Public Radio Paradise  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 2003

Public Radio Paradise   

Welcome to the mythical state of Jefferson, a swath of southern Oregon and northern California that once tried to secede from the U.S. and is home to Jefferson Public Radio, the nation’s largest regional public radio broadcaster.

By James V. Risser
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, James V. Risser is retired director of Stanford's Knight Fellowships. He lives in San Francisco.      


It's 8 o'clock on a crisp winter morning in the mythical state of Jefferson, and public radio devotees in the small city of Ashland, Oregon, start their day with a gratifying array of program choices.

One station is broadcasting National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," with the latest on the Iraq war/no war debate.

At the same time, available on a second public station is the two-hour "Jefferson Exchange," featuring a lively discussion with three state legislators on a pending Oregon ballot measure to raise taxes and relieve a state budget crisis.

And yet a third station fills the airwaves with the strains of Arriaga's "Symphony in D Major" on its "First Concert" program.

All three stations emanate from the basement of Central Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus in Ashland, population 20,000, nestled in the Rogue River Valley among the Siskiyou Mountains. There, a warren of offices and tiny studios comprises the growing network known as Jefferson Public Radio, the largest regional public radio broadcaster in the nation.

JPR claims as its territory the 60,000 square-mile area of southern Oregon and far-northern California that once tried to secede from the U.S. and still calls itself, only partly in jest, the state of Jefferson. Over 34 years, JPR has turned itself from a 10-watt student training enterprise into a network of 19 stations and 32 low-power translators, which carry the stations' signals to hard-to-reach places. They blanket a region of small cities, coastal and mountain towns, and lots of agricultural land that is home to 700,000 people, including farmers who regularly listen to JPR's weekly opera broadcasts in their air-conditioned tractors.

"We hold more broadcast licenses than any public radio entity in the country and cover more territory," says Executive Director Ron Kramer, an outspoken and visionary leader who sees JPR's role as "probing deeply into the political, social, economic and environmental issues that are common to the region we serve."

That, plus providing cultural programming ranging from pop music and jazz to symphonies and opera, distributing a monthly magazine and listener guide, publishing books (two so far and a third under way), running an interactive Web site, buying and renovating an Art Deco theater, and laying plans for a $10 million museum on the history of broadcasting in the West that also will house new JPR studios.

"JPR has demonstrated a very strong commitment to public service," says Jon Schwartz, general manager of Wyoming Public Radio and immediate past chairman of NPR's board of directors. "It's an admirable institution, and the people in that area are fortunate to be served by it."

And those residents are committed to JPR. The network's budget is more than $2 million, $700,000 of it donated by nearly 8,600 members. Last year, $172,000 came from residents of Ashland, a sophisticated town that houses not only SOU but also the nation's largest professional regional theater operation, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

That's more than $8 for every man, woman and child in Ashland, notes Associate Director Paul Westhelle, "a remarkable response by national standards." Some 200 commercial "underwriters" chip in about $500,000 a year and in return have their businesses described on the air in brief, low-key announcements. The underwriters range from the establishment (doctors, lawyers, banks, insurance agents) to the more eclectic (music shops, spas, galleries, martial arts studios). The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the state of Oregon, through SOU, also contribute.

The result would be the envy of any big city. "It's relatively unique for what is partly a rural area to have this level of public radio service," says Karen Smith, an admiring listener and the director of the region's 18-mile-long Bear Creek Greenway, a county park.

Annie Hoy, who served as JPR's first news director, from 1986 to 1994, describes the relationship between residents and radio this way: "This is an area with more deer and rattlesnakes than people. The people are here for the quality of life, but they want to keep in touch with the world, and they've been willing to fork over money to support JPR. It's the tie that binds the region together."

JPR's news programming is more varied than public radio listeners in many major metropolitan areas typically find. The classical music offerings, with a morning "First Concert," the afternoon "Siskiyou Music Hall" and several weekly shows, put many large urban public stations to shame.

An estimated 75,000 listeners weekly tune in to one of three different JPR services--Classics and News, Rhythm and News, or News and Information. Each programming stream carries some standard NPR offerings, like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," and such public radio staples as "Car Talk" and "A Prairie Home Companion." But each also provides its own distinct news, culture and music line-up.

Five days a week, JPR produces a half-hour newsmagazine called "The Jefferson Daily," with regional news, interviews and commentaries. Four years running, the program has won either first or second place from Public Radio News Directors Inc. for best daily news program in the small-news-department category.

"As It Was," a series devoted to the history of the region, airs five days a week, and JPR has collected in a book some of local historian Carol Barrett's two-and-a-half-minute scripts, which number more than 1,200 over the past decade. JPR has also published "Nature Notes," regular environmental commentaries by former biology professor Frank Lang.

Former Oregon Democratic Congressman Les AuCoin, who served nine terms in the U.S. House and now teaches political science at SOU, contributes on-air commentaries and writes for JPR's "Jefferson Monthly" magazine. In recent articles and broadcasts, which are also posted on the JPR Web site (www.jeffnet.org), AuCoin has questioned U.S. plans for military action against Iraq and criticized President Bush for being too solicitous of the timber industry.

