Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pioneer Mikes: A History of Radio and Television in Oregon
By Ronald Kramer

Published by Western States Museum of Broadcasting and JPR Foundation
Order via www.ijpr.org or 541-552-6301

470 pages $26.95 softcover
300 illustrations, index, selected bibliography

Just in time for the holidays comes a nostalgic look at broadcasting in the Beaver State (that’s Oregon for you non-Northwesterners) called Pioneer Mikes. The beautifully-designed book was written by Ronald Kramer and published by a consortium that includes Kramer’s nascent Western States Museum of Broadcasting in Ashland, Oregon.

The danger in regional broadcasting histories is that they can all start to sound the same—early amateur experimenters playing phonographs beget department store and newspaper stations featuring live music; frequency battles create chaos as competing stations jam each other’s signals; the Radio Act of 1927 remedies some of the most pressing issues; NBC and CBS begin to affiliate with local stations and radio becomes a truly national medium.

Fortunately, Kramer has been so thorough in his research, he’s teased out dozens of stories of both radio and TV broadcasting that set Oregon’s history apart—such as the devastating 1943 KEX-KGW studio fire (that, in spite of the catastrophic damage, kept the stations off the air for only 12 minutes); how a protozoic cable system brought Seattle TV programs to Astoria in the late 1940s; and the toppling of the KGW-TV tower during the 1962 Columbus Day Storm.

Kramer has also gone so wide and deep (with specific staffing, licensing and ownership details for seemingly every radio and TV station that ever operated in the state), that I decided to put Pioneer Mikes to the test. I spent a summer in Southern Oregon’s Rogue River Valley 20 years ago, and listened to daytime-only station KAJO from nearby Grants Pass nearly every day. As a city boy, I was enthralled with KAJO’s folksy birthday announcements and on-air garage sales. Sure enough, page 342 of Pioneer Mikes tells me that KAJO signed on back on August 15, 1957, and that the station is still owned by its founders, the Wilson family.

Further, the perspective Kramer brings to Pioneer Mikes on local broadcasting—particularly regarding the influence of the national networks and how they managed to physically connect to Oregon, Washington and California—is very clearly West Coast. As regular readers of I STILL LOVE RADIO know from previous posts, this is a rarity in any kind of writing about radio history. Kramer appreciates the significance of time zone differences between the West Coast and network studios in New York, and the importance of the many regional networks (some of which preceded the wires which finally connected the West Coast to NBC and CBS).

In addition to encyclopedic details of call-letters, frequencies, sign-on and sign-off dates, Pioneer Mikes is also lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photos and pieces of radio station ephemera. From the image credits, it’s clear that the Western States Museum of Broadcasting is in possession of a pretty cool collection of priceless material.

My only complaint with Pioneer Mikes is that some of Kramer’s research and writing on the broad national stories and issues feels a little cursory, resulting in some muddled though, admittedly, minor facts. For instance, H.V. Kaltenborn’s famous “Munich Crisis” broadcasts in 1938 were for CBS, not for NBC (Kaltenborn moved to NBC in 1940); and Edward Noble, who purchased from NBC the radio network that became ABC, made his fortune with Life Savers, not Wrigley’s Gum (though Life Savers became part of Wrigley's in 2004).

For anyone who’s ever spent time listening to or watching Oregon media, Pioneer Mikes is a great way to learn more about the people and businesses who made it all happen—even if you’ve never listened to KAJO.

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