Origin: Lemon Grove, Calif.

Fact: Straight Talk starring Dolly Parton is one of the greatest films of all time.

For those unfamiliar, Parton plays Dr. Shirlee, a call-in radio host who wins the hearts of Chicagoans with her firm but loving advice and catalog of adorable colloquialisms, such as "Get down off the cross, honey, somebody needs the wood!"

Eventually, listeners learn that Shirlee is a fake doctor. No one cares—all they wanted was her real talk. She gets to keep her job and her new romance with James Woods—considered a handsome love interest back in 1992.

John Sepulvado, 35, is a young man, but a veteran of radio. With stints at CNN, PRI and KNPR, and contributions to countless other stations, including Portland's own OPB and fledgling startup XRAY.fm, his résumé actually reads like someone rattling off call letters at the end of a syndicated show.

Like Shirlee Kenyon, Sepulvado believes what Portlanders want most from the media is honesty, relatability, and well-told stories, and he came here to make that happen. Only a few months in, he's already, as Dr. Shirlee would say, "busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kickin' contest."


WW: It seems like you got to town and immediately started trying to fix things in Portland radio. Where does that motivation come from?

John Sepulvado: I love my mom and my siblings, but I grew up in an environment that was super-dysfunctional. And so I am constantly trying to put order into things. I've lived a chaotic life, but in the present I need things to be in order.


How's it going so far creating order in Portland?

Portland is the best place I've lived. I've lived in 17 cities in about 20 years, because of radio work. I have a little bit of wanderlust in me. I've moved a lot, but I've never felt like I needed to settle in a place. And I feel that here. I've never met so many creative, energetic people concentrated in one place in my entire life. It's really nice not feeling like a weirdo because you think about things differently.


What specifically do you love about Portland?

I love the people. They're friendly and open to new ideas. My experience is that people are down to try new projects. The layout of the city is also pretty killer. I can get around easily without a car, which is helpful. And it's gorgeous here. Green and clean. You can't beat that.


Any favorite places?

I head to Mount Tabor on the weekends. I saw those sparrows go down the chimney, and that was killer. I need to go to a Blazers game already. And there's that park that overlooks the train tracks, on the cliffs, the bluffs. I caught a secondhand high there, and that was fun.


So what do you hate?

The lack of diversity is disappointing. Many of the historical reasons that have pushed people of color to the fringes of the city...it sucks. My car got stolen. I hated that shit. The police told me everyone was getting their car stolen, and I remember thinking, "Y'all should really do something about that..." And I wish the coast was closer.


What creative goals have you set for yourself here?

I'm really interested in finding ways to help people express themselves. I want to be able to teach people how they can do radio, journalism or broadcasting in a way that's good. At the end of the day, I want to help people tell their story.


Have you noticed anything about the radio landscape specific to Portland compared to other markets?

Portland is hungry for genuine media interaction. They want something better. The other day, I was researching Pandora. I was trying to find a journalist who had written about their algorithm. I found an article that was pretty good, and went to look for the author. But there was no author. It was an algorithm. An algorithm writing about an algorithm. That's where we're at right now. When somebody says, "Where's the personality?" that's the way media is going. The whole point of journalism and storytelling is one person talking to another person about people. And we're moving toward an era where that doesn't happen.


And you think Portland is hungrier for that authenticity?

One of the things I do see a lot—not just in Portland, but around the country—is there's this belief that corporate media is programming stuff in cahoots with companies or the government. I don't see that. The problem with corporate media is that it's lazy. It is intellectually lazy, it's physically lazy. They don't like to leave their desks. They'd rather just monitor Twitter. They wanna recycle what they already think they know because it's easy.


And once they find the right audience, that recycled model can just keep making money.

Right, but the audiences are dwindling. The thing I'm most excited about in Portland is I think there's a chance here to do what I do in a different way and be able to be daring and exciting, because most places don't want to piss anybody off. And Portland seems hungry for being OK with pissing people off.


How do you gauge response? How do you know if you're making good radio?

Nobody ever calls me unless it's really bad. Nobody ever lets me know they like it. I just put it out there and hope for the best. Radio is like putting a message onto a helium balloon and hoping somebody gets some value out of that message.


New Portlanders: The Interviews




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