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Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic. (phots courtesy of medium.com)
One of the most memorable
Thanksgiving-themed episodes of a television sitcom closely parallels a
historical event which occurred more than a half century ago in Monmouth.
Mention “WKRP in Cincinnati”
and fans immediately recall the 1978 episode, “Turkeys Away,” in which 20 live
turkeys were dropped from a helicopter over a shopping mall. Because turkeys
can’t fly, the fictional radio promotion was a fiasco, and the same could be
said for the Monmouth incident.
In 1958, downtown Monmouth
was thriving with more than 40 active retailers. Although the Black Friday
phenomenon was still a few years away, the day after Thanksgiving was no less
of a major shopping day, tailor-made for promotion.
Enter 30-year-old Steve
Bellinger, the inventive general manager of WRAM radio. A boy radio enthusiast,
he had begun his broadcasting career at age 13 in his native Indianapolis.
While a student at Purdue, he had written a national award-winning radio series
on aviation—also a lifelong passion.
What could be better,
Bellinger thought, than a Thanksgiving retail promotion that made use of both
radio and aviation? Actually, why not add a third hook—ultraviolet light! Thus
was born the WRAMlite promotion.
Between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on
the day after Thanksgiving, an airplane would drop 6,000 certificates
containing “magic numbers” over downtown Monmouth. These certificates would be
redeemable for more than $2,000 in prizes from 41 downtown merchants. To drive
shoppers into the stores, Bellinger invented the WRAMlite, a wooden box
containing an ultraviolet light that would reveal a number written in
“invisible” ink, indicating whether or not it was a prize winner.
Among the premiums were a $14
smoking stand, a $15 bedspread or steam iron, a $30 ladies’ corset or clock
radio, and the grand prize—a $100 diamond ring!
Bellinger began running
teaser ads in the Review Atlas and on the radio a week before the drop. While
it created an instant buzz among the townsfolk, it immediately drew the ire of
police chief Vincent Romano, who ordered Bellinger to cancel the flight, citing
Section 3.5 of the municipal code, which prohibited “the throwing, scattering
or casting of handbills, circulars or advertising” in the city.
Despite the official warning,
a private plane appeared over downtown Monmouth at 10 and 11 a.m. Friday,
dropping certificates. Following the 11 a.m. drop, Bellinger was arrested for
violating the city ordinance. Four other drops, scheduled for afternoon, were
cancelled, so station employees and Boy Scouts instead handed out certificates
to shoppers on the street.
Chief Romano charged that
that stunt had “endangered the lives” of many children who ran onto icy streets
to recover them. Mayor Donovan Vance said that after the second drop police had
to stop traffic to prevent children from getting hurt.
Prior to the arrest, deputy
sheriff Roy Hartley gathered three certificates to be used as evidence and
viewed them being dropped through binoculars, although he didn’t get the plane’s
number. Patrolman Lloyd Hillman did manage to get the number, but it turned out
not to be a plane owned by Bellinger.
A hearing was scheduled
before justice of the peace David Hallam the following Friday, causing
Bellinger to declare, “We will challenge them to cite one instance of (public
endangerment) happening.” Bellinger was released on his own recognizance.
On Saturday morning, WRAM
aired an editorial, asking “Is it possible that some city officials are using
the thin shield of an almost never used city ordinance to further a personal
grudge?” There had allegedly been an ongoing feud between the city
administration and the radio station.
The following Friday morning,
as the justice of the peace court went into session, a plane began dropping
certificates over Roseville, Oquawka and Stronghurst. Permission to drop had
been granted by those towns, Bellinger assured the public. The fact that
Bellinger was in court and not personally dropping the certificates may also
have worked in his favor.
Meanwhile, it took several
hours before a jury could be assembled, but after lunch a panel of five men and
one woman was approved by Bellinger’s attorney, Art Padella, and city attorney
The first witness was Chief
Romano, who testified that Bellinger had told him over the phone that he had
too much invested in the campaign to drop it and asked Romano what the fine
would be. Romano told him it would be between $5 and $200.
Mayor Vance testified that he
had witnessed the dropping and had picked up two certificates, marked them and
turned them over to the police. The certificates were admitted as evidence.
Padella asked Vance to provide evidence that Bellinger was connected with the
stunt, but all he could offer was that Romano told him about the phone
conversation. Under questioning by Lauder, the mayor asserted that children had
run into the street as a result of the drop.
David Moffet of the Review Atlas presented testimony that linked Bellinger to the promotion, stating that his printing company had been asked to create the WRAMlite logo and had run Bellinger’s ads in the paper.
The jury adjourned and
returned 10 minutes later with its verdict—not guilty.
Bellinger would spend much of
his career in Decatur, Ill., as a station manager and owner, as well as an
innovator. At Decatur’s WDZ radio in 1977, he scrapped the station’s
traditional news format and hired six reporters with pocket telephones, who
could call their stories into a tape recorder, and newscasts would only be
presented “when the events merit.”
In the mid-1980s. Bellinger
developed what he termed a “portable radio station.” Called Systemation, it was
sold to more than 300 radio stations around the world, from New Zealand to the
Dominican Republic. The system, which sold for $30,000-$70,000, allowed one
person with a microphone to talk, play music and play commercials from
virtually anywhere. It was controlled by a keyboard and joystick.