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KMED brought the news to Southern Oregon

The advent of radio in the 1920s brought news of the world to Southern Oregon, and brought news of Southern Oregon to the world.

KMED’s first broadcast, Dec. 28, 1926, from the top floor of the Sparta Building in downtown Medford ushered in the new information age.

Sophisticated and not so sophisticated local entertainment, daily news and weather reports, business opportunities and religious programming filled the airwaves, and every store that could offered radios for sale.

Two broadcast towers atop the Sparta Building framed the Medford skyline and a line would connect the station to the Mail Tribune. A year and a month later, on Jan. 27, 1928, KMED’s founder, Bill Virgin, would die.

KMED was still for five days, and the community rallied around Virgin’s widow, Blanch, and the radio station. In 1941, KMED moved to its present location on Rossanley Drive in west Medford, and became an NBC affiliate in 1937. In 1946, Blanch Virgin sold KMED to Gibson Broadcasting.

Today, KMED broadcasts at 1440 AM and 106.7 FM on the dial and is owned by Bicoastal Media, which operates radio stations in 12 Pacific Northwest markets, offering progressive and conservative talk radio, country music, classic rock and sports radio. Bill Meyer has been with the station since 2001 and hosts a weekday talk radio show that he describes as “right of center.”

“When KMED first went to news talk in 2001, our local show in the morning was strictly news, covering local news from 6 to 9, then national news, syndicated programming followed ours,” says Meyer. “And even today it’s not that different from the early days where you had some local programming mixed in with NBC programming through the day.”

Today, nationally syndicated talk radio shows follow the Bill Meyer Show in a weekday lineup that features Rush Limbaugh, Lars Larson, Sean Hannity and others. Weekend programming includes local shows like the “Rogue Gardener” with Stan Mapolski and “Elevate Your Retirement” with Cathy Mendenhall, as well as programs like the “Conspiracy Show” with broadcast personality Richard Syrett.

KMED’s early affiliation with the Mail Tribune brought Associated Press news and market reports to radio, but with the station’s 1937 NBC affiliation everything changed. Instead of the “Girls’ Whistling Chorus,” a performance by the students of the Medford Business College, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra graced the airwaves. And instead of the Medford-Milton game, “Amos and Andy,” “Hollywood Gossip” and Oregon State-Stanford football filled out the schedule. Angus Bowmer took “The Taming of the Shrew” to San Francisco in 1939, where it was heard in Medford, and in the 1950s, NBC would broadcast Oregon Shakespeare Festival performances from coast to coast.

In 2003, Meyer says, he planted a flag in the ground and reinvented his show to an opinion-based talk radio format.

“It was a trend, people wanted to hear an analysis of news, and they wanted to hear local opinion and to give their own,” Meyer says. “It was a way for people to give their own opinions and join in, and that was something we didn’t have in the old format.”

Changes in technology have transformed radio, something that Meyer is very aware of. Digital networks transmit programming once carried on phone lines, or on reel-to-reel and data tapes. Podcasts and archived shows allow time-shifting. Social media accelerates information and distorts news. Streaming services deliver live broadcasts to anyone with an Internet connection. The web has given Meyers and others, from bloggers to professionals, a global audience.

“The future of radio appears to be more and more the infinite dial,” Meyer says.

What about KMED’s first home in the Sparta Building? The crushed velvet curtains, chinoiserie décor and piano are long gone, and the KMED of today has long outgrown the Sparta Building’s footprint.

Oregon City developer Carl Coffman acquired the Sparta Building in 2011 and budgeted for a seismic retrofit, the installation of an elevator and restoration of the façade, as well as interior renovation and infrastructure improvements. Coffman believes in reuse, recycle and lives his philosophy by restoring historic structures and building small homes out of shipping containers.

“It’s a pretty well-built building,” Coffman says. “The upstairs is basically the same as it was before, hallways down the middle, offices on both sides, and if you went in there today you’d see it pretty much the way it was.”

“And there’s no evidence of radio towers on the roof, just where the grounding rod was attached in the basement,” Coffman says. “It probably saved the building by keeping the roof intact.”

The Sparta Building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, and in 2013 was given a historic preservation award by the city of Medford. In 2015, Coffman received Restore Oregon’s DeMuro Award for his historic preservation work on the Sparta Building.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

The KMED radio antenna can be seen atop the Sparta Building in the 1920s. Photo courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society #7940