B E S T F A I R E V E R !
KLCC Radio Adventures at Oregon Country Fair 1992-2018
By Tripp Sommer, June 2018
[Editing and photos by Gayle Chisholm]
On Thursday, July 7, 2017, my wife Sandune and I headed to the Oregon Coast. Highway 126 takes us west, through Veneta. This is the day before the Oregon Country Fair opens to the public. In previous years, we would have been heading to the Fair instead of the coast. But I just retired from KLCC and this is the beginning of things being different.
After decades of working at the Fair, its rhythm is still part of our internal clocks and memories. We start talking about what we would have loaded into our car for a weekend at the Fair and how long it would take us to get there and actually set up camp, joining hundreds of other volunteers on site. By Thursday most food, craft and info booths are set up and ready for the weekend’s gazing, curious, buying hordes. We expect to encounter a long line of trucks pulling loaded down trailers and jam-packed VW vans headed toward the Fair. Not so much.
Today many people snake their way toward “the workers’ entrance”, off Suttle Road. Traffic moves slowly as people stop to ask directions and others are told where to park. People line up to get camping bracelets, vehicle parking stickers and meet up with old friends. The annual reunion and the party resumes, where they left off last year. Who has an extra pass? Have you seen Chez Ray? I’m working at his booth and can’t get in until I find him.” “I barely saw you last year. How was your Fair?” “Best Fair ever!” “How have you been, man? You’re looking a lot grayer than last year!” Then people park, usually far away, and need a repurposed garden cart to trek in camping supplies.
KLCC had a booth at OCF before I started there 36 years ago. First, in Community Village, then we partnered up with another cultural conduit, the WOW Hall. Now we share a booth at the back of the Main Stage Meadow. Number 299. These three organizations – KLCC, OCF and WOW Hall – have more in common. First, we all rely heavily on volunteers. And secondly, KLCC and WOW Hall have been able to buy their buildings with community fundraising. OCF also bought its land with community support. The Fair has gone on to buy a number of adjacent parcels to facilitate growth as well as to steward the native plants and archaeology on the land. Camas ovens and other artifacts of the Kalapuya people have been found.
For many years, KLCC’s presence at the Country Fair was pretty low key. Fairgoers stopped by to say hello to KLCC staff and volunteers. We attached a painted top hat (for no known reason) to the booth and handed out bumper stickers while displaying program-related T-shirts.
Then in early 90’s KLCC purchased an RPU, Remote Pickup Unit. While serving as “booth rep” that year, I got excited with an idea! KLCC should set up the RPU out here and broadcast! I talked my way backstage and spoke with stage manager David Paul and the MC (the Voice of the Oregon Country Fair) Denny Guehler. They thought it sounded like a great idea. David said “let’s talk more. You’ll also need to present this to the OCF Board at one of their monthly meetings” So I did. The meeting room was crowded and I was nervous. What will they ask?
- Why does the station want to broadcast? Where will you set up?
- How does it work getting the signal from the Fair to KLCC listeners?
- Can I answer well enough to get the OK for KLCC to broadcast next year?
The board also had concerns the broadcast would mean people would stay home from the Fair and “just listen on the radio,” decreasing revenue for the vendors and the Fair itself. Others were concerned it would make the Fair too popular. More people would attend, overcrowding and overwhelming the scene and infrastructure.
Long story short, the OCF Board approved KLCC’s request to broadcast music from the Main Stage, along with interviews of musicians and Fairgoers, OCF staff and volunteers. That ”yes” from the board generated a lot of questions at KLCC.
- Can we pull this off…technically, physically and personnel-wise?
- What will it sound like?
- Where will we position the RPU to get the signal to our transmitter on Blanton Heights in Eugene so we can broadcast to our listeners?
- Will KLCC displace loyal listeners who have no interest in the Oregon Country Fair?
- What will KLCC use as a broadcast booth?
The key to unlocking these questions was the Engineering Triumvirate: KLCC General Manager Steve Barton, former whiz engineer at the station; current KLCC Chief Engineer John Bredesen; and ICHABOD! He is chief engineer at several Eugene area radio stations and “Wizard of Electronics and Communication” at the Oregon Country Fair.
