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History of Television in Southern Oregon
by Ronald Kramer
|Station owner Bill Smullin hosted "Q Block" on KBES, now KOBI-TV, in the 1950s. Courtesy of KOBI|
Television was a long time coming. Radio had taken the nation, and the world, by storm in the early 1920's and it was barely in place before scientific journals and popular literature were forecasting that "radio pictures" were just around the corner. It turned out to be a very long block before that corner was turned, largely because the difference between transmitting pictures, and doing so in a practical fashion in high quality, proved to be a unexpectedly challenging.
Even though they were transmitted electronically, the earliest television transmissions used a partially mechanical camera and receiving set, somewhat like the child's toy format of drawing individual pictures on the pages of a pad and then simulating movement by flipping the pages. In 1928 a Russian emigrant, Vladimir Zworykin, working for American manufacturing interests, developed the iconoscope tube which made entirely electronic television cameras and sets practical. During the late 1920's and early 1930's advocates of "mechanical" television versus "electronic" television waged war over their respective formats not unlike the VHS and Beta combat forty years later. Various experimental television stations were constructed and NBC, in particular, made a major commitment to developing electronic television. In the late 1930's scientists and the marketplace declared the electronic system the winner and NBC signed on the nation's first regular television system on April 30, 1939. NBC then further drew attention to its undertaking by televising live the opening of the 1939 World's Fair from New York City. Rival companies, CBS and Dumont (a company which did not operate a radio network but which was active in early television) also started television systems shortly thereafter. None of these services were interconnected national networks as we now know them. Rather, they offered television programming selected areas, principally in New York.
The appetite for television was keen in the popular mind but the price of sets was high (between $200 and $600) and, just as early radio receivers, sets were awkward and cumbersome. The televisions sold prior to World War II were of a style called "projection" television. They used a very small picture tube, on the order of three inches in diameter, and aimed their picture upwards to be reflected off of a mirror located on the inside of the angled, raised flat top lid of the receiver. A magnifying lens served to enlarge the image as it was reflected on the mirror.
NBC opened its television service on a commercial basis on July 1, 1941 but Pearl Harbor sank television development, along with much of our Pacific fleet, for the duration of the conflict. If you've ever wondered why your television has no Channel 1, there was such a channel prior to the War. In 1945, when telecasting resumed, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), reassigned that frequency to other uses and, rather than obsolete the television sets already in use by renumbering the channels, Channel 1 simply disappeared from use. In 1946 manufacturers resumed set production this time without channel 1 on their sets. In the early post-World War II era, sets were no longer were of the "projection" style but used very small picture tubes, on the order of three inches in diameter, the image from which was enlarged by a sizable ground glass magnifying lens which was mounted over the picture tube if the customer wanted to purchase for the optional magnifier. Within a couple of years picture tubes grew to 7", 10" and even 12" sizes more closely approximating current viewers' expectations.
Television was extremely costly to launch and operate. Actors had to wear garish makeup, such as green lipstick, to compensate for the inadequacies of the early technology, and endure blazing hot lights of far higher temperatures than later technology required. Programming was so costly that many theorized that television would replace radio - but in an odd way. It was assumed that no one would want to program television during the day time hours because too few people were available to watch to justify the expense. So, it was thought, television stations during the day would turn off their pictures and just transmit sound and fulfill, and replace, the function of radio. In the evening hours TV would turn on its picture and telecasting would begin.
In practice television changed radio but did not replace it. And, even as expensive and cumbersome as it was, television captured the American imagination just as radio had twenty-five years before.
In 1948 the first connection of television stations together by phone cables permitted the operation of the first real television networks (although they covered only eastern parts of the country). Programs like Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theatre" made the nation stop to watch. Some movie theater marquees on Tuesday nights read: "No movie tonight. I want to watch Berle too."
Some radio stars tried to convert their programs to television with varying success. George Burns and Gracie Allen made the transition easily, as did Jack Benny and Arthur Godfrey. Fred Allen wasn't as fortunate. "Amos 'n Andy" switched, seemingly successfully, but the blackface routine of two white actors, which had been permissible and highly successful on radio, eventually drew racially based protests and caused the show's television demise. Other programs developed which were uniquely television's own. It was the era of variety programs like Sid Caesar, Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton, original drama on the "Kraft Theatre" and "Studio One," and uniquely television creations like "Today."
