Above: Although she once vowed that she would never follow her father into broadcasting, Patsy Smullin eventually became her father’s successor as owner-operator of KOBI. To this day she takes phone calls at home from viewers.
Below: Technology is key in staying ahead for KOBI, the flagship station of the sprawling and diversified California Oregon Broadcasting Inc.
// Photos by Jamie Lusch
By Dan Cook
Patsy Smullin, the owner of Medford-based California Oregon Broadcasting Inc. (COBI), was awakened from slumber by the jangling of her home phone one night in April. Groggily reaching for the offending device, she noticed it was 4 a.m. Still, she answered.
“There’s a fellow on the line who wants to know what the laws are for burning wood,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ He said, ‘Yes, I just got off work. And your station [KOBI] says we can call any time with a question.’ He had me there. I told him I’d look up the answer and get back to him when I got to the station.”
Smullin’s customer service commitment is somewhat extreme; she has after-hours calls forwarded to her home phone. But it is nonetheless emblematic of the close connections that exist between Medford’s three main network affiliates and the viewers they serve.
Medford is an unlikely hub of broadcast activity. Isolated among mountains just north of the California border, it is far from any of the markets normally associated with media activity. Its rich broadcast history is essentially the product of William Smullin’s restless need to push the broadcast envelope in the earliest days of television. Smullin, Patsy’s father, actually launched his media empire in Eureka, Calif., with a radio station. When he expanded into VHF television broadcasting in 1953, it presaged the move of the base of his operations to Medford.
Today, the dynamic little media market that Smullin jump-started more than 50 years ago finds itself at a critical crossroads. Battered by the recession, the local television stations have been forced to reduce staff and make other concessions to remain viable. One major station — CBS affiliate KTVL — may be up for sale soon. Its Orange County, Calif.-based owner, Freedom Communications, recently emerged from Chapter 11 reorganization and is accepting bids for all of its properties.
The word “consolidation” is on the lips of many who follow the market. Were that to happen in any substantive way, a very special small American television market could be irreparably changed.