“When I was floating from major (music) to major (geology) to major (political science), Dean John Hulteng encouraged me to stay with journalism,” Crafts remembers. “One day he sat me down in his office and informed me that my eclectic life journey was precisely the kind of liberal arts background a journalist needs.”
Crafts was way ahead of the dean. He had landed his first job as a radio announcer at 16, and by the time he enrolled at UO, he was already working full time as station news director for KERG-Eugene, the first iteration of what is now KRVM.
“Being a child of the 1940s, I grew up with radio,” Crafts says. “The only job I ever wanted was to be on the air.”
More than 50 years after Hulteng confirmed Crafts’ life path, he has yet to stray from it. He’s won a number of journalism awards throughout his career, including a National Newspaper Association award, the Birdland West Humanitarian Award and an American Political Science Association award for best coverage of anti-poverty issues. He’s become a well-known local and national commenter and advocate for the arts. And he has remained active in radio throughout his life.
From storyteller to journalist
Crafts admits he’s always been a storyteller. But he credits the J-School with helping him turn his aptitude into a livelihood. “What the UO gave me was the mechanism for telling stories effectively,” he says. “I learned how to craft a lead, tell a story, check my facts, meet a deadline, follow a recognized style, give it my all. I also learned the importance of being accurate, truthful, fair. The history of journalism, the law of the press — all that stuff I thought boring at the time has turned out to be incredibly important and useful.”
After graduation, Crafts wasted no time putting his newfound skills to use. He took a job in Eugene as a general assignment reporter for The Register-Guard, where another piece of his life puzzle fell into place.
“I did a lot of arts coverage,” he says. “Recognizing that the arts were my true calling, I soon made it my sole area of coverage for the rest of my career.”
Much like his love of radio, Crafts’ passion for the arts has been with him since childhood. “I have always been interested in the arts,” he says. “I was lucky. My parents took me to a lot of performances as a child. As a result, the arts are in my blood. It’s where I live.”
During the years he spent reporting for the Register-Guard, Crafts never gave up on radio. He began doing broadcast news stories on the side for CBS Radio.
“I quickly saw that the Northwest — especially Oregon — wasn’t being covered much by the national press, so I started sending out stories, both for print and radio,” Crafts says. “My first national story was a piece for CBS Radio Sports — an interview with Terry Baker, Oregon State’s quarterback who had just won the 1962 Heisman Award. I was hooked. I covered everything — sports, politics, crime, natural disasters, you name it.”
Journalism’s Major League
By the late 1960s, Crafts’ star was rising fast. He continued to do radio stories for the major networks and published articles in some of the biggest print outlets in the nation, including The Associated Press, United Press International, The New York Times, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Ladies’ Home Journal and San Francisco Chronicle.
In 1967, Crafts decided it was time to seek his fortune outside Oregon. He landed a job as an anchorman and reporter for a CBS Radio station in Los Angeles.
While in L.A., he also hosted and produced a national program called “Youth Scene” that chronicled the social revolution of the 1960s. “Having close contact with leading figures of the ’60s movement — especially the rock music innovators — gave me an entirely new way at looking at art,” Crafts says.
By 1970, Crafts missed both the arts and his hometown. Fortunately, his job at the Register-Guard was still waiting for him. “While it was a heady experience working on a national level, it did not have the strong connection to community that being at The Register-Guard did,” Crafts says. “I often felt I was doing more ‘good’ in Eugene than in L.A.”
Crafts continued building his portfolio and his connections in the Eugene arts community until he received a mysterious phone call in 1983.
“One day I got a call asking if I wanted to work for the L.A. Times,” Crafts recalls. “Thinking it was a friend playing a joke on me, I came close to hanging up on the man who turned out to be my future boss. I have no idea how they heard about me. Talk about nearly missing an opportunity.”
The position turned out to be a dream job for Crafts: fine arts editor. He spent the next five years covering the bustling L.A. arts scene and meeting his heroes from every creative field, including Dave Brubeck, Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Bill Evans, Van Cliburn, Twyla Tharp, Tan Dun, Gregory Peck, Ansel Adams and Ken Kesey.