Television slowly snaked its way westward but federal action slowed its development. Just as early radio had seen a flood of applications to operate stations in the mid-1920's, the FCC saw a tide of TV station applications filed in 1947 and early 1948. Realizing that the available channels would soon be exhausted, in 1948 the FCC halted instituted a freeze on the construction of new stations which lasted until 1952 and effectively halted the development of television, particularly in the west. When the FCC lifted the freeze in April, 1952 it announced the formation of the UHF band of stations, to operate on channels 14 - 83. The addition of these channels to the television industry would, it was thought, avoid running out of channels and allow all parts of the country to be served. No one understood the technical and economic factors which would stultify the development and acceptance of the UHF stations.
Accepting the FCC's challenge to inaugurate UHF stations, the first commercial UHF station in the nation, KLOR, signed on in Portland on September 20, 1952. Before too long the station changed call signs to KPTV, its current name, and when Portland's first VHF station signed on in 1953, KPTV found the competition difficult and eventually moved down to VHF channel 12.
Television Comes to Medford
Oregon's first VHF station, KBES, signed on, in Medford, on August 1, 1953. It was brought into existence by William B. Smullin who already had a twenty-year history in broadcasting but whose greatest accomplishments were waiting develop in the television age. The call letters were suggested by a General Electric equipment salesman who sold Smullin the transmitting equipment. They were intended to denote that KBES would be the "Best" television and, in fact, Smullin's television station was occasionally referred to as K-BESt instead of by its call sign - practice the station may have encouraged.
Smullin, who was born in Pennsylvania but had grown up in Oregon, had taken a degree at Willamette University where he both managed and edited the University's newspaper. On graduating he remained in the newspaper field working for several years at papers in Coos Bay, Salem and Portland. In 1933, in the depths of the depression, he decided to enter radio by starting a station, KIEM, in Eureka. He parlayed it into one of the most widely respected small market stations in the nation. Having met members of the Voorhies family, longtime owners and publishers of the Grants Pass Daily Courier, in the course of his newspaper work, Smullin met with Amos Voorhies. On a handshake, they established a partnership which resulted in Smullin's starting his second radio station, KUIN in Grants Pass, with Voorhies. By 1953 and the arrival of television in southern Oregon, their partnership had flourished and they started Medford's first television station jointly as well. Smullin's broadcasting reputation had grown in the course of his founding of KIEM and KUIN. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Broadcasters, had been profiled in respected national publications, had been a major civic force in Eureka and had launched the campaign which resulted in the federal government's locating a Naval Air Station there. He had been a working broadcaster, a manager, and a broadcast owner. He had become something of a visionary as well.
Smullin's decision to construct KUIN in Grants Pass was to prove an important key to his long, successful career. At the time radio was largely a collection of individual stations. To some extent networks or large corporations owned multiple stations, in large cities, to give them substantial mass reach, but the concept of regions of economic influence, especially in the less populated areas, would not really emerge until the communication and transportation industries developed sufficiently to make these regional economic ties more apparent. Yet, Smullin decided to build a radio station in Grants Pass because it was the northern tip of the Redwood Empire in which Eureka was located. It was a successful lesson which he would repeat with astute, every-growing success throughout his career.
Launching a television station in Medford in 1953 was a logical, if daunting, move. Television was a new industry and a successful station absolutely had to have a network affiliation. Since the network service was routed along what is now the I-5 corridor, Smullin decided to begin his television ventures in Medford instead of Eureka which was too distant from the network connection point. Originally, the FCC had allocated two channels to Medford, channels 4 and 5. Because Medford's KMED Radio had a longstanding association with the NBC Radio network, and NBC had been encouraging its stations to apply for television channel 4 where possible, Smullin decided to ask for Channel 5 on the possibility that KMED might also seek to activate a television channel. Smullin didn't want to be caught in a fight for channel 4. Smullin's application for channel 5 was unopposed and he constructed a transmitter on Blackwell Hill, near Gold Hill, with a studio located at the transmitter.
