KSL radio celebrates 90 years

Published: Friday, May 4 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

From left, John Dehnel, Amanda Dickson and Grant Nielsen participate in a trivia contest during a celebration of KSL radio's 90th anniversary outside of KSL Broadcast House in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 4, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Ninety years ago this Sunday, Utah became the broadcast home of the first clear channel radio station west of the Mississippi River when LDS Church President Heber J. Grant delivered the state's first radio message over KZN.

In 1924, the station changed its call letters to KFPT for one year before adopting its current call letters — KSL — in 1925.

Since then, Utah has counted on KSL for information on everything from presidential elections to general conference to the triumphant return of a young girl who was kidnapped from her Federal Heights home in the middle of the night. The station has become part of the fabric of the Beehive State.

On Friday, KSL celebrated its 90th year of on-air broadcasting, a feat matched by only a handful of radio stations in the nation.

"KSL is more than just a radio station," said program director Kevin LaRue. "It has reported on some of the most important events in Utah and around the world."

LaRue said the station has gained iconic status in the community over decades by being one of the most trusted sources of news and information in the country.

"People feel a sense of partnership with this station (and) they feel some ownership in the station," he added.

Launched and owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, KSL has garnered national recognition for its outstanding news coverage over the years, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, regional honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and scores of Utah Broadcasters Association awards.

Being the first radio station in the entire area, one of the early challenges KSL faced was the fact that most people didn't have radios. To solve that challenge, KSL sent out mobile "sound trucks" that were sent to public areas where people would congregate to get their daily news.

Not long afterward, most American families owned radios. In fact, within a week after KSL's initial broadcast, full-page advertisements appeared in the Deseret News offering radio receiving sets free with newspaper subscriptions, and by 1940, radio broadcasts were reaching 60 percent of American homes.

At first, the Deseret News Building (later the Union Pacific Building) served as Broadcast House for KSL Radio from 1922 to 1962.

In 1923, when the station was just 1 year old, the first broadcast of LDS general conference was aired. The following year, the entire proceedings were broadcast, a tradition that continues today.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcasts began in July 1929 and still continue as the longest running nationwide network radio program in history. KSL's first mobile sports coverage was a Malcolm Campbell speed run on the famed Salt Flats in 1936, which was also broadcast via short-wave radio to England.

Years later, KSL-TV was officially launched on June 1, 1949.

In 1961, LDS Church President David O. McKay asked Arch L. Madsen to serve as president of the church's KSL radio and television stations. Under Madsen's leadership, KSL expanded greatly to become one of the leading broadcast operations in the U.S.

Three years later, Madsen formed Bonneville International Corp. and served as its president and chief executive officer until 1985, amassing 14 radio and television stations across the country.

Jack Ford initiated KSL's "Air Alerts" in May of 1967, reporting traffic jams, accidents, road conditions, and any other information which might help drivers get to work or home safely. He was one of very few area pilots qualified to fly at 1,000 feet where he could observe conditions from below the cloud ceiling.

Today, KSL continues to be Utah's leader when it comes to reporting Utah's traffic.

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