“When you get to meet the best minds of your generation, you count yourself lucky,” Crafts says. “To be able to talk with them and learn about their endeavors has been an inspiration.”
According to Crafts, every job he has held over the years was his favorite at the time. That said, some jobs have been more challenging than others. “I never felt so much pressure as when working at CBS and The Los Angeles Times,” he admits. “Every step was minutely scrutinized, every mistake magnified. It was journalism’s equivalent of playing in the Major Leagues. But if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”
The road back home
Eventually, Crafts realized that he felt most fulfilled personally and professionally in Eugene. “This is a wonderful community in one of the most gorgeous spots on earth,” he says. “To say that I missed it while in Los Angeles would be a gross understatement. Eugene nourishes me in a way no other place can.”
There is no doubt that the city has benefited just as much from Crafts’ return. No longer satisfied to simply report on the arts, he has since become an integral part of the creative community and one of its biggest benefactors. Over the years, he has worked as an arts commentator for KVAL-TV, a judge for numerous art competitions, host of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts’ SHOcase Concert Series, host of the Oregon Bach Festival’s “Let’s Talk” series, arts reviewer for The GuardLine, and master of ceremonies for dozens of arts and community service events. He also served as president of the Lane Arts Council and won both the Eugene Arts & Letters Award and the Lane Arts Council’s Alvord Award for outstanding contributions to the arts.
From 1988 to 1998, he covered arts for The Register-Guard, freelanced for print and radio outlets, and crossed off several items on his creative bucket list, including starting a novel and teaching Reporting 101 for the SOJC.
By the mid-1990s, Crafts noticed that although Eugene’s performing arts were enjoying plenty of community support, its galleries were struggling. The problem, he determined, was that people were intimidated.
“I wondered if people were put off from attending gallery openings because they thought that if they went to a gallery just to look, they would feel pressured to buy; if they went to a reception, they wouldn’t know the featured artist from anybody else; and if they had a question, they might feel dumb asking it,” he says.
The solution? Crafts would serve as an art gallery tour guide about town. And the First Friday Art Walk — now a popular monthly institution in Eugene — was born. “The gallery owners and I created a situation in which I sought out the artists, I asked the questions, and exposing art was the central theme,” he says. “To me, it was all about removing barriers.”
In 2008, recognizing Crafts’ unique ability to drum up excitement for the city’s burgeoning art scene, Mayor Kitty Piercy named him Eugene’s first Ambassador for the Arts.
As ambassador — a position he still holds today — Crafts gets to live out his life purpose of bringing art to the people. “I’m not a performer in the usual sense,” he says. “I don’t crave being onstage. But I champion all art forms, and I expect and seek excellence.”
At 75, Crafts is now retired from traditional journalism, but not from the passions that have shaped most of his life. In addition to his duties as Ambassador for the Arts, he has returned to where it all started — radio.
In 2009, Crafts founded Radio Redux, a repertory acting company that reenacts the historic programs broadcast between 1935 and 1960, such as “War of the Worlds” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Crafts writes for, produces, acts in and directs Radio Redux’s 30-person cast, which has performed more than 50 shows from radio’s heyday at the Hult Center and numerous other venues, including gigs alongside the Eugene Opera, Ballet Fantastique and Kesey Enterprises.
“We are not only an entertainment vehicle, but a historical preservation project as well,” Crafts says of his theater troupe, which performs regular seasons for live audiences at the Hult Center. “We’re helping to save the wonderful storytelling medium of the Theater of the Imagination.”
To Crafts, Radio Redux is both the perfect expression of his interest in historical radio and a satisfying outlet for his journalistic skills. “Radio Redux is like coming full circle,” he says. “My journalism background comes to the fore in editing scripts and writing press releases. When working on scripts, I still use the copy editing symbols I learned at the UO.”
In the end, he says, it all comes down to good storytelling. “My passion in Radio Redux is telling great stories as effectively as possible,” Crafts says. “A good radio story is just like a good news story: It has to have a catchy lead, a powerful sense of forward motion sparked by curiosity, and a triumphant ending. That’s Journalism 101, is it not?”
You can catch Radio Redux’s latest performance, “Miracle on 34th Street,” at the Hult Center Dec. 18-20.
Story by Andra Brichacek