Community anticipation was high. Just as long distance radio reception had occupied the attentions of local radio enthusiasts many months period to the advent of Medford's first radio station twenty-one years before, long distance television reception must have drawn some attention as well before KBES arrived. The Medford Mail Tribune reported on June 1, 1953 that two more television stations had been received on the Trowbridge and Flynn Electric Company's television set at their Court Street warehouse. On that date the company reported picking up KNGC-TV, Channel 4 in Amarillo, and KFEL, Channel 2, from Denver. Astonishingly, with a booster amplifier company officials reported picking up a New York station's test pattern also. Again, just as in the early days of radio, no one commented upon the quality of the transmissions which must have been rather hazy but indicated the intense interest in television.
For several months in advance of KBES arrival local appliance stores extensively advertised their new television set lines. Minkler's TV, on East 6th, offered the Westinghouse Deluxe, with a 21" screen, at $229.95. Johnston Stores on South Riverside offered the prestige RCA line at prices ranging from $199.95 to $550. Modern Plumbing, on North Riverside, sold the 21" Hallicrafters for $249.95. And beginning in July KBES broadcast a test pattern "so that many of you who already have your television sets can have them properly adjusted by [the] dealer who sold them to you. If your set is adjusted to the test pattern, then you will be able to get perfect reception of the KBES-TV programs." And people throughout southern Oregon actually watched the test pattern. After all, it was television. Recently, a couple told me about watching the test pattern for weeks, on a Hallicrafters set, before KBES began actual programming.
KBES signed on at 6 PM on Sunday, August 1, 1953. A studio orchestra played for the first 30 minutes and then Medford attorney Frank Van Dyke MC'd ceremonies featuring Acting Governor Eugene E. Marsh, Oregon Secretary of State Earl Newbry, Oregon Treasurer Sig Unander, local legislator Bob Root, and a host of Jackson and Josephine county officials. KBES was affiliated with the CBS network and, at the ceremony's conclusion at 7 PM, KBES broadcast its first CBS feature, the "Chrysler Medallion Theatre." Reception reports came in from Weed, Yreka, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, Bend, Eugene, Roseburg and Coos Bay.
Broadcasting was mostly from the network. Oregon didn't observe daylight time in those years and Pacific Standard Time was four hours behind the Eastern Daylight network offerings that summer. In the early days KBES signed on at 3:55 in the afternoon and broadcast until 10:35. On Tuesday and Thursday the station signed on at noon for 30 minutes and then went dark until 3:55.
Other network features that first summer included Jackie Gleason, the "Cavalcade of Sports, the situation comedy "My Friend Irma," and Liberace. Local features included the "Val Rogue Show," "Feminine Fancies," and the "Uncle Bill" show. The latter featured a deodorized skunk cavorting with the host (who was not Bill Smullin). There were rumors that the host and the skunk were on none too friendly terms.
Television was clearly a family affair in those days. Bill's wife, Rusty, did a children's program as "Aunt Polly." Smullin himself appeared on air in various ways including interviews he conducted and doing a program called "Q Block" answering listeners questions.
KBES made subsequent arrangements to carry programs from NBC, the Dumont network (before its 1955 demise) and eventually ABC. The program schedule lengthened as television matured.
Smullin pursued television's expansion in a variety of ways. Shortly after signing KBES on he built a TV station in Eureka. KBES' success would obviously be highly dependent upon the number of households which purchased television sets to receive the station's programs. Smullin pushed the sale of television sets relentlessly. In 1955 a Roseburg businessman, Harris Ellsworth, petitioned the FCC to move channel 4 from Medford to Roseburg. When the Commission complied, Smullin filed on the frequency as did owners associated with KVAL-TV, Eugene. Because it wasn't worth the fight, the KVAL interests and Smullin joined forces and split their interest in the resulting Roseburg station, KPIC, 50-50. KPIC signed on April 1, 1956. Smullin still owns half of the station.
Originally, Smullin had hoped to interest national advertisers in the Eureka-Medford combination of stations he owned but they didn't see the regional picture the way he did. Little interest developed along those lines from commercial advertisers. When W. D. Miller, of Klamath Falls, approached him about taking over a Channel 2 station there, which Miller had the FCC permit to build, Smullin bought the FCC permit, built KOTI with studios located where the old Oregon Institute of Technology was located, and signed the station on August 12, 1956. KOTI operated as a "satellite" station of KBES, carrying the same programming as its parent station but with a smaller staff than a full service station like KBES possessed.