About half of the 40-page Jefferson Monthly magazine is devoted to JPR radio content, the rest to stories and columns about the region. The cover story of the January issue, for example, analyzed the controversy over the best ways to cope with forest fires, which devastated parts of Oregon last summer. "Most stations have abandoned even publishing a program schedule," says Kramer. "Very few stations now publish a true magazine. I believe it's an important element of who we are to our members."

Though the network provides a substantial amount of local news, its full-time editorial staff is as small as it gets: one. Lucy Edwards, who succeeded news director Hoy, is proud of JPR's "commitment to local and regional news coverage," even though the burden of being a one-person paid news staff eventually contributed to her leaving last October, after seven years.

Hoy is sympathetic to Edwards' decision to step down, saying, "It really is an impossible job to do by yourself and to fulfill Ron's vision." One sign of the thinness of the news staff is that the early-morning newscasts on the Classics and News, and Jazz and News, services are presented by the host of the classical music program, not by a trained news person. Hoy says JPR should add at least one staffer to help build "a professional news staff" and to forge a stronger link to NPR by supplying more frequent reports to the national network.

However, Kramer, praised by Hoy as someone "who thinks about things way before anyone else," is not convinced that JPR needs a larger news staff. But, he says, "We started regional news in 1986, and I still consider it a work in progress." The entire full-time JPR staff, which Kramer calls "extraordinarily dedicated," numbers 19. Liam Moriarty, a Seattle-area freelancer, is filling in as news director during the search for a permanent one.

How is the small staff able to produce news? Edwards trained and creatively used volunteers, long a mainstay of JPR operations. One, Allison Zigich, an SOU student, in 1999 won a $5,000 Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for Excellence in Reporting on Drug and Alcohol Problems. Her winning piece, "Victim's Impact," used the voices and stories of survivors of drunk-driving accidents to educate listeners about the devastating effects of driving under the influence. Zigich's company as winners that year were the New York Times, the Kansas City Star and prominent Chicago station WBBM-TV.

Last year, as a 500,000-acre forested swath of southwest Oregon burned for weeks, another SOU student, Keirsten Morris, covered the fire, and NPR picked up portions of her reports.

"If JPR weren't here, just think what would be missing," says Medford, Oregon, financial consultant Steven Nelson, president of the JPR Listeners Guild, a tax-exempt foundation affiliated with SOU. Nelson's board has raised money and worked to forge "a very positive relationship with the university," which houses JPR and employs its staff. The board has not blanched at Kramer's frequent public critiques of the Federal Communications Commission and, occasionally, of NPR.

While he now feels NPR has given more attention to the problem, Kramer told the Wall Street Journal in 2001 that "my colleagues at NPR in Washington have been asleep at the switch" in failing to protect weak-power public radio stations from being bumped off the air by full-power radio stations, particularly religious broadcasters. And, Kramer wrote in one of his regular "Tuned In" columns in Jefferson Monthly, the FCC itself, in awarding frequencies to competing applicants, "has entirely abandoned any interest in, or capability of, interpreting the statutory standard against which all of its decisions legally must be measured, serving the 'public interest, convenience and necessity.' "

"The FCC knows Ron Kramer intimately," Nelson says with a smile.

There's universal agreement that the passionate Kramer is the force behind JPR's success. A Cleveland native who attended Northwestern University, he started a broadcast program at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, then came to Ashland in 1974 as a consultant to help SOU decide whether to expand its tiny station, KSOR, or drop it. Kramer secured funding from the federal government and got a new, more powerful transmitter. KSOR went from 10 watts to 2,000, then to 35,000 in 1986 and JPR's flagship. As other towns hard to reach with a signal in the area's mountainous terrain clamored for the station's service, Kramer had a series of specially designed translators installed to carry the signal to them. By the end of the 1980s, JPR had 34 such translators, the largest public radio translator network in the country.

It's those weak-power translators that others, mainly American Family Radio and its Christian programming, have sometimes been able to supplant with full-power stations. A JPR translator in Grants Pass, Oregon, was knocked off the air in just that way, angering many in that community and leading Kramer to preempt similar moves by starting to convert many of the JPR translators to regular stations. JPR also is in court, along with NPR, challenging the FCC's method of assigning radio frequencies on grounds that it unfairly favors commercial broadcasters.

Kramer, 58, is somewhat of a romantic about radio. "I like the majesty and simplicity of purpose that people saw in early radio and television," he says. "They thought it would help create a utopia." On his office wall is a collection of framed sheet music about the glories of radio--songs like "I Wish There Was a Wireless to Heaven." But Kramer sees commercial broadcasting today as too often neglecting content quality in favor of technique.

JPR, by contrast, frequently reminds its listeners that it is dedicated to "stimulating the thoughtful exchange of information and ideas among the people of our region since 1969." As the radio network grew in the 1970s and '80s, its coverage area began to match the region known historically as the state of Jefferson. In 1989, it adopted the name Jefferson Public Radio, and JPR boasts that it serves the citizens of "the mythical state of Jefferson."

