Last month, the board of education at Mount Hood Community College (MHCC) voted to sever their relationship with Oregon Public Broadcasting, which had been handling the day-to-day operations for KMHD—which broadcasts locally on 89.1 FM—since 2009. Though the station was born at MHCC and the school still maintains ownership of its broadcast license, budget concerns led them to seek out a partnership with OPB in order to keep it on the air.
Since moving to OPB’s Southwest Portland offices, KMHD has seen its listenership double and its reputation grow with it, earning a Jazz Station of the Year Award in 2012 from JazzWeek. But with the 10-year contract for this relationship ending this August, MHCC has opted to take back full control of the station and return it to their Gresham-based campus.
“They own the license and they are well within their rights to do this,” OPB’s CEO Steve Bass tells the Mercury about the board’s decision. “But they don’t have the long term in mind. We’ve had a great relationship with the college and this just feels like a step backwards.”
The most confusing aspect of this decision is that the college board has not provided any details beyond their desire to sever ties with OPB apart from some discussion of negotiating a short-term contract of two years to allow them time to get things in place to bring the station back. Other than that, there’s been no discussion of what would happen with program director Matt Fleeger, their crew of DJs, and staff, nor if they would even continue the station’s renowned jazz programming.
“We really feel like we’re sitting in limbo,” says Fleeger. “Whether it stays or comes back, we have no idea. I’ve been working in radio since I was 18 and I’ve never been in a situation like this.”
Equally puzzling is exactly why MHCC decided to go down this road. The end date for their 10-year deal was on the horizon, true, but nothing else about it makes sense. According to the estimates provided to the board by the school’s president Dr. Lisa Skari, the cost of maintaining the current relationship with OPB would be $15,300 for the first year, while the annual cost of bringing the station back to the campus would be $550,000.
The only justification that the board seems to be offering is their disappointment that MHCC students didn’t have greater access to the station. But even that reasoning feels flimsy, as MHCC never opened up discussions with OPB about how to increase students’ access. There were also opportunities for students to apply for internships at KMHD, but according to Bass, in the 10 years since OPB has been involved, only six people from MHCC bothered to apply.
“Four of them said they didn’t want to work at KMHD,” Bass says. “And the other two listed it as their last priority.”
Another huge issue for OPB is their current plans to renovate their headquarters, the blueprints for which included some major upgrades for KMHD’s current base of operations within the building.
“Right now, they are in the studios that were originally used for recording services for the blind,” Bass says. “A cramped space, but it worked okay for now. We were planning on moving them into the current OPB studios and providing them with new equipment and new automation systems. OPB was going to front the entire expense of this.”
Overshadowing all of this would be the potential loss of Oregon’s only full-time jazz radio station. That was very much on the minds of the many people who attended a meeting on Wednesday night with the MHCC board. Attendees express their displeasure with the decision and to urge them to reconsider. Most talked about staying tuned to KMHD throughout the day and the expertise of the station’s DJs, with others emphasizing the educational benefits of keeping jazz at close range for young listeners to easily access. Everyone who spoke returned to the same point—that if MHCC follows through with their plan to take the station back, they would likely face an uphill battle trying to raise funds to keep it afloat, an issue which could spell its untimely death.
“It’s a big beast. It needs lots of food,” says Luis Ocasio, a volunteer DJ at KMHD who hosts the late night show The Joint and was on hand at Wednesday’s MHCC board meeting to offer his public comment. “I’m a farmer. I’ve raised animals. If I was going to give my horse to somebody, I’d want to make sure they had a plan for it already. But I feel like that’s easier to fix than shipping the horse off to some farmer that may not have your best interests in mind. I think they have the best interests of their students in mind, but not the jazz scene in Portland.”