The radio station that became WILL first signed on the air on March 27th, 1922 on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The initial call letters were WRM for “We Reach Millions,” which was likely an overstatement since the station shared its transmitter tube with faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering. But by the late 1920s, WILL-AM was broadcasting a regular schedule of news, music performances, and programs intended to extend the educational mission of the University of Illinois across the entire state.
In 1941 WILL-FM signed on as the first FM radio station licensed to a university. Station engineers wired 20 buildings across the campus to allow live broadcasts of classroom lectures and public events. WILL broadcast many pivotal moments in our nation’s history, through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the tumultuous social changes in the 1960s and 70s. Recordings of many of these broadcasts were preserved in the University of Illinois Archives, and are now becoming part of the American Archive.
In 1951 the newly-formed National Association of Educational Broadcasters began delivering programs to noncommercial radio stations across then United States from Gregory Hall in Urbana, Illinois, the home of WILL Radio. The NAEB network emerged from conferences at the University of Illinois’ Allerton House, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation, which led to a growing recognition of the need for a national system of public broadcasting. In 1961 the NAEB moved its headquarters from the Urbana campus to Washington D.C. to be closer to the campaign to win federal support for creation of a public television and radio system.
WILL-TV signed on in 1955, broadcasting programs produced by WILL and other educational broadcasters. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, WILL-TV aired a mix of telecourses offered by university departments, along with news, documentaries, and children’s programming.
With the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, what had been known as educational broadcasting became part of an emerging public broadcasting system. WILL joined the PBS and National Public Radio networks as they became central points for television and radio program distribution. During the 1970s, programming on WILL Radio and Television became more focused on news and public affairs, as part of the growing national network of professional public broadcasting stations.
With the emergence of the World Wide Web, WILL embraced a new model of multi-platform content production and distribution. With “digital first” becoming the mantra of the Internet age, WILL has worked to innovate more effective ways of producing and distributing “born digital” content, while preserving the rich historical record contained in its media archives.