John Coleman, circa his last weather gig: at San Diego's KUSI-TV, from 1994 until his 2014 retirement.

If former B-N TV personality John Coleman had died 40 years ago, it would have been top-o'-the-headline news.

But his passing this week, at 83, mostly flew under the weather radar, it seemed.

His once omnipresent baritone voice and jovial on-camera demeanor are recalled mainly by a fast-receding sector of the TV viewing demographic.

For that sector, Coleman is fondly remembered for his stint as the original weatherman for ABC's "Good Morning, America," which debuted in 1972 to give NBC's "The Today Show" a run for the breakfast-hour money.

He went on to make TV-weather history by co-founding The Weather Channel in 1981.

In later, crankier years, he gathered some notoriety in the science community by rejecting global warming theories, calling them "the greatest scam in history" at one point.

Before any of that, though, Coleman was a key component of B-N's first misbegotten attempt at a TV station, a chapter in local broadcast history now almost completely forgotten.

Some years back, we tracked Coleman down to talk about that failed TV experiment known (for obvious reasons) as WBLN, which first showed up on our UHF dials, at Channel 15, on Dec. 6, 1953.

Specifically, at 7 p.m., arriving in a low-visibility gust of static-electrical snow with 4½ hours' worth of programming.

It included the Twin Cities' first local telecast of news, weather and sports; several syndicated shows; and, as a topper, an obscure 1947 movie, "Repeat Performance," starring Louis Hayward and Joan Leslie.

The following day, The Pantagraph sampled its readers to get their initial reactions to this latest outgrowth of 20th-century technology.

"It was lousy," said one respondent.

"It was blurry," said another.

On a more technical plane, a third respondent deemed "there might be something wrong with the lighting effects."

On a more positive note, station manager Jerrell Henry beamed that he received reports of "good" reception from as far north as Wenona and as far south as Decatur.

But positive notes were rarely sounded again throughout the stormy five-year reign of the first WBLN (not connected to Bloomington's later WBLN, Channel 43, which premiered in the early 1980s as a church-run indie station and later became a Fox affiliate, adopting the WYZZ call letters we know today).

"They failed because they built the transmitter on the wrong side of town," Coleman opined.

Only 19 at the time, Coleman began his weather career at WBLN while still going to school at Illinois State University.

The way Coleman told it to us was thus:

Since several Peoria stations were already on the air when WBLN started broadcasting, most Twin City residents had their aerial antennas (remember them?) aimed directly, and permanently, Peoria-way.

WBLN, headquartered on what was then Bloomington's south edge, was beaming its signal "on the backsides of everyone's antennas," Coleman theorized.

"It never, ever occurred to anyone that the station needed to be on the Peoria side of Bloomington."

Beyond that highly sound theory, Coleman had plenty of bizarre tales of life as a WBLN employee.

For example, not only did he forecast the weather, he:

Unpacked the transmitting equipment when it arrived ... strung wires ... climbed up the 400-foot transmitter tower ladder to screw in a red aerial warning light ("I did that a couple times") ... was the station announcer-newsman-sportscaster-janitor ... and developed film in the men's restroom. 

Of the programming aired, Coleman termed most of it "terrible ... things like 'The Liberace Show.'"" 

Eventually, he said, "there came a time one evening when we had nothing to put on the air at 7 p.m. So we took the camera and aimed it at a section of the studio. Then we cleaned and swept the studio to the strains of recorded music."

Tellingly, "nobody seemed to mind."

Coleman became a weather forecaster after his predecessor, one Fred Osborne, "quit when his paycheck bounced. He became convinced that the place would fail."

When WBLN was sold to new management in 1955 (it lasted another three years before folding), Coleman departed for CBS affiliate WCIA in Champaign and, eventually, Chicago and much greener pastures.

His favorite WBLN moment?

One night, when he didn't have time to write the copy for his newscast, Coleman was forced to ad-lib an account of a man who died of a heart attack while eating a hamburger at a B-N restaurant.

Alas, Coleman forgot to mention the heart attack and reported only that the unfortunate diner "died while eating a hamburger at Steak ’n Shake."

The restaurant's management promptly threatened WBLN with a lawsuit.

But not because of the omitted heart attack reference, Coleman said.

"They wanted to sue us because I said he died eating a hamburger. And they didn't serve hamburgers ... only steakburgers."

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Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com.



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