The impact of Steve and Bonnie Wheeler at WSIL and beyond - WSIL-TV 3 Southern Illinois

The impact of Steve and Bonnie Wheeler at WSIL and beyond

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WSIL -- Michael Jackson topped the music charts with "Beat It."

Primetime dramas "Dallas" and "Dynasty" were appointment viewing in most homes. 

And Dirty Harry was making an "impact" on the big screen. 

It was the summer of 1983.  Mel Wheeler, Incorporated took ownership of WSIL-TV in Harrisburg -- with Steve Wheeler taking over duties as General Manager and Bonnie Wheeler sliding into the role of News Director and 5:00 p.m. anchor. 

"It was a different job you know, but it was our place and the station seemed like a good opportunity,” Steve said.

Steve Wheeler had no previous experience running a TV station. His background was in producing newscasts.

"I think I knew what I didn’t know, which is big. I didn’t think I knew what I was doing, so that helps, at least I would ask people.” 

Bonnie Wheeler also had a background in news and brought the skills she honed in the Dallas-Ft. Worth market to the WSIL newsroom, although to a much smaller staff.  

"Two photographers, three reporters, I was quite the adjustment but man, we did a good job,” Bonnie said.

"Bonnie came in as News Director and I think Bonnie immediately improved the product," Steve said.

Besides heading the news department, producing and anchoring the news, Bonnie also trained a young staff.  

"I think that was a thing I was pretty good at, at teaching people the basics and making sure they knew the really important things about reporting."

She also shaped the staff for years to come by retaining the services of a young sports anchor named Mark Kiesling, and later hiring a very green weather guy.  

"I loved working with you (Mark). Then, Ol’ Rasor comes along, farm boy, and I’m about to deliver a child and I have to hire a weatherman and Jim Rasor comes in and says he wants to do weather but he doesn’t want to be on air, and I look at him and I said, “Do you think this station has the ability to hire somebody that’s not going to be on air?!  We’re little!  You’re going to have to be on the air!”  And look at him now. Both of you, so proud of both of you.” 

If Bonnie sounds like a proud mom, she is. The newsroom was her baby.  

In those early days the staff called her Momma News, even though she wasn’t much older than her newsroom children. 

While she ran the newsroom, Steve headed up other projects, improving the station’s signal with the construction of a new tower and improving sales revenue and programming, although he’s hesitant to take credit.  

"The biggest challenges were in news and engineering and I really didn’t have to do that, I had qualified people that were running that," Steve said.

It soon became clear to the Wheelers that in order to achieve their goal of having a truly “southern Illinois” station, they’d have to move WSIL from its city of license, and their adopted hometown of Harrisburg, to a more central location.  

Steve said, "I’m fond of Harrisburg and at the time I had real regrets about leaving Harrisburg. I think the station is still perceived as the local station in Harrisburg but probably accelerated the process of us being perceived as he local station for most of southern Illinois by moving to a more visible part of the area."

That move, in 1989, to Carterville, also helped with news gathering and recruiting on-air talent and other employees.  

"The building solved a lot of infrastructure problems, among them, giving people a nice place to work and a nice studio, a good newsroom and you know, a new facility," Steve said.

For Bonnie, another change came just a few years later, when she walked away from the anchor desk to spend more time with her two sons.  

"I didn’t completely leave, I was here and available but I just couldn’t work those hours, those hours are hard, as you well know, they’re hard, and I, uh, I really wanted to see my boys."

More changes came after the turn of the century. In 2002, WSIL became the first station in the market to broadcast a full-power digital signal. And in the fall of 2010 — WSIL led the way again by being the first in the market to broadcast a newscast in high-definition.  

"It looks great and all the stations should be proud of it, but WSIL was first and I’m proud of that all the more so because I remember how WSIL was when we came here, it wouldn’t have been the first station to make a technical improvement of that nature," Steve said.

With the Wheeler’s guidance, WSIL achieved success as a local news leader, capturing multiple awards from the Illinois Broadcasters Association for best newscast, best station website and the coveted Station of the Year honor. 

Through it all their commitment to the people of southern Illinois never wavered.  

Steve said, ”I hope we’ve done a good job, I don’t know, but it’s certainly important to us.”

So what’s next for this couple who’ve poured their lives into this TV station for 35 years?  

"I’m not sure I’ve completely thought it through. It’s pretty bittersweet but I’m okay with it," Steve said.

"I keep trying to imagine what it’s going to be like to tune in to the 5 (o’clock news)…I know you guys will do just great," Bonnie said. "When people say they hear I’m retiring, I say, “Are you kidding me?!  I really have a lot going on!”

Once the station changes hands, probably in early January, the Wheelers plan to stay in the area and continue being involved in the southern Illinois community, knowing they’ve left behind a strong legacy at WSIL-TV.

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