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Oregon Trails: Medford Radio

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MEDFORD, Ore. – This year, 2012, marks the 90th anniversary of many of the first commercial radio stations on the air in the united states and one of those pioneer stations is right in Medford.

For those of us who grew up in the 30′s, 40′s, or 50′s, radio was the center of entertainment and information for most American families. It was kind of a theatre of the mind. It was in 1922 that dozens of commercial radio stations went on the air across the country and one of them was in Medford. It was named KFAY. It was founded by Bill Virgin and broadcast from studios in the Sparta building at Main and Riverside.

On the roof were the antennas that sent the signal across Southern Oregon and Northern California. Ron Kramer, the former director from Jefferson Public Radio, published a book in 2010 tracing the roots of radio and TV stations in Oregon. He also collects old radios and radio memorabilia. He says KFAY later was named K-MED and after Bill Virgin died, it was operated by his wife, Blanch.

“One of the things that I think is charming about the people who founded and kind of gave heart to the industry; they had that sense of adventure and also public service,” said Kramer.

By the mid-20′s, KMED needed more power to compete with stations from outside the area whose signals came booming into the Rogue Valley at night. since the Sparta building could not handle the new equipment, Blanche Virgin moved the station to this location on Ross Lane, where it operated until the 1980′s.

For many years KMED was the only radio station in Southern Oregon, until 1932, when an Astoria radio station picked up and moved in the middle of the night to Klamath Falls and became KAGO. the first station in Grants Pass went on the air in 1939 as KUIN, then became KAGI in 1959. it was donated to Jefferson Public Radio in 1990. Kramer likens the variety in radio stations to a sort of library of the airwaves.

“You don’t necessarily read everything that’s on the shelves of the library, but there are some things there that would interest you. It’s a place you can go for information,” Kramer explains. “It’s also a meeting place and libraries do story telling and it’s kind of a community institution in a broad way beyond just the reading piece of it. And a radio station has a lot of opportunity to be like that too, and initially that’s really the way radio stations operated for many years.”

The owners of KMED also launched the area’s second television station back in 1961 as KMED-TV. 90 years ago when Medford’s first radio station, KFAY, was in the upstairs of the Sparta building, that was a pretty new building. That building has since been remolded and has see a lot of changes over the years, just as the radio business has seen a lot of changes in the last 90 years as well.