Air Apparent

Jefferson Smith returns progressive talk radio to Portland's airwaves.

Smith, the former candidate for Portland mayor, has engineered a broadcast-radio deal to bring back two progressive voices who lost their local station, Carl Wolfson and Thom Hartmann.

Nonprofit radio startup Cascade Educational Broadcasting Service announced last week that its first station, KXRY-FM 91.1, would feature Wolfson and Hartmann. Smith's own show, Thank You Democracy, will soon follow.

Wolfson and Hartmann were both cut out of the Portland market last November, when KPOJ-AM 620 switched formats to Fox Sports Radio ("Who Killed KPOJ?," WW, Nov. 28, 2012). Wolfson launched a show on the Internet, while Hartmann continues to be syndicated nationally.

KXRY organizers say Smith, a former Democratic state rep from Portland, and local radio producer Zak Burns approached them last spring about adding progressive talk to a lineup of Portland-based indie-rock shows.

"They actually came to my living room and pitched the idea," says Cascade Educational Broadcast Service board president Jenny Logan. "It seemed like a no-brainer."

Smith secured agreements with Wolfson and Hartmann. He's also playing matchmaker for shows produced by progressive political website BlueOregon and pop-culture podcasters Cort Webber and Bobby Roberts.

"How do you get music and talk radio to work together?" Smith asks. "We adopted the mullet model—business in the front, party in the back."

XRAY.FM, as KXRY styles itself, inherited a Federal Communications Commission license from Reed College, and talent from former pirate station Portland Radio Authority. Burns says the talk programs will broadcast from Falcon Art Community, developer Brian Wannamaker's North Portland basement art-studio space.

The station needs to find a location for its transmitter and file paperwork with the FCC. Even if it's not on the air, the station plans to start broadcasting on the Web on Halloween.

"These low-power FMs are all around the country," Wolfson says. "My hope is that we can knit enough of these low-power FMs together that we create a national progressive network—what Air America wanted to do but never really did because they had a bad business model. If that happens, it will start in Portland."

Phil Busse, who himself ran for mayor in 2004 while managing editor of The Portland Mercury, has raised money for the station through his own journalism nonprofit, the Media Institute for Social Change.

His group landed a $10,000 grant last year from the Regional Arts & Culture Council for an FCC license.

"My role—and that of the Media Institute—has largely been the equivalent of a water boy," Busse says. "I helped make introductions and draw in some talent."

Burns recruited Smith to advise XRAY.FM in the spring. He says the former politician has become a "cornerstone" of the radio project.

"He's a natural talk-show host," Burns says. "Usually you have to worry about people filling time. I have to cut him off."

Since losing the mayor's race last fall, Smith, a co-founder of the Oregon Bus Project, has appeared as a guest host on Wolfson's Internet talk show. He later developed his own one-hour weekly interview show.

"I think we are pretty well blessed in the Portland region," Smith said on his show in July. "We have a lot of news media. The question is: Do we have all we need, or are we sort of in an ocean of news without a drop to drink?” 

WW news intern Ravleen Kaur contributed to this story.

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