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Jefferson Public Radio: Boosting the signal

It's — o'clock on a Friday afternoon in Ashland as parents waiting in cars line up outside the middle school. Wafting out of an open car window comes the crystalline, liquid sound of a Rachmaninov piano concerto, mixing with the staccato, chaotic charm of the "Fresh Air" theme song coming from a different car. In a different car, a parent hears Terry Gross announcing that today's guest is Randy Newman.

Each is listening to different streams of programing from one source: Jefferson Public Radio.

For a town the size of Ashland, that's rare, according to former JPR news director Lucy Edwards.

"It's amazing that there are three services in a city this size, in this mountainous terrain," Edwards said. "I don't know how much appreciation there is in stations in larger markets with a lot of money, but here, where the resources are stretched, nobody takes it for granted."

Especially not the people who were present at the creation.

The early days

JPR started in 1969 as a 10-watt radio station broadcasting to parts of the then-Southern Oregon State College campus out of the Speech and Theater Arts Department.

The idea came from broadcaster Dave Allen, who persuaded college President Elmo Stevenson to develop a small station as a training lab for students to learn radio.

Current Jefferson Public Radio Director of Broadcasting Ron Kramer remembers the station was on the air from noon to midnight, 5 days a week, during the school year only. Programming consisted of — hours each of classical music, top 40, MOR (middle of the road) and hard rock.

Allen ran the station until his death in 1973, and Kramer was asked in 1974 to come to help assess options for the future of the station. A graduate of Northwestern University, Kramer started a broadcast program at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. He gave several alternatives to the new college president Jim Sours, including an ambitious "Cadillac Option."

"The Cadillac Option was to boost the signal to 2,000 watts, move the transmitter to a mountain top, go to stereo, broadcast 7 days a week/365 days a year, and start the process of joining NPR. The price tag for that one was $42,500," Kramer said.

With one grand move, the university could forge a crucial relationship with the region at large: It could offer a public service the community, not just the college, would support. But part of the deal was that Kramer would stay to make it happen.

The vision

Kramer knew that to raise the money, the community had to be on board. He saw quality as the way to reach beyond the college.

"When I came here I was determined that we would judge ourselves by the highest standards in the industry, rather than by those that prevailed in markets this size," Kramer said.

The transmitter moved from the roof of Central Hall at SOU to Mt. Baldy, an approximately 2,500-foot-high peak east of Phoenix. Public affairs programming was added. Live local music events were broadcast from remote locations: folk music from The Vintage Inn, Robin Lawson's Jazz Quartet from Oak Knoll Country Club. Locally-produced radio shows sprang up, tapping a wealth of talented community members and the college students, including "900 Seconds," a knock-off of "60 Minutes," and children's show "Kids are Great."

There were some network offerings that were affordable and available, such as Oscar Brand's "Voices in the Wind." But membership in National Public Radio, with access to its growing catalogue of programs, was still a dream. Much of the unique, creative programming was being done by locals.

The station, with only a handful of paid employees, was powered largely by volunteers. One of them was David Pinsky.

For 26 years Pinsky owned a business called The Bagel Man. He'd been a musician from the age of 7, when he studied trumpet at Julliard. Pinsky, now leader of the group The Rhythm Kings, in which he plays guitar, harmonica and sings, was then studying at the college. He worked at JPR in the mid- to late '70s and played in a group called Bodhi Sattva.

Pinsky has fond memories of the early days of KSOR. At the time the program director was Howard Lamere.

"I used to do Tuesday nights. In those days the programming was incredibly eclectic. KSOR was classical in the daytime, then avant garde, jazz, etc. at night. We used to get all the cutting edge stuff. You could do what you wanted, blend different kinds of music together."

Every now and then Pinsky also hosted the early morning show - Ante Meridian - which he described as "a combination of jazz and newer classical, light music - Nat King Cole along with Leonard Bernstein."

Transitioning over to a full radio schedule

In 1979, another person arrived at KSOR who would play a key role in shaping the future direction of JPR - John Baxter.

Baxter came to JPR after attending the University of Wyoming and working at Wyoming Public Radio and commercial radio: AM, country and western and rock 'n' roll stations.

He discovered Central Hall at the JPR offices to be a bit less than glamorous.

"Back in those days, my first office was a wire basket. We all shared a small, cramped space," Baxter said.

The rest of what is now JPR consisted of two classrooms, where the newsroom and the music library are now and the SOU Theater Department, where there are now offices, the reception area, "Studio B," and a large storage space.

"In '79 it was just KSOR with translators in Yreka and Grants Pass. At the time, KSOR was signing on at 8 a.m.," said Baxter. "Howard Lamere was producing and hosting a two-hour morning show called Ante Meridian, which aired from 8 to 10 a.m."

The first thing Baxter did was get Lamere to sign on an hour earlier, at 7 a.m.

"We were missing 75 percent of our audience," Baxter said.

"It was good programming. Howard had thought up this format, which was jazz and classical. The jazz included a lot of the early parts of New Age - early stuff from Wyndham Hill: Will Ackerman, and ECM music with Keith Jarrett and then classical chamber music and jazz crossover music like Claude Boling," Baxter said.

At the time, All Things Considered, NPR's flagship news magazine, was carried on a phone line - the satellite dish arrived later. "The program sounded very chopped up but it still worked somehow," said Baxter.

"When NPR put Morning Edition on the air, we put it on from 6 to 7 a.m., just for one hour before Ante Meridian. It was this big experiment. We weren't even sure whether it would work out or not. The hosts weren't that good. Finally, [NPR] took Bob Edwards off All Things Considered and put him on Morning Edition."