A few years, later, while touring our new engineer Chris Heck around the property and regaling us all with stories, Ichabod disappeared. We are looking all around, calling his name. We head toward the hub known as Main Camp. Music from “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is at full blast. We turn the corner and there is Ichabod, coffee cup in hand, dancing and singing “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again”. Hmmm. Maybe that should be the Fair’s theme song.
Among other innovations of note, Ichabod devised Tinker Bell, the internal OCF telephone communications system. Miles of phone line are strung (sometimes buried) throughout the Fair. Good old fashioned telephones with extension #’s are located throughout the Fair at information booths, security, Main Camp. Even KLCC has a Tinker Bell extension!
Going to a rural site to set up shop for the weekend – whether it be a lemonade stand, a booth selling stained glass or a radio station – is both challenging and fun. It requires lots of improvisation and creativity since there is little existing infrastructure. In 1992 KLCC set up for our first broadcast behind Main Stage. It is one of the few areas at the Fair with electricity. Power in more ways than one. We needed a place to perch our remote broadcast antenna. We strung cable up the road through the trees to the Warebarn, one of the highest sites available on the property. The gear was attached to the side of the barn, aimed, tested and verified to get the signal from the Fair to KLCC’s main transmitter on Blanton Heights in Eugene. Over the years, as the trees grew, the antenna had to be realigned so the signal could make it to its destination. On really hot days, the quality of the broadcast could be compromised.
The first several years the station borrowed a towable trailer from LCC’s RV department to serve as our remote broadcast booth. It had the basics – microphones, mixing board, digital editing equipment. Over the last few decades, two listeners have donated RV’s, which were then renovated and upgraded to meet our needs. We’ve nicknamed them “Elsie” (as in the Spanish version of our call letters- Que El Si Si – say it quickly out loud 5 times and you’ll get it) and now there’s “Elsie 2”. The RV also allowed us to move our on-air broadcast teams to the KLCC booth at the back of the Main Stage Meadow. Until then the booth, tiny and tucked into the trees, was used for meeting and greeting Fair goers.
We built an addition on to the booth for the hosts to work from. It was raised a few feet above the crowd so we could (almost) see the stage. It is round and passersby can only see our heads. It looks like we are in a hot tub up there! We even toyed with the idea of bringing in dry ice so it would look like steam. The KLCC crew still refers to it as the Hot Tub!
By 2011 our booth was deteriorating, rotting. With the help of Rainbow Valley, we created a larger “hot tub” for the broadcast – raised higher for (somewhat better) stage visibility – with a green room below for guests waiting to be interviewed. We also enhanced the Meet & Greet area, making it more visible and welcoming to folks wanting to talk to KLCC staff and volunteers. Check out this video of our booth transformation.
The trailer, or RV, had to be brought in and set up about a week before the Fair opened. At that point some crews, including Construction and Carts, had been out there for weeks getting set up. The Main Stage crew would be stringing wires and reassembling the stage from its winter skeleton which helped it weather the flooding. This area is under water part of the year due to the Long Tom River growing beyond its banks. Now this stage crew had hard work to do, often up a ladder. To make their job more enjoyable they would work naked. To come upon these men and women, way up above you, with all exposed to nature and all of us below was quite a sight!
A number of crews have work to do “pre and post Fair.” To be as productive as possible, many people camp during the weeks leading up to the event. There are numerous campsites on the property, out of sight of the admission-paying public. Crews and families have set up in the same spot for decades! Not so for Tripp and Sandune. A rough estimate determines my wife and I have called at least ten sites home at the Fair. When I first gained the title of Booth Rep for KLCC/WOW Hall #299, we set up a little tent behind the booth. During the day, it was “Wild Berry Punch” at the top of our neighbors’ voice. At night, DRUMS!!! All night we were trying to sleep amidst the uneven, unrehearsed rhythm of the drums. It is hard enough to try to sleep on the bumpy ground, but then the drums! They finally relocated the drummers to the Drum Tower far, far away. But any person who says they got a good night’s sleep, no matter where they bed down at the Fair, is either lucky or lying. Don’t expect a visit from the Sandman. We wisely vacated that spot, but to this day, brave KLCC staffers camp behind the booth, enduring the Wild Berry Punch shouts into the wee hours.
