“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket.
Instead they put it on a stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.”
Since its inception, Grants Pass Broadcasting has been a singular presence in Southern Oregon. KAJO and KLDR radio stations, informed by the Christian faith of its founders and many of its employees, consciously reflect Jesus Christ’s exhortation in Matthew 5.
The story of Grants Pass Broadcasting begins with the birth of Jim Wilson on January 3, 1926. Wilson, the founder of KAJO, was a product of particular time and place in America: the Depression-era, river-bottom farm communities of central Oklahoma, where Jim lived until he was 18 years old.
Jim grew up in a large, neatly bisected family: brothers Clarence, Claude and Carl came first; Maxine, Jim, and Evelyn arrived some years later. Although Jim’s father brought in a little cash by maintaining a rural mail route, farming provided the Wilson family a meager living through the 1920s and ‘30s. Some years, the cotton crop would yield, other years … not so much. The difficulty of it all made a lasting impression on Jim.
The elder brothers were largely grown and gone from the farm before the younger siblings came of age. Jim was stuck at home, as he liked to say, sandwiched between two sisters. The farm work was back-breaking and Jim longed for a profession out of the weather and with fewer callouses!
After graduation from Bearden High School in 1943, Jim left the farm against his parent’s wishes and hitchhiked to Portland, Oregon. He wanted to join the U.S. Navy, but was disqualified due to childhood middle and inner ear injuries inflicted by primitive medical care. Jim joined his brother, Carl, who was living in Portland, and took a job welding Liberty Ships at Swan Island.
While in Portland, Jim noticed a broadcasting school advertisement on the back of a matchbook. He had always been a wit, much to the dismay of his parents and sisters. He decided to check this new opportunity out. He completed the coursework and returned to Oklahoma to work for his brother, Clarence, who had become active in building and operating radio stations throughout the West and Midwest. Clarence and his business partners -- the “money men” -- would build a new radio station that Jim would manage for a couple of years before moving on to the next freshly-built station. While working in McAlester, Oklahoma, Jim met a local girl, Patricia Burks, who became his wife. Patricia gave birth to a son, Carl, in McAlester in 1952.
Jim briefly flirted with television, but soon hit the broadcasting trail again with Pat and Carl in tow. The next radio assignment took Jim to Hays, Kansas. After 18 months or so in Hays, the little family moved to Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Jim’s fortunes began to turn in Klamath Falls. He was making great money, selling advertising for the station, and enjoying his time on the air. He began to think that he just might be able to make it on his own. One day while selling advertising in downtown Klamath Falls, he encountered an appliance salesman representing a national brand. The man asked, “What’s a guy like you doing here? You should be in Grants Pass -- it’s a great town and there’s only one radio station.”
Well, that stranger’s name is lost to history but he had quite an impact on Grants Pass without ever knowing it. Jim Wilson was about to go into business for himself.
Jim originally started the business with two partners, one of whom was one of the “money men” previously mentioned. It took from 1957 to 1972 for Jim to buy out his business partners and fly on his own. However, from the opening day of August 15, 1957, Jim didn’t exactly fly solo.
Back in Hays, Jim had learned that his long-time friend, Elzie Parker, had also gotten into this new thing called radio. What a strange coincidence that was! Jim called Elzie back in Arkansas and asked that he join him in Oregon. As legend goes, Elzie said yes without even asking about pay. These two set Grants Pass on its ear for decades, weaving hilarious stories of childhood in that Oklahoma bottom land. Their stories resonated with the working-class “depression kids” who comprised so much of Grants Pass and Josephine County.
Jim and Elzie established KAJO as a station that the community could count on through thick and thin, come blazing fires or fearsome floodwaters. The station was a vanguard, protecting and caring for the community. Grants Pass Broadcasting added KLDR-FM in 1992. Jim’s sons, Carl and Matt played a key role in managing the radio stations throughout the 1980s and well into the 2000s.
As KAJO nears its 60th anniversary on August 15, 2017, Carl remains the managing partner, along with his mother, Patricia. Although the elder generation is gone, (Jim passed away in early 2005), the radio stations still bear the mark of the founder. Carl is the first to say, “I’m just caretaking and growing what the founders built.”
The Wilson family thanks the Grants Pass and Josephine County community for the tremendous support these past six decades. The family is also deeply grateful for the many wonderful and talented people who have been part of the work of bringing a unique brand of community radio to the airwaves.