Cable Television Brings Programming Choices
The Rogue Valley still had only one television station and KBES couldn't begin to offer the schedule of all four major networks. Cable television was just starting out. Originally, called Master Antenna Television, it began in 1949 when neighbors in Astoria pooled their funds to install an antenna high on a hill where they could pick up Portland's television stations. They ran a line down the hill from the antenna and the participating neighbors all hooked their televisions into the master antenna cable.
By the mid-1950's cable had become a fledgling industry offering access to multiple program services in communities which had no stations of their own or only one station as was the case in southern Oregon. George Mann, with movie theater interests in Klamath Falls among other places, joined Smullin in establishing a cable television system in that city. On his own Smullin purchased a semi-defunct shell of a cable system in Roseburg shortly thereafter. Then he started installing a cable system in Grants Pass. In the Fall of 1958 he was constructing a similar system in Medford. Ashland was the last community he undertook to wire for cable. "There were a lot of vacant lots in Ashland then," Smullin recalls.
The cable system was launched under the name Southern Oregon Cable and offered four channels of signals imported from Portland and the San Francisco/Sacramento/San Jose area in addition to the southern Oregon stations which were available to retransmit. Importing signals from such great distances involved installing microwave systems on many mountaintops at great expense and hardship to relay the signals. In the 1960's Smullin separated the microwave business from the cable system and launched the microwave business which had resulted as a separate venture, Pacific Teletronics.
A Second TV Station Arrives
October 1, 1960 Coos Bay's first television station, KCBY signed on channel 11. Owned and operated by KVAL, Eugene, the station served as a satellite of the Eugene station just as KPIC did in Roseburg. Unlike Roseburg, Smullin was not associated with KCBY.
Medford's second television station arrived in an interesting fashion. By this time the FCC had replaced Medford's channel 4 "lost to Roseburg," with an allocation of channel 10. It would clearly only be matter of time until someone applied to operate a station on channel 10. Typically, Smullin decided to help things along. A group of local investors had purchased KMED Radio in 1950, among them Medford physician Dwight Findley whom Smullin knew. Reasoning that KMED might as well start the second TV station, which would inevitably come to Medford, as anyone else, and perhaps believing that a second station would help the television industry grow in the region, Smullin contacted Findley and invited the KMED owners to visit KBES to discuss television. The visit occurred at night to assure secrecy. Smullin offered the use of his transmitting tower on Blackwell Hill, at what Smullin described as a give-away price of $100 per month, and advice on how to get started. Before KMED-TV signed on it had to contend with two challenges for the television channel. One came from a group of KMED's own employees, who formed a hopeful business name of TOT TV, "Tops on Ten," and the other was from Bill Hansen, the fellow who had launched KBOY radio as Medford's first non-network radio station. But, KMED prevailed and on October 3, 1961 KMED-TV signed on from a transmitter site in Smullin's Blackwell Hill facility.
With KMED-TV on scene the NBC programming, which had previously been released, in part, over KBES, shifted to KMED whose twenty-four year radio association with the network dictated that outcome. KBES remained a primary CBS affiliate and both stations picked what they wanted from the ABC Television schedule.
KMED-TV's studios were constructed on Ross Lane where the KMED radio building was enlarged for the television venture.
Somewhat surprisingly, the enormous newspaper attention devoted to KBES' 1953 arrival was almost absent when KMED-TV signed on. Only a few short newspaper announcements noted the arrival of the second station.
Smullin and Ray Johnson, KMED general manager and part owner, were good friends and, each having grown up in the radio industry, had a great deal in common. Johnson, as a youthful vaudeville performer in Montana, had first broadcast over KFDB in Grand Falls in 1937. He wound up in radio engineering working on the KMED technical staff, from which he became the radio station's general manager. Now, while Smullin eased the way for KMED-TV's birth, on the street seeking advertisers, or negotiating for programs, the stations were intense business rivals.
Television was a young "invent it each day" industry. Johnson recalls that, in seeking to manage the new station, he imported top-notch television people from throughout the nation to conduct the new station's business. "But they all had different ideas," he recalled explaining that they couldn't get along professionally. After some months, and following a sleepless night's deliberation, Johnson came into the station the next day, put his long-time radio employee Russ Jamison in charge of television programming, and fired the imported crew. "We may ruin this thing but at least we're going to do it ourselves," he told his new program director. The went on to make the station highly successful.
