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OPB has operated KMHD for a decade, returning it to the college campus would be expensive

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Members of a Mt. Hood Community College committee that studied bringing jazz radio station KMHD back to the college from OPB listen to questions from the college board of directors. The Mt. Hood Community College Board will vote next week on whether to bring jazz radio station KMHD back to campus, but the chairwoman of the college board, for one, opposes the move.

Southwest Portland-based Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) has operated KMHD 89.1 for a decade, and OPB's 10-year contract to run the station ends June 30.

The MHCC board had asked for the option of a two-year renewal while they took more time to plan for the possible return of the station to the college, but OPB nixed the two-year alternative.

That leaves MHCC with the option of a five-year renewal with OPB or bringing the station back to campus on a short time frame and shouldering the associated startup expenses, at a time when the college is raising tuition and contemplating budget cuts.

"I just can't see how this can come back here in August," Diane McKeel, MHCC board chairwoman, said at the end of a board work session on KMHD on Wednesday night, March 13.

The college owns the license for KMHD 89.1 FM, a full-time jazz music station, which has been on the air since 1983. KMHD operated on the MHCC campus for 25 years until 2009 when management was transferred to OPB.

Studio infrastructure for the station remains on campus at 26000 S.E. Stark St., but would require more than $113,000 in upgrades. There would also be operating expenses for staff, even if students and other volunteers worked without pay.

A college committee estimated the costs, including the equipment upgrades, at about $169,446, just to get started.

"If we want to bring the station back to the college, we're going to have to cut something else," said Lauren Griswold the college's director of marketing and communications, who was on a college committee tasked with planning for the radio station.

The MHCC board will have to decide what should happen to the license for KMHD by April 1.

College President Lisa Skari formed the campus committee this winter to develop a business plan and strategy for the potential return of KMHD to campus.

That committee, comprising various college employees, presented its report Wednesday night and fielded questions by the board.

One thorny issue is whether the college would maintain the jazz format of the station. Less than 3 percent of MHCC students listen to jazz, a committee survey showed.

But board members said they were flooded with emails and letters supporting the jazz format and expressed concern about a backlash if the station switched to something else.

"I have been astounded at the number of emails this board has received," said board member Annette Mattson. The jazz station is "loved, respected and passionately supported."

She worried, "I'm concerned about the PR damage to this college if we changed the format."

Mattson asked how long it took OPB to get the station to a point where it was raising substantial operating funds.

Steven Bass, president of OPB, stepped out from the audience and gave the board some figures, noting "it was not an overnight success story."

KMHD is funded by donations from listeners. Bass said KMHD utilizes the 25 to 30 fundraising staff members at OBP to generate operating funds for KMHD, and in nine years eventually raised that to about $600,000 per year.

During that time, it also doubled the station's number of listeners.

The MHCC board appeared to be divided with several members seemingly open to bringing the station back to the college.

Board member Tamie Arnold acknowledged that poses some risks but said "when we opened the college, we took a huge risk; when we opened the pool we took on risk ... what we do every day involves risk."

Kenney Polson, a board member and prominent local jazz musician, pointed out that OPB publicity may have prompted many letters the board received.

"OPB has sent out a one-sided view of what they think we might be doing," Polson noted.

The board plans to vote on the fate of KMHD at its meeting Wednesday, March 20.

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