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Going live

Patsy Smullin, longtime president and owner of KOBI-TV, says she still hears from people who remember driving the bumpy dirt road up to the station's transmitter on Blackwell Hill and playing games, eating cake and having fun with other kids on “Uncle Bill’s Show,” a live television production put on by her dad, William B. Smullin.

"William B.," as he was known, created the first VHF television station in Oregon in 1953 and launched the kids' show because he needed live productions, as these were the days before videotape.

KOBI is still going strong today as part of Medford-based California Oregon Broadcasting Inc., whose affiliates include KOTI in Klamath Falls, KLSR and KEVU in Eugene, Crestview Cable in Central Oregon and Pilot Rock Digital Production Co. It’s the longest continuously independently owned broadcast group in the West and one of the three oldest in the nation — and the founding giant of the television industry here.

“Dad was a Renaissance man,” reflected his daughter, the youngest of five Smullin children. “He was always putting on live shows. Another was 'Aunt Polly’s Show,' a children's birthday show hosted by my mother (Patricia). He would put visiting politicians on the air, anything that would help people here be better informed and make better decisions about their lives. We call it localism, and it’s still our guiding principle.”

William Smullin, a native Oregonian, studied journalism at Willamette University in Salem, where he was editor of the Willamette Collegian, then went on to write for the Oregon Journal in Portland and the precursor to the Coos Bay World. Then he got into radio in Eureka, Calif., in 1932, said Patsy Smullin.

“What he loved was communications. It didn’t matter if it was radio, TV or cable — or the college newspaper,” she said. “He loved to offer viewers, listeners, readers communication in any form, with the idea of making it a better community. He took it step by step. He hired excellent engineers, lawyers, CPAs, then made it his business to excel in those arenas, as well.”

Starting KOBI (it was KBES at first) took a lot of investment, was a whole new kind of technology and was a big gamble, one that changed the Rogue Valley, said Ashlander Ron Kramer, author of “Pioneer Mikes: A History of Radio and Television in Oregon."

“William B. was a rugged individualist, a true pioneer in broadcast communication,” said Kramer. “Through his newspaper associations, he met Amos Voorhies, publisher of the Grants Pass Daily Courier, and they became 50-50 partners in KUIN radio there. That was his first ownership. Bill carefully watched the market as TV approached. He and Amos founded KBES in Medford up on Blackwell Hill.

“I remember the story. The construction crew was gathered there, north of Medford in the spring of ’53, waiting for his signal to break ground. He was off conferring with his lieutenants, then decided to give them the signal, and off it went. It was a very small community to make such a large investment, but what he perceived that others did not was the economic power in television to serve the whole region, which he called the Redwood Empire.”

In building Jefferson Public Radio, starting in 1974 at then-Southern Oregon State College, Kramer understudied Smullin and used the same model, he said, eventually building to 23 public radio stations with 36 translators to reach into all the remote valleys.

“I just copied what Bill did,” Kramer said.

So committed was Smullin to the principle of local ownership — the family is one of the few left in the nation to make that claim — and to the widest possible communication that in 1961, he consulted with close friend Ray Johnson in creating the valley’s second TV station, KMED (now KTVL), and granted him space on his tower.

“Bill told Ray what he needed to know,” said Kramer. “He knew a second station was coming and he wanted to help. They were fierce competitors, but the best of friends.”

Tam Moore, a KOBI news and program director in the mid-20th century, recalls the station’s transition to color TV and videotape capability, as well as expansion to cable in Medford, Grants Pass, Roseburg and Klamath Falls.

“KOBI was a significant institution from the time it went on the air,” said Moore. “It provided many community forums, with significant viewer involvement. That carries on to this day.”

“William B. was the consummate multitasker,” said Moore. “Typically, he had a couple TV sets going in his office, with the sound low, working on several phones at once. He maintained three homes — in Medford, Eureka and Redding — and was a presence in all three communities.”

William B. and Ray Johnson formed a nonprofit corporation to launch public television here in 1977. It was, said Moore, “a benevolent act and a significant contribution” to the culture of the region, and it continues today as Southern Oregon Public Television.

Kramer added, “Bill created a large, multimedia corporation that was much more than television. It ran from Grants Pass to Redding and Klamath Falls. When the Justice Department made him divest in 1981, he sold off Charter Cablevision and said, ‘You gotta dance with the one who brung ya’ — and that was television.”

The considerable footprint of the family is seen through the Patricia D. & William B. Smullin Foundation, grantmakers in education and health in many counties in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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William B. Smullin
Early television equipment was as bulky as it was expensive. Photo circa 1950s. Courtesy of KOBI