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Classical music's new movement

Relocation to cement station KQAC's updated image, create waterfront arts hub


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jack Allen, KQAC president and CEO (right), and John Burk, and vice president of programming, stand in the classical radio stations new home on the second floor of the Portland Opera building. The station moves from its cramped confines behind Benson High School in late spring.Sometimes a move is more than just a move. This is certainly the case as KQAC, Portland’s only all-classical radio station, prepares to move into its new space near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, on the second floor of the Hampton Opera Center. The move will take place in May, says Jack Allen, president and chief executive officer of the station.

“The building was built for KPTV, so it already has the bones for a radio station, and it has a sightline to Sylvan Hill, where our tower is,” he says.

Also, because the new building sits at the Southeast end of the new Portland-Milwaukie transit bridge, “it is ideally located in proximity to our arts partners and all the people who want to get close to us. And it is the only radio station I know of accessible by all means of transportation options, including light rail, buses, boats, cars and bicycles. A submarine and the aerial tram are also nearby,” he says.

The station, formerly known as KBPS, has been located at Benson High School for 30 years and in that time has experienced a number of changes. The upcoming move is the result of the station outgrowing its space, but there is much more involved.

“It has been a three-pronged approach,” Allen says.

“First we gave KBPS back to Benson, and changed our call letters to KQAC (Quality All Classical). But then we realized that call letters don’t mean anything to our listeners in Europe, so we had to find a way to coalesce the essence of who we are. And now the acquisition of the building really gives us the power to share what we do so well with the world.”

There are two other reasons for the station’s name change, Allen says. One is because KBPS stands for Benson Polytechnic School, which makes it sound as if the station is still part of Portland Public Schools, even though it has been an independent entity since 2003.

Another mistake people make is in thinking that the station is affiliated with or sponsored by Oregon Public Broadcasting, because of the similarity of the old call letters, he says.

Changes during the years

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Larry Holtz, KQAC vice president of technology, uses a soldering iron in a small room that serves as the classical radio stations shop.In 1992, after a fundraising effort raised enough money for a new building, just behind Benson but still on campus, “we didn’t know what our future would hold. Since that time we have become bigger and better,” says Mary Evjen, who has been the station’s director of communications and volunteers for 24 years.

In 2003, the station purchased the FM license from Portland Public Schools for $5.5 million, but still remained on the property, in a building meant to house a staff of about a dozen.

When Allen took on the role of president in 2008, a staff of 22 and two to three volunteers per day were crammed into the site.

One room, meant to be a performance studio, was occupied by a refrigerator and five offices, Evjen says.

“When I got here, I became acutely aware this looked like a station subsumed by Portland Public Schools. The staff in this tiny little radio station was serving devoted listeners. They produced a world-class sound in a facility used by high school students; a facility that was not adequate,” Allen says.

It was time to make some changes, and in 2008 the station began to update its image, aided by rebranding expert Jelly Helm, of Studio Jelly.

In 2009 the station became KQAC, and then in 2012, the station unveiled its new All Classical Portland logo.

“Jelly encouraged us to keep All Classical Portland. That really cemented who we are,” Allen says.

Evjen added that because the station’s domain name is all classical.org, anyone “anywhere in the world can search for a station broadcasting all classical music, and our station comes up first.”

Location was key. It was time to look for a new space, one with at least 10,000 square feet, more than twice what the current station has, Allen says.

In trying to pinpoint the perfect location, Allen says he put a pin on a map where all the employees lived, and came to the conclusion that a site close to downtown Portland would be the best location.

“We kept coming back to the opera building. It had the right infrastructure, and it was a good commute for our staff,” he says.

Allen and other staff began working with Gregg Mizuno, a designer with Dezinyo Architecture, to re-design the 12,500-square-foot space on the second floor of the building.

It was an inclusive process, he says, noting that staff members were included in all phases of the planning. And now the vision is starting to come to fruition.

All of the on-air hosts will broadcast from a studio in a glass tower facing west, that looks like “the bow of a ship,” Allen says. The rest of the floor will house offices, a reception area, a staff dining area, a huge CD library, a mail room and, most importantly, performance spaces.

“We wanted a space where we could convene great music, live on the radio. Many local musicians can’t afford to record, so they can bring in their cello or sing and perform live. It is like the DNA of old-time radio,” Allen says.

“These people are our arts partners, and they depend on us to be a megaphone for them, so the musicians are thrilled,” Evjen adds.

Once in the new building, “we can entertain and host live-music events for grownups, serving beer and wine,” Allen says.

It looks nearly certain that Friends of Chamber Music will be able to move into four extra rooms on the second floor, partnering with the station for events and sharing the staff room and mail room, he adds.

“They have been around for 75 years and bring in all manner of fabulous acts to Portland, and now they can bring their acts to our studios,” Evjen says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - KQACs Brandi Parisi works in one of the production studios by Benson High School. The station will see a rise in stature, aligning with Portland Opera.

Finalizing the details

“This has been a $2 million project and we have raised 92 percent of that already through private donations and the support of 14 different foundations,” Allen says.

With an eye to funding the rest of the project, Allen will begin broadcasting messages on the radio, asking people to contribute to lay the groundwork for the future of the station.

“Every dollar counts. And there is $150,000 in matching funds available through the Joyce N. Furman Memorial Trust, celebrating children, education and the arts. In addition, people can give a significant gift and have naming rights for performance spaces, the music library and even the main studio overlooking the river,” he says.

Allen characterizes the move as a “modest step,” noting that moving into the second floor of an existing building is “good stewardship.”

“And Portland Opera is one of our biggest partners,” Evjen points out, while Allen adds that bundling arts organizations together builds an “art hub; an enclave of like-minded creators of art.”

Allen adds, “We cast a huge broadcast net, pulling in the love, commitment and loyalty of people who love music. And they adore these hosts and want to get together with them and meet them. This is a healthy symbiosis; the station will continue to be vital and vibrant and will continue to reflect the community we live in as we become part of the cultural fabric.”

To find out more about KQAC — All Classical Portland, or to provide financial support for the station, visit the website at allclassical.org or call 503-943-5828.


Classical station timeline

1932: Benson High School students purchase the AM station for $1,800.

1930: Call letters are changed to KBPS (for Benson Polytechnic School); the station is operated under Portland Public Schools.

1981: Reed College’s KRRC 89.3 FM station agrees to shift positions on the dial, allowing KPBS to assume the 89.9 FM frequency.

1983: 89.9 FM signs on the air and begins broadcasting classical music.

1988: KPBS expands to a 24-hour broadcast day.

1992: After a fundraising effort, KBPS AM and FM move into a new building, behind Benson, but still on campus.

1999: KBPS FM offers its programming via the Internet.

2003: Portland Public Schools sells the FM license to the KBPS Public Radio Foundation for $5.5 million.

2009: KBPS changes its call letters to KQAC.

2010: KQAC is named the second-highest rated classical station in the nation.

2012: Station rebrands and unveils new All Classical Portland logo.

2013: KQAC ushers in a new era by signing a long-term lease at the Hampton Opera Center.

2014: The station will move into its new space, which it shares with the Portland Opera, in May.