so, had they proceeded with their superpower installation -- back when a few FMs were trying very high power, WFBQ applied for something on the order of 250 kW ERP, but decided not to pursue it. The maps or predicted coverage are simply astounding.

  3. I notice in that floor plan Engineering is conveniently located next to an exit. Makes it easy to find your way out through the smoke. (grin)

  4. I'm not entirely sure there was an exit there -- it's been over twenty years and I was mostly doing Sunday a.m..