In the early 1960's KBES changed its call sign. In Smullin's opinion the K-Best identity had never seemed to "catch on" and the station was renamed KTVM. Both KTVM and KMED-TV wanted to enlarge their coverage. In Smullin's case, he developed transmission facilities in King Mountain, above Wolf Creek, believing that from that location he would be able to serve Douglas and southern Lane counties and have access over to the Oregon Coast. The installation was enormously expensive and complex. In Johnson's case he opted to leave Blackwell Hill to move to Mt. Ashland, a major road to which had recently been installed for the Ski park. In September, 1966 KMED-TV signed on from its new transmitter site and dramatically increased is coverage. In September, 1968 KTVM signed on from King Mountain - this time again with a new call sign - KOBI, which stood for Oregon Broadcasting Incorporated. The King Mountain site had been an enormous construction undertaking which paid off well in increased signal penetration.
Television News Comes to Southern Oregon
KBES had initiated news broadcasts during the 1950's. The initial news programing was scant and did not seem to have attracted real attention until a Smullin employee at the company's Grants Pass radio station, KUIN, took over the television news reporting assignment. Dave Allen (Borum) was apparently pretty much a one-man band news operation at KBES.
Unlike KBES, when KMED began television broadcasting it already possessed a distinguished news history in radio having, in 1957, set up the first full-scale radio news operation between Portland and San Francisco. The occasion for its launch was a seriesof widespread and devastating fires which swept southern Oregon that same year. After having organized the area's amateur "ham" radio operators into a needed informal public service and information ad hoc network to cover the event, Johnson decided that southern Oregon needed local radio news coverage. He hired Frank Pinnock, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to staff that operation. KMED-TV did not offer news programming until the hiring of Hank Henry as News Director in January, 1963, about 14 months after the station signed on. But, on his arrival, Henry inherited a working radio news operation and proceeded to set up a joint radio-tv news department which endured until the TV station was later sold. Henry was a "journalist's journalist" with excellent credentials. With a twenty-year prior broadcasting career, he came to Medford from Portland where he had worked at KGW with legendary Tom McCall, the future Oregon governor. Henry's news department consisted of himself and Frank Pinnock. Both gathering and reporting the news from six counties, Henry traveled about 45,000 miles in his first year's work.
In the days well before videotape, KBES used still film to capture picture images for transmission and both stations later used a system of Polaroid transparencies which could project a series of still transparent images which had been instantaneously developed using the Polaroid process. Next came 16 mm black and white, and later color, film for news coverage. About 1977 portable videotape equipment made possible instantaneous field recording of news material without the attendant developing and editing required in the 16 mm film process. Both stations' news departments grew continually as reporters and other staff joined the effort. What had been two or three person staffs in the 1960's became staffs of more than dozen in each news room by 1980. Public Television Comes to Southern Oregon
Just as Medford's channel 4 was moved to Roseburg, the story of public television's birth in southern Oregon also involves a channel reassignment. When the FCC developed its original table of assignments, which included channels 4 and 5 in Medford, knowledge of how the television would develop was fragmentary and the Commission made some decisions which later proved economically untenable. One of them was the assignment of channel 8 to Brookings. Even in 1993 Brookings has yet to support the establishment of an on-air television station, so the channel 8 assignment there was still languishing in the 1960's.
Public Television was born out of the earlier Educational Television effort which developed after World War II. It was spurred on by the Carnegie Commission's 1966 landmark report which called upon the federal government to launch a publicly-funded alternative to commercial television. Oregon was an early leader in Educational Television and, under the aegis of the State Department of Higher Education, put an educational television station on the air in Corvallis in 1957 and another in Portland in 1961. These stations operated under the name Oregon Educational Broadcasting (OEB). Because southern Oregon was the largest part of the state then unserved by educational television, and perhaps sensing the developing momentum in the nation's capital which would, within a year, lead to the establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and federal financial assistance for stations, OEB petitioned the FCC to reassign Channel 8 from Brookings to Medford and affirmed that, if the Commission concurred, OEB would apply to operate the channel as the third of OEB's noncommercial stations. Although the FCC agreed, no one had adequately confronted the fact that the FCC's assignment of channel 8 in Brookings had been for general commercial television use rather than as a channel "reserved" for noncommercial use. So, on channel 8's reassignment to Medford, several commercial parties applied for the frequency. These included Liberty Television of Eugene, owners of KEZI-TV there, a local group of investors assembled under the name Siskiyou Broadcasters, and the Medford Mail Tribune. The Tribune had a long history in broadcasting in the area dating all the way back to 1922. At the time of its television application, the Tribune owned and operated KYJC-AM, Medford's ABC network radio station.