Camping spot #2 was behind Main Stage in a space we carved out in the brambles and the brush. This was given to us the first year of the KLCC broadcast. Proximity.
The only other couple camping there was OCF President Jack and his wife. It was like we were honorary residents. The area was referred to as “butt stage”, because from our vantage point you see performers changing costumes. Goes with the territory.
Then one year we were unceremoniously told it would no longer work for us to camp behind Main Stage. They were moving us up the road to Entertainment Camp. This area definitely lived up to its name. Being locals, Sandune and I would set up camp the weekend before the Fair. Chalk mark lines show people where to camp and walk. We found – or were told – where to camp. As many of the entertainers came from out of town, the camp would grow from the few locals to the tents of the many troubadours, jugglers and stilt walkers. What a population explosion!
One year first time attendee Chris Chandler, a spoken word artist, crawled out of his black pup tent next to us and asked for basic directions around the Fair. The way he emerged looked like an illusion. How could he ever fit in there? Yes, you guessed it. After a couple years in camp, we were asked to move again. Even though KLCC had very real entertainment ties, Sandune and I were not entertainers, per se. So for a few years, due to a generous friend, we borrowed her camper, nicknamed “The Tortuga”, and camped on the road leading to Entertainment Camp. Not being seasoned at the art of RV camping, we pulled in a little lopsided. Every “expert” at the Fair felt compelled to stop and offer their sage advice as to how to level the rig. Of course there were many variations to that advice. “Guess we’ll sleep with our heads toward the road.” While in that spot Sandune hung out with our neighbors, the road crew for String Cheese Incident. I remember SCI fiddler Michael Kang obsessively brushing his teeth with a battery-powered tooth brush outside their rig. And one early morning an owl swooped right about my head.
OK. Just one more camping site story and then I’ll move on. Last, but not least, the Fair manager, Charlie Ruff, relocated us to Danger Fields. As in Rodney Dangerfield. Upon entering you see a sign that says “no respect”. Got that right. We found a spot no one else had claimed. It is near a log we used as a border for our site. We were even able to carve out a small space for KLCC’s Chief Engineer Chris Heck to set up next to us. Then, one year, we discovered someone had planted several trees near that log, greatly decreasing the size and quality of our site. No more camping at the Fair for these two.
Initially, KLCC broadcast every single act from the Main Stage all 3 days of the Fair. Over the years we modified the on-air schedule to include NPR news and to spare listeners of trying to imagine what some troupe was juggling on stage. In order to make all this happen, KLCC has 4 main teams – Engineering, Broadcast, Reporting and Booth Staff. Engineers set up and tear down the remote equipment and monitor the signal during the broadcast. They are also responsible for making 2 CD copies of the bands -- one for the band and one for the OCF archives. The Broadcast team consists of producers, hosts and co-hosts. Producers help arrange live interviews, decide which reports go on the air, construct breaks and communicate with the hosts, engineer and stage announcer or MC. Reporters gather stories before and during the Fair to instill the broadcast with even more Fair essence. And finally, the Booth Staff welcomes guests to the booth and maintains knowledge of KLCC’s broadcast plans, and helps facilitate a smooth broadcast. On-air timing is very tricky in the free-form atmosphere of the Fair. We rely on the stage crew to keep the bands on schedule.
KLCC’s backstage liaison communicates with the stage manager, then updates the producer in the “hot tub” on when to expect the next band to start playing. “Five more minutes, three more minutes, um, actually, 6 more minutes…”and so on! While most bands are able to stay within the allotted set up and tear down times, others do not. Sometimes they are as much as half an hour late. One time, the drummer was missing! Stage manager David Paul took his seat behind the drum kit, ready to fill in and get the set rolling when the original dude showed up and the show was on.
