ashland.news
July 18, 2024

‘Giant’ honor: Patsy Smullin to be honored in NYC alongside major broadcasters

Patsy Smullin, who owns KOBI-TV parent company California Oregon Broadcasting Inc., is headed to the Big Apple this November after the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation named Smullin one of its Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts for 2024.
July 9, 2024

She owns KOBI-TV parent company California Oregon Broadcasting Inc.; other 2024 Giants of Broadcasting and Electronic Arts honorees include Al Roker and the CEO of CBS

By Nick Morgan, Rogue Valley Times

The owner of a local broadcast station will be honored in New York alongside some household names in broadcasting — including a renowned TV weatherman she once interviewed herself.

Patsy Smullin, who owns KOBI-TV parent company California Oregon Broadcasting Inc., is headed to the Big Apple this November after the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation named Smullin one of its Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts for 2024.

As the owner of the longest continuously operated independent broadcasting organization in the West, Smullin will join a lineup of seven honorees for a luncheon scheduled for Nov. 12 at Gotham Hall in New York. There, Smullin will join Today Show weatherman Al Roker, CBS News and CBS Stations CEO Wendy McMahon, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith and Emmy-winning actress Christine Baranski, among industry leaders.

Her name will also be added to a list of more than 250 greats awarded by the nonprofit since 2003 that include Christiane Amanpour, Johnny Carson, Ted Turner and Barbara Walters.  

“It is indeed an honor,” Smullin said in a sweeping Rogue Valley Times interview reflecting on not only her latest award, but her decades-long career in broadcasting.

The distinguished award is hardly Smullin’s first. A partial list includes the 2008 Oregon Association of Broadcasters’ Tom McCall Leadership Award, the 2019 Chuck Sherman Television Leadership Award from the National Association of Broadcasters and, among the most recent, the Mayor’s Award in Medford last summer, during which Mayor Randy Sparacino declared Aug. 17, 2023, Patsy Smullin Day.

Asked which award meant the most to her, Smullin’s answer wasn’t one of her own. It was the National Association of Broadcasters Distinguished Service Award presented to Smullin’s father, William Smullin, in 1990.

William Smullin founded the company in 1933, and his legacy and history of innovation looms large.

“He was the pioneer,” Smullin said. “My job is to keep everything on the air — and to keep it going.”

She described it as such a proud moment because the award is “the highest honor anybody can get in broadcasting,” and because, to the best of her knowledge, he is the only recipient from the West.

“The reason it was my proudest moment was because it was decided upon by his peers all over the country that nominated him,” Smullin said. “And I had the joy of not only working with him, but that particular day I walked him down the aisle to receive that award.”

She highlighted how the award recognized her father’s “foresight and wisdom to make small-market broadcast outlets all they possibly can be.”

“And that’s what we dedicate ourselves to every day,” Smullin said. “Making small-market broadcasting be all that it can be.”

Smullin recounted her company’s legacy of firsts and innovative thinking that starts with broadcasting Oregon’s first VHF television signal in Medford, originally launched in 1953 under the call letters KBES-TV.

She described how her father was able to land advertising clients for commercials during the station’s infancy. Because advertisers couldn’t see what they bought, in August 1953 her father ordered televisions from New York and brought them out by train to Medford to give to the clients.

“They couldn’t watch the commercials they were paying for, so he brought TVs from the East Coast,” Smullin said. 

A love of broadcasting that begins with two Kennedys

Two moments in the 1960s are cornerstone memories for Smullin.

She recounted spending the day with her dad in September 1963, when John F. Kennedy visited Shasta County, California, to dedicate the Whiskeytown Dam. She remembers “spending the whole day” with her father as the event was broadcast to the country.

Less than two months later, President Kennedy was assassinated.

And in 1968, when she was a senior in high school, Smullin remembers joining her father for a Robert F. Kennedy campaign stop in Eureka. She remembers her family sent Kennedy off to L.A. commercially days before he died.

Historical photos in the Yale University Library show RFK in Humboldt County, California, in mid-May 1968. He had extensively campaigned in the state ahead of the June 4 primary election, which he won, before he was killed on June 5. 

“I think that nothing could have impacted me more than the news of both of those people’s deaths,” Smullin said. “And the importance of everyone in America knowing what was going on.”

Selling cable subscriptions door-to-door

A lesser-known feat of Smullin’s father was how he brought cable television to the Rogue Valley in the 1960s.

“He put cable TV into Southern Oregon and Northern California way before Portland,” Smullin said.

That ended in the 1980s after the Federal Communications Commission’s Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 forced the company to divest the pay-TV business due to new FCC regulations related to ownership of cable operators.

Cable, however, was how Smullin got her start in the family business. She started at the company in the early 1970s thinking she’d spend two weeks to make enough money to buy some new tires.

“Literally I was driving from Berkeley to Spokane, Washington,” Smullin said. “My tires were bald in Medford … I was gonna work for two weeks at the cable office to help them out to get my money — and I never left Medford.”

She started by selling cable subscriptions door to door, and in time moved on to “learning how to climb poles, and then learn every aspect of the business.”

In an era before cable channel mainstays such as CNN, the pitch to subscribers was primarily a better signal, but Smullin said her father “did something amazing, as he always did.”

“He brought in all the San Francisco channels and all the Portland channels to Southern Oregon and Northern California — which everybody loved because of sports,” Smullin said.

After the government barred broadcast and cable businesses from having the same owner, Smullin said the next owners eliminated the out-of-area TV stations due to prohibitively high costs.

After the law changed, her father bought central and eastern Oregon operator Crestview Systems in the ’80s in order to stay in that part of the communication business. Smullin said that whether people wanted newspapers, radio, broadcast television or cable, her father “liked it all.”

“Whatever form of communication people wanted,” Smullin said

Up Close with Patsy Smullin 

Smullin moved to the broadcast side of the business in the 1980s, and late in the decade, began an on-camera project known as “Up Close with Patsy Smullin,” which has given her a chance to sit down with everyone from state elected officials such as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden to national figures such as TV journalists and multiple First Ladies. She noted that she has interviewed three generations of the Bush family: Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.

“Barbara Bush had to have been the most down-to-earth person I have ever met,” Smullin recalled of her interviews. “And Hillary Clinton — one of the smartest.” 

Her favorite interview was Walter Cronkite, she said. One of her fellow honorees, Al Roker, was also a subject when she interviewed the cast of NBC’s Today Show in the 1990s.

Her list of interview subjects since the late 1980s is as varied as it is long, and included Jay LenoQueen LatifahJeff Zucker and many others.”What I try to do is introduce people that our viewers don’t normally meet and let them let our viewers get to know them a little bit,” Smullin said. 

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rv-times.com or 458-488-2036. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

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Cameron Aalto

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