Still dialed in
Fifty years ago Tuesday, at 5 p.m., communications professor Dave Allen switched on the microphone of KSOR-FM, a tiny 10-watt radio station in the library basement at then-Southern Oregon College.
It launched what would become the 25-station Jefferson Public Radio, whose programming now reaches listeners from Roseburg to Redding and the Cascades to the coast.
On May 21, 1969, Allen played the song “Greensleeves” as an invitation to “dream along with us” and promised to broadcast music for all tastes and offer “a thorough discussion of all issues of controversy and importance to our community.”
Executive Director Paul Westhelle says the JPR enterprise is keeping its promise over a 70,000-square-mile region on a trio of platforms that air classical music, world music and news and information.
JPR still serves as a laboratory for Southern Oregon University students preparing for careers in broadcasting, but the big shift was “becoming a resource for the community at large,” he says.
Student production assistant Erika Soderstrom says she “found a love for audio here.”
“It’s comforting, inspiring and what a range of people I get to hear and interact with,” she says.
Westhelle says KSOR began as a noon-to-9 p.m. rock music station for students that reached all of Ashland, then “it began engaging the community on important issues and giving voice to the community and helping solve problems. It began airing music that was different from the commercial providers and building connections to all the arts organizations, the Rogue Valley Symphony, Britt Festival and chamber music series.”
In 1974, Ron Kramer began building the JPR empire and became its longtime executive director. A Listeners Guild was formed in 1975; a 2,000-watt, mountaintop transmitter and many translators were added; and the station began on-air fundraisers in 1977. In 1979 it became a member of National Public Radio.
Kramer says when he arrived as a consultant, the college was thinking about getting rid of the radio station — but then-President Jim Sours asked him to do an analysis of the operation.
“Jim believed in possibilities,” Kramer recalls. “Everything I proposed to him, he said, ‘Fine, let’s do it.’ I said let’s raise the power so the entire community can hear it. We started building translators and responding to faraway people to get the signal in. He drove around to the local mountaintops with me, looking for a transmitter site. How many college presidents would do that?”
Kramer established a JPR foundation and, starting in 1997, ran both, which an Oregon University System audit later found exposed the system to liability because of the potential conflict of interest.
Kramer was terminated by Southern Oregon University in 2012 after 37 years at the helm. He sued SOU, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 sided with the university.
Longtime JPR staffer John Baxter says JPR bloomed because of “visionaries” Allen, Sours and Kramer.
“We had a region with a combination of beauty and cultural resources that attracted a lot of bright, talented, committed people,” he says.
“Without the investment of time and money of listeners who passionately wanted the service, KSOR would still be a little 10-watt station. A region gets the public radio it deserves, so we ended up with great public radio.”
JPR draws support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, local grants to its JPR Foundation and twice-yearly on-air fundraising marathons, Westhelle says. “We’re doing well; we’re strong, and we’re expanding programming.”
Its daily news, two-hour Jefferson Exchange program and bimonthly Jefferson Journal allows wide exploration of issues and voices, Westhelle says. The newsroom in April won Edward R. Murrow Awards for Hard News and Continuing Coverage for its stories on how tourism is adapting to summers of smoke and how the Carr fire affected the Redding area.
Classics host Don Matthews, a two-decade veteran of JPR, says there’s no other resource in the region to hear Beethoven and Mozart. He reports hearing local retirees caution, “Don’t ever settle in an area that doesn’t have public radio. It makes such a difference.”
JPR’s sign-on five decades ago concluded: “What you are about to hear is something new under the Southern Oregon sun, and we don’t intend to ever let it get old.”
Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at email@example.com.