JPR turns 40

Jefferson Public Radio this week celebrates 40 years of growth, from a student-run radio station with a 10-watt transmitter to a public broadcasting empire serving a million listeners over 70,000 square miles.

Born in 1969 as KSOR in the basement of then-Southern Oregon College, today JPR broadcasts classical and jazz music, National Public Radio news and national programs such as "Prairie Home Companion" and "This American Life" from Eugene to Redding, Calif., from Lakeview to the Oregon Coast.

"It's been a huge influence," said John Baxter, who was program director for nearly 20 years. "It always impressed me how people in remote areas were absolutely desperate for some contact with the world at large and found it in JPR, but still didn't have to give up the solitude of the rural areas."

To grow, KSOR put up dozens of translators on remote mountaintops to reach countless hidden valleys. It added new stations, started its fundraising marathons in 1977 and lobbied for funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Executive Director Ron Kramer, an ABC news and sports director from Hollywood, came to KSOR in 1974 as a consultant on what to do with the struggling campus radio station. He gave SOC President James Sours several options, including abandoning the effort altogether.

Sours said, "Go for the Cadillac option."

"I was flabbergasted," recalled Kramer, who expected to get back to Hollywood but instead found himself in 1977 putting a 2,000-watt translator, in stereo, on top of Mount Baldy east of Phoenix. He also added translators in Grants Pass, Cave Junction, Klamath Falls and Yreka, Calif., airing live shows and taped National Public Radio programs.

JPR blossomed when Kramer secured grants to buy 18 new translators, including some solar-powered ones still in operation today.

"That really changed things," said Kramer, noting that it allowed extension of the signal to the coast and Klamath, Douglas, Siskiyou and Del Norte counties.

"We became the number one public radio network in the country," he said. It didn't happen out of any dreams of empire, he added, but because "we just set out to solve problems about, how do we serve all these people who want to hear it?"

In 1986, KSOR moved its transmitter to King Mountain and boosted its power to 35,000 watts. More stations were added. In 1989, on its 20th anniversary, the station changed its name to JPR. In the mid-1990s, it opened its Redding studio and started Internet service in Ashland with Jeffnet.

JPR became the blueprint for the expansion of public radio networks, especially those faced with rugged, vast terrain, Kramer said.

"It was the fair-haired golden boy, the textbook case of how this was supposed to work," Kramer said. "Everything we needed to do got funded. We got big and significant enough that people started paying attention. They didn't know how to describe us — a small big station or a big small station."

Associate Director Paul Westhelle, a veteran of 20 years with JPR, said, "It wasn't an empire with Ron sitting in the middle. It was very organic the way it developed. People came out in remote communities to say they'd do bake sales to raise the matching funds."

Above all, Kramer said, success arose from the nature of the people in Ashland and the mythical State of Jefferson, the kind who would write funding for the City Band into the Ashland City Charter.

"When I first got here and saw that — and that Ashland had the first lending library in the state — I said, 'This is a community that prizes what I prize,' " Kramer said. "Ashland gave breath and life to this."

"JPR is one of those organizations that has hypnotic, mutating, multi-dimensional qualities," said producer-host Keith Henty, who joined the staff in 1989. "It's usually jamming and flowing with multiple streams of old and new music and ideas and people — staff, volunteers, community folks — circulating in and out and colliding in weird and wonderful ways."

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