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Channel 5 celebrates 50 years

The Medford City Council met on Tuesday evenings back in the mid-1950s.

Tuesdays were as good as any night ' they didn't compete with church meetings or school athletic events.

Then along came KBES-TV, Channel 5, broadcasting CBS network programs Aug. 1, 1953. For a couple of years, neither the local station nor the programming caused much of a stir at City Hall.

But in the fall of 1955, CBS rolled out Phil Silvers' You'll Never Get Rich better known by the name of its lead character, Sgt. Bilko. The city fathers, including mayor pro-tem John Snider, were so engrossed with Bilko's antics at fictitious Fort Baxter in Kansas that they didn't want to attend Tuesday meetings.

— My dad was a master sergeant in the Army and that was his favorite show, says Doug Snider, whose father later served as mayor from 1957 to 1962 and died in 1994. That was Bilko night; that's the reason the council (now) meets on Thursday.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Oregon's first VHF station, now known as KOBI-TV, pioneered by the late Bill Smullin.

When KBES-TV broadcast its first images from Blackwell Hill between Gold Hill and Central Point, the technology was new-fangled and innovative, yet primitive and fuzzy. A half-century later, television in its over-the-air, cable and satellite forms is ingrained into our culture, and viewers with scheduling conflicts simply record shows for playback at their convenience .

Even in its infancy, as it beamed into new pockets of society, the medium had an astounding impact.

The Medford's City Council actually petitioned the sponsor of the Bilko Show to change its program time for its convenience. The plea went nowhere, but, KBES management presented the council with a television set so they could watch their show. The council, however, decided to return the set.

Because the council is busy, John Snider was quoted in the , It does not have an opportunity to use (the TV) for the purpose for which it was intended.

He suggested returning the television with thanks.

The irony, of course, was that Bill Smullin dearly wanted to air Medford City Council meetings.

Every single year he would officially ask for permission to broadcast the meetings and he was always turned down, says his daughter, Patsy Smullin, president of California Oregon Broadcasting Inc.

While the city council may have thwarted Bill Smullin in this instance, few obstacles kept him from following through in his ambitions to bring radio and television signals to Southern Oregon and Northern California ' a region known as the State of Jefferson.

Smullin began his broadcasting career in 1933 by putting KIEM-AM on the air in Eureka, Calif. His second radio station, KAGI-AM in Grants Pass, went on the air in 1939. It was a collaborative effort with Grants Pass Daily Courier publisher Amos Voorhies, who served as president of the Southern Oregon Broadcasting Co. While he bestowed titles on others, Smullin was generally content to be the founder.

Elmer Haskins had just finished school at the University of Southern California and had applied for a job at KIEM-TV, another station Smullin was building. I applied for a job and a few days later I got a call from Johnny Bauridel who told me 'We want you to come aboard.

So Haskins took the short drive from Fortuna to Eureka, and Bauridel asked what he was doing there. The general manager said he wanted the radio and TV speech major to report to Medford. Haskins and Jerry Poulos, who became Channel 5's general manager in late 1954, lived with Smullin for two or three months before they found places of their own.

I remember Bill being up at 5 o'clock in the morning talking to the East Coast about programming, says Haskins, 75, who now lives in Roseville, Calif.

Newscasting was one of the many hats Haskins wore. He pushed the camera, was an on-air personality, ran the board and shot film and played the grand piano to fill in when there was a gap between shows.

To show how primitive television was in those days, we'd do automobile dealer commercials by shooting Polaroid pictures of cars, mount them on a strip with a wooden track, Haskins says. We'd lock the one camera we had on the frame and pull the strip through, showing individual cars. Later on, we have cars driving around the studio. We had big doors that opened onto the Rogue Valley and that made a beautiful backdrop.

Haskins was the first late-night newscaster at the station, pulling copy from a UPI teletype machine and reading it for 10 or 15 minutes before the station signed off.

There were six to eight minutes of advertising breaks an hour in the early days. The breaks lasted 90 seconds with two or three spots.

Now you see as many six or seven commercials in a break, Haskins says. We would never run competitive advertisers in the same break. Today you'll see spots for Ford up against Chevrolet up against Toyota.

In September 1954, KBES moved into new studios on 7&

188; acres at 2000 Crater Lake Highway, where Target now stands. The station more than doubled its space and advertisers no longer had to trek up Blackwell Hill to display their wares for the cameras. It also positioned the station for quick access to the new interstate highway that would be laid through town within five years.

Televisions, stacked three high in the Smullins' living room, were always on, says Patsy Smullin.

The sound would be turned down on the other two channels (showing other networks), but my dad wanted to see the programming and advertising on the competition.

Bill Smullin didn't rely on ratings services or other fancy ways of determining programming. He simply observed his children and their friends.