After a certain amount of litigious skirmishing, state government officials felt it was unseemly to be in contest with commercial interests for channel 8, not to mention expensive, and withdraw the OEB application. The three commercial parties fought for several years with the Tribune appearing to have the upper hand in the eyes of some observers. Gerry Latham, general manager of the Tribune, recalls traveling to Washington to testify on several occasions before the Commission's administrative law judges while the hearings to decide the frequency dragged on. However, it was a time when federal sensitivity to media "concentrations of control" was growing. The U.S. Department of Justice was studying the economic effects of joint broadcasting/newspaper ownership in some cities and seemed disconcerted by the practice. The FCC had no rules prohibiting such joint ownership but the Commission was also becoming uneasy with such joint operations despite the fact that much of the radio industry had been founded by newspaper-radio combinations forty years before. Gerry Latham recalls that a particular federal court case was decided which found that such combinations violated the federal antitrust statutes. Clearly, the Tribune would not prevail in light of this court decision and it withdrew its application. Siskiyou Broadcasters was economically outgunned and sold its interest in its application to Liberty which, on securing the frequency, demurred in construction. Medford seemed, after all, a small community to have a third commercial television station. At that point Smullin and Ray Johnson stepped in and offered to give funds to a newly formed nonprofit corporation, Southern Oregon Education Company (SOEC), for the purpose of SOEC's purchase of the channel 8 construction permit from Liberty and operating a public television station on the channel. A purchase price of $48,000 was agreed upon and the two commercial stations provided the funding along with some commitments to assist in getting the new public station on the air by providing used equipment and some financing.
In some quarters the participation of the two commercial stations in the buyout of the Liberty permit was controversial in some quarters. Some of the community's principal figures felt that the two commercial stations had staved off a competitor and that the public interest had been somewhat abused in the process. The federal government had, by this time, launched both the CPB and a related program to assist public television stations in purchasing start-up equipment. SOEC invested several years' effort in prosecuting applications before the latter agency, the Educational Broadcasting Facilities Program in what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, trying to secure cameras, switchers and related studio equipment to go with the transmitter which Smullin had provided. It would seem that the involvement of the two commercial stations made HEW officials uneasy. Certainly, when there are many more applications for funds than can be approved, it is easy to pass over an application about which some question has been raised. HEW declined, in several successive years, to help build the new station. Finally, with the FCC permit for channel 8 nearing expiration, the SOEC board decided to limp onto the air with whatever they could beg or borrow instead of with better studio equipment which they had hoped to acquire with federal assistance. To help SOEC implement this strategy both Smullin and Johnson's stations had committed to a making cash payments to SOEC of $50,000 when channel 8 actually signed on.
Channel 8 began broadcasting on January 17, 1977 after a twelve year struggle following OEB's 1965 petition to move channel 8 to Medford. The station used the call letters KSYS, referring to the Siskiyou mountain range, and much of its transmitter facility on King Mountain was donated by Smullin including the original Blackwell Hill KBES transmitter which now brought KSYS on the air. KSYS is still using that 1953-era transmitter.
KSYS's birth was difficult and the station's failure to secure the HEW grant it had sought hobbled the station's fundraising and programming capabilities for many years to come. Smullin and Johnson continued to assist KSYS for quite some time, Smullin even serving as a technical advisor to the KSYS board. To this day many of the transmitter and translator sites used by KSYS benefit from very low cost lease arrangements, far below prevailing market prices, which Smullin extended to the station over the years of its development.
Perhaps because of the difficulty of its birthing process, and because all energy was focused on getting the new station on the air with scant resources, the station made little public hoopla over its own arrival. The Medford Mail Tribune ran a series of promotional stills on the cover of its weekend Tempo magazine with the caption "And now there are three..." (referring to television stations). KSYS' first general manager was quoted in the single story the paper ran about the sign on as saying "telephone response to the initial broadcast was large. 'We've had great response as far as the general public is concerned, congratulating us and thanking us for going on.'" Otherwise, KSYS entered the local television scene somewhat quietly.