So what is a producer and their hosts to do when a carefully planned break is blown out of the water by a missing drummer or a huge ensemble setting up? The break will go on. And on! There are reporters’ stories that can be played. We also keep a stack of CD’s by the engineer’s mixing board so they can play previews of other bands at the Fair. And then there is “the second stage”. Most years, KLCC also gets a signal from the acoustic stage called Shady Grove.
Sometimes there is a musician playing there. Sometimes not. What else can we broadcast? The hosts must keep calm, keep talking and the producer comes up with the next best thing to put on the air. This is rattlingly different than having multiple resources at the physical KLCC in Eugene. Such unexpected, fluid situations definitely test the mettle of the hosts and the producer.
Reporting at the Fair is a great experience, especially for the newer reporters. It is essentially field reporting, which means on-site, not on the phone or in the studio. The Fair is a village-come-to-life for the weekend. Even when on an assigned story, the reporter may encounter an individual, a performance or a great sound recording opportunity too good to pass up. This really attunes their “radar” to recording the moment, the scenes, the stories that surround them. Open eyes and ears capture great audio.
Meanwhile, back at the station…for years we had a person monitoring the broadcast for performers’ profanity during sets. This was not a problem 99% of the time. But every now and then a poet or musician would drop a few F-bombs or worse. Having these broadcast could offend listeners, lead to complaints to the Federal Communications Commission and worst of all, jeopardize KLCC’s license, which is held by Lane Community College. So the broadcast was on a 7 second delay. If the person at the station heard offensive language, they had 7 seconds to push a button that would generate a few seconds of silence. Done right, the listener would never hear the potentially offending words and no one would have cause or reason to report us to the FCC. A couple of years ago, the New Orleans band Dumpstaphunk took the Main Stage. Their first song was a tribute to Prince, who had died that year. When they sang “sexy motherf***er” once, I hoped it wouldn’t happen again. Fleeting expletive. I was WRONG! It was the chorus! I ran back to our broadcast RV “Elsie” to tell the engineer to pull the band off the air. Chief Engineer Chris Heck had already done so. Along with Program Director Don Hein we decided not to take another chance with this band. We went to “stage 2”, Shady Grove, for an acoustic set.
For several decades Denny Guehler was The Voice of the Oregon Country Fair. He was the Main Stage MC. Every morning, before the first band, his voice would boom out across the Main Stage Meadow “Good morning, Oregon Country Fair”, and the day began. Also every year, Denny would say “The Grateful Dead are here again this year, cleverly disguised as the Water Truck crew”. In fact, there are several connections between the Fair and the Grateful Dead. In August of 1972 the band played on the site, but not during the Fair, as a fundraiser for the Springfield Creamery to pay back taxes. They played again in ’82, but had to cancel in ’92, when Jerry Garcia fell ill. Band members Bill Kreutzmann and Vince Welnick played the Main Stage, as well as long time Garcia cohort David Nelson. One friend noted that Kreutzmann had so much fun after public hours he was popping up, playing on stages all over the Fair.
Downtown Deb and I were honored to have Bill as a guest in the “hot tub” several times over the years. One time he showed up with a pair of goggles on his head. I asked, “Excuse me, Mr. Kreutzmann, but why do you have goggles perched on the top of your head?” He replied, “You never know when a sandstorm will blow through”. True that, Bill! On Saturday evenings, after the last band finishes performing, KLCC’s Downtown Deb hosts “Dead Air from the Fair”, her weekly show of songs by the Grateful Dead and their friends.
Like other recurring events, participants often rank their experience compared to previous times. Deadheads often say enthusiastically, but not critically, “best show ever”. People who attend the Fair say year after year, “best Fair ever”!
On Sunday, after the headlining band has played its last note, Denny takes to the mic. He thanks key people for their efforts and contributions to the year’s Fair and announces the dates for next year. Then, he sends his deep booming voice out across the Main Stage Meadow one more time, saying “the Fair is closed.”