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A passion for public radio

Steven Bass reflects on his first year as president of OPB
by: Vern Uyetake, Lake Oswego resident Steven Bass, president and chief executive officer of Oregon Public Broadcasting, talks about the future of his company in his office at OPB headquarters in Portland.

Steven Bass' colleagues like to tell him he has the best job in the public broadcasting business.

Bass, a Lake Oswego resident in the Stafford area, doesn't argue. His 25-plus years of experience in the industry affirm that opinion.

So has moving to Oregon.

In January 2006, Bass became the president and chief executive officer of Oregon Public Broadcasting in a state where people are passionate about the network.

Emphasis on the word 'passionate' - 1.5 million people tune in or log onto OPB's free radio, TV and Internet services each week.

'Most people are extraordinarily happy (with OPB) overall,' Bass said.

Oregonians are heard on national radio call-ins and dinner table conversations revolve around stories seen and heard on OPB affiliates, the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

And each year, more than 100,000 donors help keep the network funded and on the air.

In other words, Oregon is public broadcasting paradise.

'We've got a lot of things going right here,' Bass said. 'I've found that Oregonians are very outwardly focused on the rest of the world and how it relates to them. They're very interested in international affairs and what's going on around the corner in other communities.'

So the OPB Board of Directors' invitation to Bass to make the network's big decisions seemed too good to pass up.

While uprooting a family is always a difficult task, Bass believed he was making the right decision when he brought his wife, Sara, and two daughters, Catie and Caroline, to Oregon last year.

'I had never been to Oregon, but I knew it was a good place,' he said.

At that time, the Bass family lived in a suburb of Nashville, where Steven worked as founding president and CEO of Nashville Public Television for seven years. There, he oversaw the station's transition from government ownership to an independent, non-profit entity.

'(The station) was an important institution in the city, but it's an entertainment city and it got overshadowed by other things going on,' he said.

In Oregon, Bass found the same diverse political atmosphere but a much different scenario overall - with its own strengths and weaknesses.

For example, the rugged terrain and sparse population in the rural parts of the state make it difficult to consistently offer the best radio and TV reception.

Currently, Bass is working to secure $5.5 million in state funding to upgrade TV transmitters on the coast and in Eastern Oregon as part of a national plan to end analog broadcasting by February 2009.

OPB's transmitters in Portland, Bend, Corvallis, Eugene and La Grande are now digital capable, but the deadline is looming. It's possible some viewers will lose their TV signal if the money isn't raised in time.

'We're on the horn of a dilemma here,' Bass said. 'But for Portland and the (Willamette) Valley, it's a non-issue. They're taken care of.'

In fact, OPB fans in the Portland area will have a hard time pinpointing any changes made since Bass moved into his office at OPB headquarters in Portland.

'People on the outside would notice we haven't screwed anything up,' Bass said with a chuckle. 'I wanted to honor what was already created … There wasn't much I could add that could make it better.'

He made a few structural changes to his 120-person staff and moved a two-hour segment of classical music called 'Performance Today' from weekday mornings to KBPS. The latter prompted a few critical e-mails from listeners.

'People don't hesitate to share their opinion here,' he said. 'In this business, you've got to have a thick skin.'

Or pure talent, according to OPB Board Chair Doug Tunnell.

'It's a tremendous credit to (former CEO) Maynard Orme and all those who make OPB so successful that we attracted a gifted leader like Steve Bass,' he said. 'Steve is truly one of public broadcasting's brightest lights.'

Last month, Bass helped launch a widespread marketing campaign to challenge viewers and listeners with the sentiment that 'You can't not think.' The campaign, conceived by Leopold Ketel and Partners, aims to 'firmly identify OPB with Oregon's unique state of mind, defined by activism, community involvement and thoughtful opinions.'

The new bright blue and green scheme - and OPB logo - can be spotted on billboards, buses and other locations around the Portland area.

'We are branching out into some areas, and we thought it was time to refresh … the way people think about us,' Bass said.

Bass also noted OPB's ongoing effort to link its Web site with TV and radio to broaden the organization's reach. Unlike other broadcasting companies, TV and radio carry the same weight and popularity at OPB, while OPB.org is a fast-rising star.

In addition, reporters and producers alternate radio and TV projects as a way to break down barriers between media.

'It's all kind of converging in an interesting way,' Bass said. 'We're doing more cross-advertising. Undoubtedly, you'll have people who watch TV and haven't thought of turning on the radio, and vice versa.'

Typically, OPB's TV programming attracts an audience of children and adults above 40, while radio programming and the Web site seems to suit those in their 20s and 30s.

The constant question, then, is how to attract one demographic without losing the other? There is no concrete answer, Bass said.

'You can't water down content just for people of one age group,' he explained.

It's Bass' job to look at the 'big picture issues,' where the company is headed and how it can get there with its resources.

He answers to a 24-member board and a typical workday is filled with meetings, answering e-mails and making decisions on production and programming.

'Every day I'm faced with something different,' he said.

One benefit to the job is the short commute from home. During his daily drive, he catches portions of NPR's 'Morning Edition' and 'All Things Considered.'

In his office, however, he opts not to listen to OPB radio or turn on the TV set in the corner.

'There are a lot of people who do that, but I can't,' he said.

Mementos from Nashville, Boston and Springfield, Mass., line the wall, along with framed photos of his family.

His wife Sara, a former administrator with the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House, now helps out in the school community with theater productions, marching band and rowing club.

Catie, 15, attends Lake Oswego High School and Caroline, 12, attends Lake Oswego Junior High School. They've adjusted well to the move, Bass said.

'They're involved in every school activity in the world,' he said.

He even counts his daughters in the large number of Oregonians that regularly tune in to OPB radio, making it one of the most popular NPR affiliates in the country.

Then, there's OPB TV, where the history series 'The Oregon Experience' is extremely well received, as are 'Oregon Art Beat' and 'Oregon Field Guide.'

Programs with an Oregon slant are typically shot, scripted, edited and produced in-house, while programs with a broader topic are made with the assistance of professionals around the world.

Bass hopes that OPB can produce more national programs in the near future, in addition to 'History Detectives,' which airs on PBS, and 'Adventure Lodges,' which is in the works. OPB also recently wrapped up an American history series sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

'We have a lot of balls in the air on the national front,' he said.

He's also eager to get an Oregon-based conversation program launched through radio and Internet within the next nine months.

Overall, Bass' ongoing goal is to connect Oregonians and their neighbors with thought-provoking material to spark dialogue and debate.

That way, Oregonians can't not think.

'We want to offer something that's relevant in the rural, suburban and urban communities,' Bass said. 'I can't say we always get it right … We just want it to sound like it's coming from next door, wherever you may be.'

In the Portland area, OPB radio can be found at 95.1-FM KOPB or 550-AM KOAC; OPB TV can be found on channel 10 KOPB on analog and digital.