I remember my father would always sit by the TV, but not watch TV, Patsy Smullin says. He would watch me and my friends and watch our faces. He made programming decisions as they watched television.

For many years, Bill's wife Rusty hosted the Aunt Polly Show on the family stations in Eureka and Medford. Aunt Polly honored children celebrating birthdays with a party on TV.

When the station received Federal Communications Commission licensing, there were plenty of call letters available. KBES-TV was chosen because it was the best, says Poulos, who was the original host for the Uncle Bill Show for kids.

Even though it made perfect sense to the ownership and management of the station, KBES-TV might as well have been ol' Bess to advertisers and viewers. Looking for a catchier collection of call letters in the late 1950s, Smullin elected for KTVM, as in Television Medford.

It was a bomb, too, says Poulos, 77, of Central Point and one of the few early local personalities still living. It was the worst of the three.

It wasn't until Bill Smullin was driving north from Redding on Interstate 5 one day in the mid-1960s that KOBI and 5M came to mind, Poulos says. It also reflected the station's expanding sphere of influence well beyond Medford. Soon, the station's logo resembled an interstate highway sign.

That's when we started calling it K-O-B-I, 5M (as in Channel 5, Medford) and everybody loved it, says Poulos.

The name change coincided with a change of the television station's transmitter site Oct. 3, 1968, to King Mountain near Wolf Creek. The station's signal was boosted to 60,000 watts from 29,000 watts and its tower went from a 2,000 foot knoll to 5,433. It extended the station's footprint well beyond the Rogue Valley and its expansive translator system filled in a variety of gaps where its signal was blocked by mountains. The over-the-air signal could reach about 150,000. Today, Nielsen Media Research says KOBI's signal has the potential to reach 544,000 people in 12 counties. KOBI also shares a transmitter atop Stukel Mountain southwest of Klamath Falls with sister station KOTI (which went on the air in 1956).

then, of course, Channel 5 was no longer the only Rogue Valley TV station. KMED-TV (now KTVL) had gone on the air as an NBC affiliate Oct. 3, 1961.

If there was excessive hand-wringing over a new competitor, it was for naught.

When you are the only station, all the advertisers say 'Boy if somebody else came in, we'd transfer all of our advertising,' Poulos says. It turns out that doesn't happen. Some would go try out the other station and turn around and come right back. It turns out there was much less impact than we thought ' there was room for two.

As the station matured, news gathering went from the simple rip-and-read format from the teletype to out-and-out news gathering competition.

Tam Moore, who had worked briefly for Bill Smullin in the 1950s, came to Channel 5 after an Army stint in 1967.

Television news had gone through a whole bunch of technical changes in that time, Moore recalls. When I went to work for Bill Smullin in Eureka in 1956, we were showing still pictures from a Polaroid camera, alternating between talking head shots and pictures with some on-the-set interviews.

When I returned to broadcasting after time in the Army in 1967, there were color images at Channel 5 and we were making our way into different ways of handling the video. In the 1970s, videotape became viable. At first it was extremely bulky, got mounted on a handcart and used heavy batteries. But we made great strides in portability and in all the things that evolved, there were quantum leaps in picture quality.

KMED-TV had a distinct advantage in news gathering because KMED-AM radio had previously put together the largest news staff between Portland and San Francisco. But reporters didn't necessarily see themselves competing against the other TV station in those days as much as they did this newspaper and other radio stations.

I didn't see our competition as Channel 10, Moore recalls. We saw the as the competition. That was back in the hot lead days (of newspaper production) and everything was dead after 11:30 a.m. (for the newspaper). There were a lot of government meetings that carried over after their deadlines. Anything that happened after that, we played for all it was worth.

For its first 25 years, the station's primary network affiliation was with CBS before switching to ABC in 1978. But after the FCC approved KDRV's license in 1982, NBC successfully courted KOBI and it joined its third network in August 1983. The station also announced a move to its current facility at 125 S. Fir St.

I think when you are locally owned for 50 years, you're in a unique position with the community you serve, says Patsy Smullin, now 53. We go so far back with so many cities, people and families. It's like our viewers become part of the family.

Poulos says television's full impact hit him in the early 1960s during live network coverage of a Mercury orbiter's recovery from the Atlantic.

We were watching an astronaut coming back from space, live and in color from the deck of a carrier.

And after 50 years, Channel 5 continues to have an impact on its community.

Everything has changed and nothing has changed, Patsy Smullin says. Technology has drastically changed. My dad told me decades and decades ago that there would be hundreds of channels, but talent is still in a limited supply. Localism is as important today as it was in the '50s. That's the niche that so desperately needs to be filled.

Patsy Smullin, left, is president of California Oregon Broadcasting Inc. Her father, the late Bill Smullin, informed Jerry Poulos, right, of his promotion to general manager by giving him a new set of business cards for Christmas in 1954. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven