Early on Saturday morning, May 6, 1922, an engineer spoke into a microphone inside a shack on top of the Deseret News building in downtown Salt Lake City.
“Hello, hello,” he said. “This is KZN, the Deseret News. Salt Lake City calling. The Deseret News sends its greetings to all of you far and wide.”
That evening, Heber J. Grant, then President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Elder George Albert Smith, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; and other dignitaries gathered for a more formal event.
The latest volume of “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days” describes the moment: “Holding the large radio transmitter to his mouth, [President Grant] read a passage from the Doctrine and Covenants about the resurrected Savior. He then bore a simple testimony of Joseph Smith. It was the first time a Prophet had proclaimed the restored gospel across the airwaves.” (“Saints,” volume 3.)
With that “flash of electricity,” Utah became the broadcast home of the first clear-channel radio station in the western United States. And the new technology of radio soon became a way for the Church’s messages to be shared far and wide.
KZN, for K-Zion, became KSL for K-Salt Lake in 1925. Now the radio station — 102.7 FM and 1160 AM on the radio dial in Utah and at kslnewsradio.com — is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Historian Richard E. Turley Jr. said on that May evening in 1922, the mayor of Salt Lake City and others spoke, as did President Grant’s wife, Sister Augusta Grant.
“I think her thoughts were rather forward-looking; she basically acknowledged that tremendous wonders had occurred during their lifetime. And that she could sort of foresee the day when we be talking interplanetary, a statement that, of course, is quite in tune with today’s thoughts,” said Turley.
When George Albert Smith became the President of the Church, he spoke at the radio station’s 25th anniversary, in 1947: “I had the privilege of riding the first bicycle that came to Salt Lake City. I spoke on the first telephone. I witnessed this magnificent city rise from the dusty streets, and 25 years ago, I participated in the initial broadcast.”
Turley said the Church’s investment in radio began with an interest by Melvin R. Ballard, the father of the current Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, M. Russell Ballard. He was a circulation manager for the Deseret News.
“The bottom line is he got the resources together to put together a little metal building on top of the Deseret News building. And what he did was initially seen as a combination of a Deseret News, Church communication and Scouting project,” said Turley.
President Ballard said his father sent Morse code signals from that tower from Salt Lake City to Denver: “Then came the possibility of sending voice from that same system. And that was really the beginning of the concept of KSL being able to send voice messages out about the world.”
“Those early days, it took visionary people. I would say Melvin R. Ballard would be classified as one of those that had the vision to see what could be done,” President Ballard said.
Those early efforts in radio paved the way for KSL to be a home for the Church’s semiannual general conference, in which President Ballard has spoken for the last 46 years.
“[My father] was preparing for his son’s voice to be able to get out around the world. I’ll talk to him about that when I see him again,” said President Ballard.
General conference and ‘Music and the Spoken Word‘
“Saints” volume 3 explains: “Radio was new technology. But with a flash of electricity, its operators instantly broadcast messages a thousand miles in every direction.”
KSL was the first radio station in the area, but the majority population didn’t have radios in the early 1920s. KSL sent out mobile “sound trucks” to public areas where people would gather to listen to the daily news, until more people started to buy their own receivers.
In 1923, the first general conference broadcast was aired. KSL has continued to broadcast the conferences every six months since that time. Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcasts began on KSL in July 1929 and continue today as The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. “Music and The Spoken Word” is the longest-running nationwide network radio program in history.
“At the time that the volume begins, if you’re going to enjoy general conference, you are sitting in the Tabernacle in 1893. And if you’re not in the Tabernacle, you’re not listening to general conference,” said Woodworth. “In 1922, Heber J. Grant gives his first talk, it’s a very short speech over radio, and at that point, the Church turns a corner. It decides, ‘Hey, let’s get our message out through any means that we can, let’s utilize the marvelous inventions available to us.’”
Initially, general conference radio broadcasts went out only to western states around Utah. “But after the Church is able to connect with a national radio program with the ‘Music and the Spoken Word,’ they’re able to get general conference out across North America rather quickly. This is truly remarkable,” said Woodworth.
KSL at 100
Today, KSL provides breaking news, traffic reports, weather forecasts, local talk shows and sporting events in addition to semiannual general conference and the weekly “Music and the Spoken Word.”
The parent company of KSL NewsRadio, Bonneville International, is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bonneville International also owns other radio stations around the western United States.
Bonneville International President Darrell Brown said the company was created by the Church in 1964 to build up, connect, inform and celebrate families and communities.
“David O. McKay [President of the Church at that time] said, ‘The Church is not in broadcasting as a business investment, it is there to provide outstanding community service,’” said Brown in a documentary marking KSL’s 100th anniversary.
Brown quoted what Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1991: “There is a mission we have and that is to contribute, to improve, to build up communities and the moral fiber of that we are a part; that is perhaps the most important thing of all we do.”
KSL participates in community service campaigns such as the Primary Children’s Hospital’s Give-a-Thon, United Way’s Day of Caring, and Utah Gives Back. Bonneville International’s group of radio stations also partners with the Church’s community service website JustServe.org.
As KSL celebrates its 100th anniversary, Turley said radio continues to be a powerful force in society.
“And I think Church leaders continue to own it for the same two reasons that they became interested in the first place,” said Turley. “One, of course, is to assure that the Church can communicate its messages globally, and two, I think they’re very interested in the greater good of the community. And radio makes it possible for them to contribute to the greater good.”