11 May 2014

[pdx] KOPB Open House, Complete With Celebrity Sightings!!!

I am a kid of the TV generation. This is true, and relevant.

I was born in Silverton, Oregon and spent a lot of time watching the boob tube. It would not be wholly incorrect to say that the TV signals not only sent me news, information, fun, and a ton of daytime game shows, but also kind of pulled me north from my ancestral home. TV has always had a sort of magic … strange action at a distance, that made a kid on the country-fied margin of a mid-Willamette Valley town feel like he was just another Portlander.

Newscasters were amongst my first idols. Ivan Smith, Rick Meyers, Ted Bryant, Jim Bosley, Mike Donahue … if you grew up in Oregon during the 70s, you knew these names too.

Our granfallon, but not a bad thing.
So, now that I've been a resident of Portland for more than fifty percent of my life now, it seems a bit strange that the idea of a visit to a TV station would still excite me. As Oregonians go, I'm pretty jaded about some things. But when The Wife™ told me that we could hit KOPB TV during an open house, there was no question about whether or not I was going to be there.

So, we hit Clackamas Town Center for watch batteries; I must not enter a TV station in Portland, it ought be written, without my Tom Peterson Watch strapped on. A totem, if you will. The building and equipment will at once note this, and accept me as one of their own. Or, at least, an elucidating conversation shall ensue.

KOPB's main studio, where all the TV magic pertains, is a building along SW Macadam Avenue in the southern reaches of Portland's Johns Landing area, that flat area between the river and the hills south of the South Waterfront Condo Newtown, where the addresses on the cross-streets begin with the number 0. KOPB's building is located in the space-post continuum at 7140 SW Macadam Avenue; the entry is on the west side of the street and is at the cross of SW Nevada Street. Let there be no mistake, though, despite there being a parking lot at the studio building, there was to be no chance of getting a space there; Oregon Public Broadcasting is that popular. We parked about two blocks north on a side street, which gave for a nice little walk, which is no mean thing, as the Johns Landing nabe is almost too cute for adequate description.

Balloons, pop up tents, free swag just for showing up … we got two great Oregon Field Guide DVDs and an Oregon Experience about the nation's first female cop, who happened here in Portland, and met two very famous celebrities. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We are about to enter the TV zone, and signs and wonders are to start portending all over the place. Please, step inside the doors …

Just inside the doors and behind the wonderful architecture of the reception desk is a lobby with history. Wonderful stuff. Before digital TV and remote-control cameras, this is the way they did it back in the day …

KOAC was one of the two original stations in the OPB network. That was the one in Corvallis: KOAP was the Portland half. And, before there was .MP4 files and digital audio, this is how you rocked it on remote:

During the 80s, the OPB Network expanded with the addition of KVDO, Salem's former independent Channel 3, which was eventually moved to Bend, and the 13 was the LaGrande channel, nailing down NE Oregon and providing OPB with, if not world domination, overwhelming command of the state of Oregon.

OPB world domination is scheduled sometime in the future perhaps. I can think of worse things.

The classic symbol of broadcasting seems to be the microphone, and here are some classics from OPB's history, complete with call-signs:

Sadly, not too much paper ephemera, though I found this matchbook cover cosmically hilarious …

Wise eyes may have watched Channel 10. Wise mouths have moved on from the cigarette. Of course, wise mouths will always be with us, won't they?

Moving along past an even older version of portable camera than before …

… there come the radio studios. On the right as you proceed down the hall, there's the KOPB radio studio, on the air with the Saturday edition of Think Out Loud. 

The crown jewel of the building, the TV production studio, is at the south end of the building. The entry level turns out to be upstairs, and at the end of the corridor is a overlook to the studio floor. Oregon Art Beat was taping a performance of the U of O's women's a capella group, Divisi

The studio level was downstairs. A classic view beside the door:

Despite the notes of classic broadcasting history one can see everywhere, make no mistake, OPB is thoroughly, almost disconcertingly modern.  Stepping into the master control center was a little like stepping into the bridge of the J.J. Abrams version of the bridge of the USS Enterprise. 

Guided through by a technician who knew just everything about everything, he told us all the steps required to get shows out of the aether and on the are. It's computers, of course, all the way down; the only physical tape storage was the archives, which seem to be a large cabinet resembling a vending machine and about the size of two very large refrigerators. They contain tapes holding about 1 TB each; requests make their way to the system, which extracts the files from tape and places them on the server for later broadcast. It's a world of digital transmission and computer files there, and it's very quiet and efficient with beautiful lights and test patterns.

Not for the first time, I realized that I had missed one of those various callings I just wasn't clever enough to get into. Video transmission kind of does it to me. being in this room, knowing that the programs seen on the small monitors are instantly going to every corner of the state that has a computer or a TV, there's an amazing feeling of having one's finger on the pulse of modern times. The tech guide opined that it was never too late to start, but I wonder. The idea of that ship having sailed is a hard one to divorce from.

At this time, the information being dished out to Oregonians was dispensed through the minor gods of Christopher Kimball and Lidia Bastianich. Suitably, for Portland, it was cooking shows.

I always thought it was strange. All those shows about cooking, not one about washing up. Anyway.

All is not digital there, not yet … as long as there is analog legacy media, they'll need to convert, and that's one of the jobs this lumbering artoo unit does :

There were still video tape decks and legacy technology, but it was chiefly devoted to the conversion of analog technology to digital as needed. It's not dead, but it is fading away.

Back upstairs and toward the exit to the building, across the corridor from the KOPB radio studio was the one for the local legendary listener-supported jazz station, KMHD-FM.

KMHD is a uniquely local thing. Housed at the campus of Mount Hood Community College until about 2008, it's been broadcasting jazz, commercial-free, to Portlandia and surrounds for between thirty and forty years. It's never been a part of the Mount Hood CC curriculum, but MHCC does own the station; from 2009 OPB has been running it in partnership with MHCC, which is the license holder and station owner.

So for those of you who love listening to KMHD, there's the magic happening, right in front of you.

So much broadcasting in such a small space, so close to each other. This never ceases to amaze me. Broadcasting is magic, kinda.

Back out to the sun/rain/sun, we stopped again to chat with our celebrities. I present to you Steve Amen and Eric Cain, and if you don't know these names, you should. If there was an Oregon citizenship test, they'd be on it.

Steve Amen (l), Eric Cain (r). Local broadcast gods.
Steve Amen, of course, is the affable face of the legendary Oregon Field Guide. Eric Cain produced the equally-legendary Oregon Exprerience series. If it's Oregon, the history,  the culture, the important faces in Oregon history, the geography, travel, those two programs very nearly have it covered. They're passionate about Oregon, this special place and we have nothing but admiration for their creative energies, every one of which counts large.

They are also incredibly friendly guys who it's terribly easy to fall into a deep chat about the subjects they cover. I recently saw the Oregon Experience about Ken Kesey, an author whose works I've never read but a man whose life is utterly fascinating, and was immensely pleased to hear Eric talk about it.

If you never heard of the awesomeness these guys produce (not to mention the third member of the triumvirate, Oregon Art Beat) then it's time to bone up, cowboys. A lot of past OFGs are available for viewing any time at http://www.opb.org/programs/ofg/; similarly for Oregon Experience the site is http://www.opb.org/television/programs/oregonexperience/. For history both natural and human nothing else can compare, in the video stream, and for those who wish to properly know how to Oregon, which is a lifelong study even for us natives, it's continuing education.

It's free to all, whether or not you can contribute. At least we should be grateful to have it. 

We have history. But broadcasting? No mystery.

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