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'A treasured tradition:' KSL Radiothon continues to raise money and touch hearts

Published: Tuesday, March 11 2014 3:40 p.m. MDT

The KSL Radiothon raises money every year for the patients and families at Primary Children's Hospital.

KSL

Seated in a wheelchair next to her grandfather, 9-year-old Madison Newbold addressed the room of reporters and radio personalities like a pro.

“What is spina bifida?” someone asked.

“It’s where your back doesn’t work,” said the little girl with purple-rimmed glasses.

“What do you and your grandfather like to do for fun?” another asked.

“We hang out,” Maddie said, flashing a sweet smile. “We do whatever we want, but don’t tell anyone.”

Grandfather and granddaughter exchanged a tender glance.

“Sugar is a staple, one of the four major food groups. She’s a chocoholic,” grandfather Peter Nelson said amid a few chuckles. “I’m known as the grandpa who has very few rules.”

Maddie was sharing her story with KSL Newsradio personalities in preparation for the 38th annual KSL Radiothon for Primary Children’s Hospital on March 13.

Over the course of 20 minutes, the KSL Radio team learned that Maddie’s first visit to Primary Children’s Hospital came when she was only four hours old. She was born with spina bifida and spent the first 10 days of her life in the intensive care unit. She was among the first to undergo a surgery that is now being used around the world to help spina bifida patients with severe curvature problems.

More than nine years, countless check-ups and multiple surgeries later, Primary Children’s has been a second home for Maddie and her family.

“Her mom and I were trying to figure out how many times she has been here, and we lost track at 38,” Nelson said.

Maddie is a classic example of why KSL Radio has continued its annual tradition of organizing a radiothon.

This year’s radiothon included a month-long campaign that concludes March 13 with a live broadcast from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Donations can be made at Intermountainhealthcare.org or KSL.com.

Since its humble beginnings in the late 1970s, the KSL Radiothon has raised more than $9 million for patients and families at Primary Children’s. In the process, the charitable cause has been a blessing for the community. It's "a treasured tradition," inspired by love and concern, said Sharon Goodrich, director of Primary Children’s Foundation

“We attribute a lot of what Primary Children’s has become, and what it can do for children, to support given by the community,” Goodrich said. “We express gratitude to KSL. It all started with their desire to make a difference in the community.”

A new idea

In the fall of 1976, Goodrich was the public relations director at Primary Children’s Hospital. One day she received a telephone call from Lee Pocock, then the promotion director for KSL Radio. The radio station was interested in finding a way to help raise funds for the hospital long recognized for its charitable policy of never turning away a sick or injured child.

At that time, KSL was a music station, and it had a new concept it wanted to try, Goodrich said.

“Why not do a telethon on the radio and call it a radiothon? If a caller makes a contribution, they get to request a song,” Goodrich said. “There was nothing like it in the country to pattern it after, so they were kind of inventing it as they went along.”

The first event was held in KSL’s lunchroom with at least four rotary dial telephones in 1977. The KSL disc jockeys were not prepared for a large volume of requests and couldn’t keep up, Goodrich said.

The event raised $23,500. The biggest donation came from a listener who wanted to hear Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. Someone ran over to the Salt Lake City Library and checked out the sketch to secure the pledge.

“It was odd, a lot of commotion, but it was a lot of fun,” Goodrich said. “We learned from that first year that maybe taking requests for pledges wasn’t manageable.”

Support has increased since then.

The event raised more than $100,000 for the first time in 1982, $200,000 in 1995 and $300,000 in 1999. Donations finally surpassed $500,000 last year. These funds are used for charity care, research and to support special programs at the hospital such as bereavement, music therapy, toys and art supplies.

“It’s incredible to see the generosity,” said Doug Wright, now entering his 36th year with the radiothon. “It’s not about KSL. It’s about our listeners using KSL as a conduit to make a donation to the hospital. The generosity each and every year is breathtaking.”

Gage Thompson’s story

That generosity has benefitted families like the Thompsons.

Gretchen Thompson describes her son Gage as “all boy.” The 6-year-old likes riding his bike, playing soccer, building with Legos and playing with his two dogs, Chief and Ozzie. Most who see him have no idea what he’s been through, his mother said.

In November 2011, Gage became sick and complained of headaches. Having already taken him to the family doctor, his parents felt impressed to take him to Primary Children’s. That's where a scan revealed a large brain tumor.

Because the tumor was so close to his brain stem, it had to be removed in pieces over two surgeries lasting a total of 18 hours.

“It was a miracle,” Gretchen Thompson said. “Our doctor was amazing. He hugged us, he cried with us.”

