by Bob Doran
Things have been tense for the last few months at southern Oregon-based public radio network Jefferson Public Radio as Southern Oregon University and the station's fundraising arm, the JPR Foundation engaged in a tug-of-war over JPR's future.
In the latest twist, on Saturday, JPR Executive Director Ron Kramer, who has been running JPR for 38 years, announced his resignation effective June 30, when his contract with SOU runs out.
Starting with a station on the campus of SOU in Ashland, Kramer built a public radio behemoth with 22 stations between Eugene and Mendocino, including two in Humboldt County: KNHM-FM broadcasting from Bayside and KNHT-FM out of Bunker Hill near Rio Dell.
How big is the JPR empire? According to an audit commissioned by the Oregon University System chancellor's office, JPR and its nonprofit support foundation had a combined annual budget of $4.2 million and assets in excess of $9 million as of June, 2010.
As reported in the Medford Mail Tribune, the dispute between the university and JPR began with that audit. The initial concern was with JPR Foundation's foray in non-radio endeavors, in particular a project to restore the historic Holly Theater in Medford and build a new station headquarters in an adjacent building.
JPR already owns the Cascade Theater in Redding, a similar rehab project that has been successful so far. The Foundation also runs the southern Oregon Internet provider, JEFFNET.
Why did the JPR Foundation want to get into non-radio businesses in the first place? JPR answers the question in a FAQ on its website:
"SOU has consistently reduced its direct support for JPR beginning in 2001. During this period, the university's contribution toward the cost of operating JPR has fallen from 12 percent of JPR's operating cost to 5.7 percent."
Fund drives and underwriting are not paying all the bills, so they need the income from JEFFNET and the Cascade; the Holly would add more to the pot and move JPR studios out off the SOU campus. SOU, on the other hand, sees the fundraising needed for JPR's growth as competition for SOU's own support foundation. Kramer disagreed. While it did not come up in the audit, the Holly will also be in competition with the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.
The auditors' report concluded that there must be separation between the foundation and the stations it supports, and that Kramer's double role as head of the radio operation and the JPR Foundation creates a conflict of interest. Essentially, he was getting too big for his britches. Following the audit, SOU President Mary Cullinan terminated Kramer's job as executive director of the radio network, but he remained head of the foundation, which is not under university control.
Separating OSU and the foundation will not be that easy, in part because OSU does not own all of JPR's 22 FCC licenses; the foundation owns eight. Exact details of the separation agreement have not been revealed since it's still being negotiated, but we know that OSU is demanding that the foundation relinquish control of its licenses, and that the foundation board balked at that demand. OSU responded with arm-twisting, suggesting that costly legal action could put individual board members at risk financially.
When the board threatened to resign en masse last week, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped in calling for a 90-day "cooling off" period, then a return to mediation. OSU backed off on its threat to the board, and the board members did not quit, but Kramer figured he was still at risk, thus his resignation from the foundation and from radio station management (he was fighting his firing). With Kramer leaving, JPR's future remains uncertain. It's probably not the kind of cooling off anyone had in mind.