A Jefferson Territory existed in the early 1800s, and there had been a serious attempt in the 1850s to get Congress to authorize formation of a state of Jefferson in what is now southern Oregon. But it died when Oregon became a state in 1859. Since then, efforts on behalf of a state of Jefferson "have been largely tongue-in-cheek," according to a long and amusing account on JPR's Web site. But such efforts flowed from a genuine resentment in southern Oregon and northern California that the area's needs were often ignored by their respective state capitals of Salem and Sacramento. In late 1941, poor highway conditions touched off a new rebellion in which residents blocked roads, collected tolls and issued a proclamation that read, in part, "this state has seceded from California and Oregon this Thursday, Nov. 27, 1941. Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice."

A few days later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, World War II began, and the Jeffersonian uprising subsided. But the colorful episode had captured the imagination of the news media, and Stanton Delaplane of the San Francisco Chronicle won a 1942 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of it.

Today, says Kramer, "the state of Jefferson is a state of mind as opposed to a political movement." But, he says, the "concept fairly characterizes the great number of economic, social, ecological and cultural characteristics common to the people of the region."

The "state" is diverse politically, with a mixture of conservatives and liberals. Many share the Westerner's common disdain of government and politics. "Politicians and diapers need to be changed often for the same reason," reads one bumper sticker. And many also share a desire to hang on to the landscape that draws both residents and tourists to an area that stretches from the stunning Oregon coast to ethereal Crater Lake and down to California's towering Mt. Shasta.

The network obviously can't cover the whole region adequately, says ex-News Director Edwards. So it covers issues and concepts, rather than events. Edwards says JPR specializes in "stories on resources, the environment, on government actions and so forth, often in historical context and tied to the values of the people who live here."

JPR, like public radio generally, sometimes gets labeled with the liberal tag, a charge that may gain some credence from AuCoin's commentaries and from statements like that of Jeff Golden, host of "The Jefferson Exchange," who told listeners that Bush's Oregon speech on forest fires and timber laws last year was "pretty empty" of content. But Edwards disputes any bias and says that while she was news director, "what we've strived for is balance over time." The "Jefferson Daily" broadcast seems careful to present opposing views on controversial issues. When one listener wrote to the Mail-Tribune in nearby Medford last August denouncing JPR as lacking balance, listeners rose to its defense. Steve Pierce of Ashland wrote that "JPR is the balance," presenting "superb journalism hour after hour" and "informative hard-hitting analysis" lacking on commercial radio and television.

It's unclear whether JPR can continue to grow and still do solid regional news coverage. It recently added a station in Eugene, Oregon, well north of the state of Jefferson, and another in Mendocino on the California coast. That's also outside the "state," but the station was a gift to JPR and too good to pass up. JPR got back on the air in Grants Pass, Oregon, and there are plans for a new AM station in Redding, California.

As JPR expands, Kramer is wrestling with a cutback in support from the state, which has trimmed its education budget. That affects SOU and is costing JPR about $35,000 this fiscal year. Kramer is coping with the cuts by deferring purchase of some equipment and stepping up fundraising.

Despite the cuts, the university has been, in the view of Associate Director Paul Westhelle, "over time a model licensee." University officials understand JPR's mission and help when opportunities arise. But they don't micromanage or put the arm on JPR to do favorable stories about SOU people, as happens at some academia-based stations, Westhelle says.

JPR is not resting on its accomplishments or letting budget cuts slow it down. The JPR Foundation purchased and is restoring, at a cost of $3.5 million, the Cascade Theatre, a closed 1935 Art Deco movie theater in Redding, near the southern edge of JPR's broadcast area. When it's completed this autumn, the foundation expects to use the theater at least 70 times a year for concerts and other events and, according to Westhelle, to break even financially. In addition, it houses JPR's only non-Ashland studios.

But what most excites Kramer these days is his dream to build in Ashland a museum of broadcasting in the West. It will sit on campus land provided by SOU, cost about $10 million and house JPR's studios, replacing the crowded hodgepodge in Central Hall. The Listeners Guild is raising the money, says its president, Steven Nelson. "We'll go to listeners and to people who care about broadcasting. It will be a huge challenge, but I think we're up to it."

Until the museum effort begins in earnest late this year, Kramer is busy writing, in cooperation with the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, a book on the history of broadcasting in the state, to be published in 2004. What drives him is a conviction that "broadcasting is a high responsibility" and that JPR should not "simply be 'that Ashland station.' " In the 1980s "we changed from a local radio station to a regional radio service. We've felt that our mission is to program from the communities, not just into them."

Now, with the variety of programming, the books, the Web site, the theater and the future museum, "We're a nonprofit communication organization, rather than just a radio service," says Kramer.

And he's adamant that JPR has had a crucial and positive impact on the state of Jefferson. "We believe we have helped elevate the region."

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