Local leaders recommend separating JPR from SOU

A rift between Jefferson Public Radio and Southern Oregon University has prompted some community leaders to push for severing the 40-year relationship.

"If the university system can't play nice, then there is no other choice," said Anne Root, who is on the SOU Foundation board and is a local businesswoman. "They need to put it back the way it was and get their paws off of it."

Root and other local officials have expressed dismay at what they see as SOU and the university system attempting to seize JPR's assets and push its fundraising JPR Foundation out of the picture.

Root called the move an "asset grab."

"I think that it's someone at a very high level in the state who is cherry-picking an asset," she said.

SOU wants to consolidate the assets of JPR and its foundation, including FCC licenses and radio transmission towers, under the umbrella of a new foundation. The new board would be made up of seven directors appointed by SOU, six from community colleges and four from the current foundation.

The JPR Foundation would retain ownership of the Holly Theatre and Jefferson Square, a 10th Street project in Medford that would become JPR's new home. Fundraising for the two projects has been undermined by the growing tensions between JPR and SOU, foundation officials have said.

After more than a year attempting to mediate, JPR and SOU have found themselves further apart. SOU, with the backing of the Oregon University System Chancellor's Office, threatened JPR Foundation board members with personal lawsuits.

SOU backed off from threats to foundation board members after Gov. John Kitzhaber intervened, calling for a 90-day, cooling-off period.

Root said a university system audit that referred to a potential conflict between fundraising efforts by JPR and SOU was a "red herring."

She said there was nothing in the university system audit that would point to the necessity of ousting Ron Kramer from his position as executive director of JPR. SOU terminated Kramer effective June 30.

"They're destroying people's lives, like Ron Kramer," she said. "He built something that is being dismantled before his very eyes."

If anything, the interference by the Chancellor's Office and SOU will likely have more impact on the university's own fundraising efforts, Root said.

Patsy Smullin, owner and president of California Oregon Broadcasting Inc., resigned from the SOU Foundation board but said Tuesday it wasn't because of the JPR controversy. She wouldn't comment on her reasons.

Root, who was president of the SOU board for three years, said she will stay on to help mend the damage from the controversy.

"We are hosed by our messaging out there," she said. "We've got to turn this around and not lose our community support."

Root said she doesn't think JPR's opening of the Holly Theatre will be detrimental to the Craterian Theater as Craterian supporters have maintained. She said the wine industry benefits from healthy competition that has helped put the Rogue Valley on the map among wine aficionados.

"A little competition is good," she said.

Both Root and Sen. Alan Bates, who intervened in the dispute along with the governor, are worried about the Holly Theatre project and Jefferson Square.

Bates also is calling for JPR's separation from SOU.

"I thought it would be best for them to separate," said Bates, a Medford Democrat. "I'm afraid if this keeps up too long, it will poison the well for everyone."

Bates said he would like the subject of separation to be front and center in the new round of mediation sessions between the JPR Foundation and SOU.

"How these parties could have done a worse job of mediating — I don't know," Bates said.

Bates said JPR needs radio transmitters and FCC licenses to continue serving an area that stretches from Mendocino, Calif., to Eugene.

He said there has to be a way for the university to transfer assets related to the radio station to keep it functioning. The university owns 14 of the radio stations, while JPR owns eight.

Bates said the continued support of the JPR Foundation is crucial to the success of the radio station.

Bates said a transition period would need to be developed so JPR, which currently runs its radio operations at SOU, could find itself on sure footing and see the two Medford projects to their completion.

Bates said he foresees JPR playing a greater role in offering internships and educational programs to students at both Rogue Community College and SOU, which would be a few blocks from the Jefferson Square project in Medford.

He also fears the ongoing dispute will harm fundraising efforts of both the JPR Foundation and the SOU Foundation.

Susan Hammer, the Portland mediator who will lead the negotiations between SOU and JPR, said she couldn't respond to any questions.

"For the mediation to be successful, everything needs to be confidential," she said.

SOU spokesman Jim Beaver said he would prefer to respect the governor's cooling-off period and not make any comments on the potential direction of the mediation efforts.

Steve Nelson, president of the JPR Foundation board, said he's hopeful the mediation efforts steer the discussion toward separating SOU from JPR, leaving the radio station with all the assets it needs to serve the public.

"We are grateful that the public has kindled the notion that SOU should be out of the radio business," Nelson said.

Nelson cited a similar fracas between Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Department of Higher Education.

The dispute was resolved by the Oregon Legislature in 1979, when the Oregon Commission on Public Broadcasting was established. Two years later, OPB became an independent state agency. In 1993, it became a private, nonprofit corporation, with financial support from the state, according to OPB's website.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

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