After more than 17 years atop one of the state’s leading journalism and broadcast operations, Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO and President Steve Bass has announced his departure.
Under his watch, OPB has grown into one of the Pacific Northwest’s leading daily news sources and one of public media’s most financially stable and journalistically ambitious organizations.
When Bass arrived at Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2006, the news and journalism operation was small and a small part of the now 100-year-old organization’s identity.
“I came here thinking ‘OK, I’m moving to Oregon to run a radio and a television network,” Bass said Friday. “And now I think what we’re, what OPB is, is a journalism organization that also operates radio and television networks.”
OPB’s content staff has grown from a relatively small crew of news reporters on the radio side and videographers focused on TV production to a broad array of short- and long-form journalists producing audio, video and digital content on multiple platforms for audiences that includes most of Oregon and a large portion of Southwest Washington. In a period of OPB’s most rapid growth, from 2015 to 2020, the nonprofit added 13 positions in content production.
OPB was very different when Bass arrived from Nashville Public Television after stints at WGBH and WGBY in Massachusetts. Even though the NPR and PBS affiliate already had longstanding television programs such as Oregon Field Guide and Oregon ArtBeat, Bass said he learned quickly that the organization’s audience craved more content that reflected the region.
“Early on, one of the people I met was Betsy Johnson, who was a state senator at that point and had been an OPB board member,” Bass said. “One of the things she said to me was ‘Steve, you’ve got to put the Oregon back in OPB.’’ And I thought it was one of the best pieces of advice that I heard.”
The executive who helped put the “O” into OPB through these changes says it is time to prepare for his departure. Bass, 66, announced his plans at a Friday meeting with the nonprofit’s board of directors.
While board members anticipated this announcement coming at some point, they were still deeply affected.
Board chair Rukaiyah Adams described her reaction as one of “profound sadness.”
“I will say that his tenure has built the organization up to be a very important part of the media landscape here, and it’s really stable and well run,” Adams said. “So whoever is next won’t be managing an organization that needs a lot of redesign.”
The board of directors said it will begin planning a search right away. It won’t need to appoint an interim leader, as Bass has said he will stay in his current position until a new CEO is hired.
Both Adams and Bass see similar challenges ahead for OPB. One that’s top of mind for Adams, is the changing demographics and consumer habits of Oregonians.
“On the eastern border of the state, we have counties that have pretty large Latinx populations that might have other public media needs,” Adams said. “We have a divergent membership base with some folks who are used to watching OPB television and the content that was created 10 years ago and then young people who are consuming media through cell phone applications.”
As a media organization, OPB faces a transition away from broadcast and toward online, or broadband, delivery of content. It’s a shift that Adams sees as part of the “transformative” point at OPB and for news organizations in general.
Bass agrees that the transition to the internet is a challenge facing the board and OPB’s next leader.
“I’m kind of curious as to how is OPB’s model going to translate sometime in the future to a fully digital or broadband future,” Bass said. “I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but I also know that there’s going to be a need for what OPB does, whether it be 10 years from now, or 50 years from now.”
As a member-supported nonprofit, OPB also has the task of improving its efforts to attract members through online platforms. It will be building on a foundation of steady membership growth during Bass’ tenure; OPB membership rose from 107,000 members in 2006 to 159,000 this year.
On a personal level, Bass said he plans to spend more time with his family, travel and stay engaged to some extent with public media. Bass, a clarinetist, also plans to deepen his involvement in local classical music performance, with a goal of completing a performance “cycle” of all of Beethoven’s and Mahler’s symphonies.