On balance there are those who felt that the community was deprived of the arrival of a third commercial channel, and full-time ABC programming, by KSYS' entry and that is true. However, there were then no remaining VHF frequencies assigned to Medford on which a public station might have later been launched if channel 8 had gone commercial. To this day no one has successfully put a UHF full service television station on the air in the mountainous terrain of the Rogue Valley. UHF has higher operating costs and more problematic transmission problems in this topography than do VHF stations which would have certainly caused enormous difficulty in starting a public television station in this region on a UHF channel. Had it not been for the intervention and assistance of Smullin and Johnson in easing KSYS' way, southern Oregon might well have waited a great many years to have public television service.
ABC Finally Comes to Medford
In 1978 the FCC took the highly unusual step of allocating a fourth VHF channel 12, to Medford, even though no one had asked the Commission take such action, shoe-horning the frequency into the spectrum. Some believed it was the Commission's way of responding to the evolution of Channel 8 from a commercial station to a public station and assuring that Medford would have service from all three commercial networks. After several months a religious broadcasting organization, the Christian Broadcasting Company, headquartered in Rogue River, applied for the frequency. CBC intended to build a full-time religious station on channel 12 and began raising public funds to construct such a station. In the meantime CBC began programming a channel on the Rogue River cable system as a preliminary step to securing channel 12. When no other parties stepped forward to apply for the frequency, in 1979 a local group of investors banded together under the name Sunshine Television for the purpose of applying for a station which would be operated as a regular commercial station with ABC programming. Headed by Dunbar Carpenter, and this writer, the local group included a variety of local parties. Eventually, a third application was filed by broadcast interests headquartered in New York state.
As the FCC hearings process to determine which of the three applications should be granted dragged on, Sunshine purchased the interest of the CBC for $210,000 in 1981. Between Sunshine and the other applicant a deal was discussed in which one party would buy out the other for a half-million dollars. After various permutations, Sunshine purchased the interests of the other applicant for that sum and Sunshine wound up with Channel 12. The station began construction of a new studio plant on Knutson Drive and signed KDRV on February 26, 1984. The owners hired Keith Lollis, a former Portland and Seattle general manager, to manage KDRV. The new studios weren't completed, and because live local programming not possible from the temporary facilities which had been put together next door to the studio building under construction, Lollis spoke for the station owners when KDRV signed on, at 6 PM on a Sunday evening, in a brief five minutes recorded statement in which he committed KDRV to quality programming and committed community service. Then KDRV offered a movie, "The Great Train Robbery," and joined ABC for the first time at 8 PM to carry the mini-series "Lace." The next morning ABC's David Hartman saluted the network's newest affiliate on the "Good Morning America." KDRV finished its studio building late in 1984 and inaugurated local news and other local programming late in 1985. Subsequently, the local owners sold the station to a broadcast group owner from the southeastern U.S. More recently, it was again sold KEZI-TV, Eugene.
Sales and Changes
Sensitivity over the media concentration of control issues which had cost the Medford Mail Tribune its opportunity to pursue ownership of Channel 8 in the 1960's, continued to heighten. Because of the scope of Bill Smullin's communication holdings, which had grown to include cable systems in Oregon and Washington, a television station in Redding, the microwave systems and the other broadcast properties he had built up over the years, Smullin was under particular scrutiny and pressure to divest some portion of his holdings was growing. In the August 25, 1980 issue of the broadcasting industry's most influential trade publication, Broadcasting Magazine, Smullin ran a large and very personal ad headed "To Whom It May Concern." After sketching the history of his pioneering development of radio and television in the region, he concluded:
Now because of the latest FCC edict, grandfathering of cable and TV interests in the same market appears to be out the window, and if so, then either Channel 2 - Klamath Falls and Channel 5 - Medford: or our cable systems in Oregon must be sold.
Smullin signed the ad: "Personal to Bill Smullin, Chairman, Government Dictated Divestiture."
If any non-aliens want to buy either Channel 5, Medford or Channel 2, Klamath Falls, Oregon, they can write to me....
