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.
KSL was the proving ground for such local radio icons as Danny Kramer, who was on the air at KSL from 1972 to 1984 and became one of Utah's best-known radio personalities. Bob Lee, who was a KSL host for more than 23 years starting in 1973, was once known as the "king of evening talk," and eventually moved to middays where he shared time with current KSL legend Doug Wright until 1996.
Over the years, KSL has developed several community-based fundraising programs, including the annual Radiothon benefiting Primary Children’s Medical Center and Quarters for Christmas to help needy children.
The horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, brought the true importance of local news into view. KSL was the only local Utah station to send reporters to New York City's ground zero.
In addition, today KSL is known as the "Home of the BYU Cougars," and was also the first radio home of the Utah Jazz during the team's first five years in existence. And in 2002, KSL was honored to be the official radio station for the Olympic Winter Games.
On Sept. 3, 2005, KSL began simulcasting on 102.7 FM, making the station the first Utah radio news outlet on the FM dial and the first station in Utah to simulcast on both AM and FM.
In an effort to expand its audience demographic, the station launched two successful local talk shows —the Nightside Project in July 2006 and The Browser in October 2010.
Over the years, KSL has partnered with its television reporters to expand its reach and bolster its news coverage. It's something few other stations can boast, said John Hollenhorst, KSL-TV reporter and frequent KSL radio contributor
"I doubt there is another station that has the tradition of news that (KSL) has," he said. "It makes me proud that I've been part of a little piece of that."
Scott Seeger, co-host of "Utah's Afternoon News" along with Maria Shilaos, joined KSL in 1982. He said so much as changed over the years, but the guiding principle of the station has remained constant — providing a quality news product.
"In this business, you've got a font row seat to history," he said, recalling one of the first stories he ever covered, the implantation of the first artificial heart into Barney Clark at University Hospital.2 comments on this story
"Hopefully, we can convey those things in a comprehensive way," Seeger said. "Just to be a part of that has been amazing."
Doug Wright, a 34-year KSL veteran, said, "Everyone (should) feel an ownership of, a connection with KSL. From day one, the goal of this broadcast facility — even as it has expanded into television and online — has been to serve the community … (so they can) have a voice, be entertained and always count on KSL being there."