Gage Thompson’s recovery was aided by daily root beer floats at Primary Children’s and a special friendship with the Holladay Fire Department. More than two years later, he is healthy and thriving, despite occasional problems with balance.

“Our experience with the hospital was great. There was someone there to help us at every turn,” Gretchen Thompson said. “We are changed forever and have an increased sense of gratitude. As a family, we have tried to be more aware of what is going on around us, to do more charity work and help where we can, because we know how much it helps, and to show our gratitude by giving back.”

Memorable moments

Alex Kirry, co-host of KSL Radio’s Nightside Project, remembers well his first year with the radiothon seven years ago. At that point, the radiothon was a 26-hour marathon. Kirry and co-host Ethan Millard had the 7 to midnight shift.

“It was five hours of giving out that phone number and feeling the excitement that’s up there,” Kirry said.

Around midnight, despite the lateness of the hour, Kirry said the group reached a lofty goal in donations and everyone was cheering and slapping high-fives. They were also physically exhausted. When Kirry finally arrived home around 1:30 a.m., he woke up his wife to share the good news.

“That’s all great, but can we talk about it in the morning?” she said.

Kirry remembers going to sleep only to be shaken awake a short time later by his wife, who asked him what he was doing.

“What?” he asked.

“You keep giving out a phone number,” she informed him.

“I was giving out the phone number in my sleep. It was embedded. I will never forget it, KSL-KIDS (575-5437),” Kirry said. “I guess I kept saying it over and over.”

His co-workers got a big laugh out of the story the next day.

“You never forget your first radiothon,” Kirry said.

The KSL Radiothon takes place in a multipurpose room on the third floor at Primary Children’s. Volunteers sit at tables lined with telephones that are constantly ringing. The tables surround an area called “the pit,” the space where the KSL Radio personalities stand and interact with the volunteers. It’s a magical, party-like atmosphere, Goodrich said.

“There is an energy that is hard to describe. It’s so loud that it’s hard to hear the poor caller on the other end,” Goodrich said. “It feels like the whole state is calling and saying we love the children and want to make a difference.”

The radio hosts are the game-changers, Goodrich said. They have a remarkable talent for telling stories, expressing thoughts and helping the listeners to connect with the children who need help.

"I think one of the most satisfying things for me is to watch our KSL on-air hosts feel and see some of the things we see on a daily basis," Goodrich said. "Their ability to paint that masterful picture for the listening audience is something few of us can do. That's what gets the phones to ring."

Goodrich and Wright both remember when Karen Ashton, wife of WordPerfect Corporation co-founder Alan Ashton (together they founded Thanksgiving Point), attended the radiothon and announced she would triple donations for a short time.

“For the next hour the phones were on fire and we could not keep up,” Goodrich said.

Wright has been touched over the years by the people and their generous gifts, large and small. He recalls one woman who used to collect aluminum cans during the year and donate the earnings to the radiothon. She would also show up with freshly baked goods for everyone.

Another man consistently contributed $5,000 to $10,000 and declined to be recognized.

There have even been phone calls from truckers driving across the state who have no ties to Utah but wanted to help.

“It brings out the best of everybody. Individuals and corporate sponsors have stepped up in significant ways,” Wright said. “The ones that touch me are the mom-and-pop donations where you know this is a sacrifice, this is coming off the dining room table or the utility bill. This is going to make things tough for the next little while.”

The one thing that makes Wright feel bad is hearing a caller apologize for not giving more.

“If there is one thing I have learned in the radiothon, it’s the principle of the widow’s mite,” the longtime radio talk show host said. “I hope everybody who gives to the radiothon, regardless of the amount, knows what a difference it makes. That money is appreciated whatever it might be.”

‘Miracle makers’

The radiothon is following a different format this year. Instead of a 26-hour radiothon, KSL Radio and Primary Children's have carried out a month-long educational campaign that will conclude with an all-day fundraiser. As part of the new campaign, listeners are encouraged to become "miracle makers" and donate $15 each month for the whole year, said KSL program director Kevin LaRue.

"This way, by the end of the year, you will be able to do more for the hospital than you would be able to do at one time," LaRue said. "It's a little bit of a leap of faith. We hope listeners will jump into this concept of continual giving and being a miracle maker. Hopefully we will be able to do something more remarkable for the hospital than we have done before."

Donations can always be made to help children at the hospital. Mail-in donations can be sent to: KSL Radiothon Primary Children’s Hospital Foundation, P.O. Box 58249, Salt Lake City, UT 84158-0249. Both the Deseret News and KSL are owned by Deseret Management Corporation.

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com, Twitter: tbtoone

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