Smullin apparently wrote the ad largely to let the FCC know how he felt about the forced sale. He had worked feverishly for most of his career to build television and cable, generally well before anyone else particularly much wanted to do so. He resented the forced sale and felt it didn't accomplish any discernible public purpose. He sold his cable systems in southern Oregon to McCaw Communications for what was reported to be at the time the highest per subscriber sale price ever paid for a cable system in the U.S. McCaw operated the systems as McCaw Cablevision for several years until a change in corporate strategy dictated a sale and then sold the systems to Jack Kent Cooke's Cooke Cablevision. Around 1991 Cooke sold the systems to the nation's largest cable operator, TCI.
Just as Smullin was feeling pressure to divest portions of his holdings, Radio Medford Inc., owner of KMED-AM-FM-TV, was feeling similar pressure for a different reason. The company apparently wished to sell portions of its holdings and, because of the new sensitivity to concentrations of media ownership, the grandfathered ownership of an AM-FM-TV combination in a single market could not be transferred to a new buyer. For Radio Medford to sell either of its radio properties and its television station would require selling those stations to different buyers. Around 1978 KMED-AM was sold to Gary and Cheri Hawke, broadcasters with interests in other stations in the region. In 1979 KMED-TV was sold to Freedom Communications, a publishing company with newspapers across the nation. Radio Medford retained its ownership of the FM station, KTMT. While Freedom later purchased other television stations, the acquisition of KMED-TV gave the company its first television station. Concurrent with the sale the call sign of the TV station was changed to KTVL which is still owned by Freedom Communications.
Television had long been a locally owned enterprise in southern Oregon and had real "family affair" characteristics. Even with some ownership changes in progress, the family nature of the businesses not only continued but entered new generations. On January 1, 1985 Bill Smullin turned over the presidency of his company to his daughter, Patricia. Patsy, as she is more frequently known, had entered the broadcasting business through the company's cable division where she had initially, as a college student, sold cable hookups door-to-door. Gradually, she rose to supervise the programming of the cable system's channel selections, and to manage the cable company prior to its sale, before taking over management of the entire collection of stations and related media businesses, which Bill Smullin had accumulated, in 1985.
At Radio Medford, Ray Johnson, who had been with KMED-AM since 1948 and an owner of Radio Medford for almost as many years, turned over the presidency of the radio properties surviving the sale of KMED-AM and KMED-TV, under the corporate name Sierra Cascade, to his son, Bob, who had grown up in broadcasting. While Ray retains an active interest in the company, Bob Johnson has managed KTMT and its sister stations for over ten years.
Klamath Falls and Roseburg Get More Television
Just as KOBI had installed a satellite station, KOTI, in Klamath Falls in 1956, other Medford-based stations also felt the need to install facilities there. In March, 1989 KSYS replaced its Klamath Falls low power translator with a full satellite station, KFTS, operating on Channel 22. On October 17 of the same year KDRV inaugurated service over its Klamath Falls satellite station, KDKF, Channel 31. In 1991 the same factors which caused these Klamath Falls satellites to be constructed led Eugene's newest television station, KMTR, a UHF station carrying NBC programming, to install a satellite station in Roseburg, KMTZ, Channel 23.
When television first came to Medford it was technically youthful and that primitive technical nature limited its ability to cover the community's own stories. The power of television is unmatched for its potent and immediate imagery and the contact with the world in which we live. Television's entertainment programming continues to extensively reflect entertainment from national sources. In addition to multiplying the range of such entertainment programming choices, however, the story of television's growth in southern Oregon is really the tale of the industry's enormous development of its commitment and capacity to reflect southern Oregon's own life to the people who live here and the determination of Smullin and Johnson, and those who followed, to strengthen the community by doing so. On the eve of KBES' sign on in 1953 the RCA Victor company published an open letter to the citizens of southern Oregon in a Medford Mail Tribune ad. It letter read:
"Television offers us a chance to weave a bond of peace and brotherhood stronger than any the world has ever known. For when people can see each other at work and play, no barriers of language and ideology can destroy that essential human understanding that all people have."
It is not uncommon to hear television programming criticized. Like any human endeavor, it is imperfect and, in part, also reflects our own imperfections. But, founded the 1953 winds of the McCarthy era, television seems to have noticeably succeeded in realizing portions of RCA's prophecy.