By 1980, KSOR could be heard from Sutherlin, north of Roseburg, to Montague, east of Yreka and from the coast to Klamath Falls. It had won an important funding battle with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and had become an NPR affiliate. In addition to taking programming from NPR, KSOR had broadcasting to the nation, with its first broadcast from Oregon to NPR, from OSF's Elizabethan Theatre.

By 1980, the station's audience had developed its own personality. Perhaps because of the active hand the communities had played in getting the service to their local area, KSOR's audience seemed to Program Director John Baxter to be different.

"The one thing that really impressed me, and I had worked at other stations, where there was a lot of indifference to what we did, but here, people were always calling: If it was bad, they'd be angry. If it was good, they would be ecstatic," Baxter said.

The loyalty and tenacity of the audience became crucial in 1981 when state support was threatened. A funding crisis caused the Oregon Joint Ways and Means Education Subcommittee to try to pull their $70,000 funding. A public letter-writing campaign reversed the decision.

"The people around here who listen really care and I think the one consistent thing is there are people who really care in a deep way," Baxter said. "In an era of completely disposable media this is truly remarkable,"

Covering the region

In 1986, KSOR hired its first news director, Annie Hoy.

Hoy had a degree from the University of Oregon and worked at KWAX and KLCC in Eugene. Later, she started up a news department at a commercial AM news station.

As she watched colleagues from KLCC, like Tom Goldman, John Hockenberry and Howard Berkus move on to successful careers at NPR and around the country, Hoy wanted to stay in the region. She and her husband (also a public radio person) had two young children, so when JPR offered her the job of starting up a news department, she was eager to move to Ashland.

Hoy worked local news into the 6 to 7 a.m. broadcast, much like in other markets around the country, by adding local newscasts after the national news and using the final 10- minute cutaway for a local story. During Ante Meridian, from 7 to 9 a.m. she integrated local programming into the show.

Then they began to develop the Jefferson Daily.

Ron Kramer and John Baxter had an eye for the station to become more of a regional station than it was at the time. Based on campus, there was a ready supply of free labor.

"We knew we wanted an afternoon magazine-type program. We knew the elements: National news, local and regional news but more valley-centric," Hoy said.

With host was Tom Olbrich and two fresh student newsreaders, Brooks Garten and Colleen Pyke, the Jefferson Daily began.

Expanding in unexpected ways

The goal of fledgling Jefferson Public Radio was to be a full service public radio station. The station had three or four employees supported by the college, but needed five staff members not supported by federal funding to qualify for funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kramer was aware that the college and the tiny community of Ashland couldn't support the station and raise the money it would take for membership in NPR. The station had to grow to include the largest listener base possible, extending all through the Rogue Valley and the region. That would have been easy in a flat region like the Midwest. But in Southern Oregon, radio signals run into mountains - and stop.

The station's first full-time employee was engineer John Patton. In the late 1970s, Patton began experimenting with the relatively new technology of translators. These relatively inexpensive, small relay transmitters boost the radio signal and send it to another frequency. Translators had been in use by commercial stations but not to the extent that Kramer envisioned.

"I was the chief exponent of using translators. It was the course we had to develop," Kramer said. In 1977, KSOR's first translator went up in Grants Pass. The translators solved the problems of carrying the signal to places where mountains stood in the way. In 1978 and '79, translators were added in Yreka, Cave Junction and Klamath Falls.

Because of the mountainous nature of the region, KSOR eventually constructed the largest network of translators of any U.S. public radio station. As more communities became aware of the potential to receive the public radio signal, the communities approached KSOR and started to find ways to fund the construction.

"The coastal project had huge implications," Kramer said. "It forced us to build a number of translators at the same time, you couldn't do just one. Folks in Port Orford were the stimulus for us to serve the Southern Oregon and Northern California coast.

"Every community found their own way to pay. School kids sold soda pop door to door."

Through the '80s, communities in Mt. Shasta, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, Chiloquin, LaPine, Brookings, Bandon, Port Orford, Langlois and Crescent City helped bring the service to their communities.

Along the way, people started to relate the growth and the feeling of community with the old State of Jefferson movement. In 1989, KSOR adopted a new name, Jefferson Public Radio. The listenership increased to 200,000.

Fighting for frequencies

In 1986, KSOR moved its transmitter to a tower on King Mountain, north of Grants Pass. While the move to the near 6,000-foot peak helped the signal in some areas, it hurt the signal in other places, including west Medford.

But another situation with far greater consequences loomed.

"Translators are a preemptable service," said Ron Kramer as he explained the situation in the late '80s. Religious broadcasters from other parts of the country started applying for frequencies in the public radio section of the FM band and programming satellite transmissions of nationwide programming. Many of them were so close to the translators that they "knocked off" the KSOR signal.

The trend grew as more national religious organizations moved to broadcast to Southern Oregon, and the translators were endangered. The only way to protect the frequencies of the translators was to buy full stations at or near the frequency of the existing translators. So KSOR was forced to acquire more stations to protect the signal.

In 1990, broadcaster Perry Atkinson (KDOV) gave KSOR the AM station KSJK, Talent, and California-Oregon Broadcasting donated KAGI in Grants Pass in 1992.

An unanticipated result of having the "new" stations, which had all been carrying the same programming as KSOR, was that the idea for the "split" evolved. At first, KSMF was counter-programmed with the Saturday opera, so that a listener would have a choice: Opera or jazz. By 1991, KSOR had adopted the JPR name, and the split became a permanent division into three services: Classics and News, Rhythm and News, and News and Information. While public radio organizations in other parts of the country sometimes own two or more stations which are programmed differently, JPR is the only network of its kind.