Longtime local radio station continues to expand its reach.
KTAR Radio is a broadcasting institution in Arizona, yet it’s nimble enough to still play a vital role in the lives of local residents and make a significant impact on the community every day. On the air continuously, it’s the only broadcast outlet in greater Phoenix with over 95 years of service from the same place on the radio dial.
Within the last decade, KTAR has tripled its influence. A trio of brands comprise the legendary local originator of news and talk. KTAR, which moved to the FM band at 92.3 in 2006, features the tagline “The Voice of Arizona.” Local sports—including play-by-play for the Suns, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Coyotes and ASU teams—and sports talk are on KMVP, known as “Arizona Sports,” also on the FM band at 98.7. And national sports and talk, along with additional local sports match-ups, are on 620 on the AM band, now known as “ESPN Phoenix.” The websites KTAR.com and ArizonaSports.com also keep the public informed up to the minute, as does the KTAR smartphone app.
Since 2004, Salt Lake City-based Bonneville International Corp. has owned the stations.
“We are privileged to be stewards of these brands,” says Ryan Hatch, vice president of news and sports content. “Talk radio in some markets has become so divisive. That’s just not what we do. We want our hosts to have opinions, but we like to say we’re ‘insightful,’ not ‘inciteful.’”
When it began
The flagship of the three brands, KTAR debuted on the airwaves in June 1922. By 1928, it was located at 620 on the radio dial, and by 1930, it was affiliated with The Arizona Republic newspaper—hence the call letters KTAR.
“We’ve always had the finest people in media working for us,” says Scott Sutherland, vice president/market manager for the three stations. “Ours is a heritage brand that has meant everything to this community for decades.” In September 1973, KTAR-AM switched from an adult contemporary music format to an all-news format with local news anchors, even during the overnight hours. No other radio station in the Phoenix market had tried this format. “We proved news was a workable format and that people in the Phoenix market were definitely interested during the morning and afternoon drives,” says Roger Downey, the former evening news anchor for KPHO-TV Channel 5 and the first news director hired by then-general manager of KTAR, Ralph Beaudin.
“I got the chance to work with some of the best radio newscasters in Arizona,” says Joe Anaya, one of the news professionals Downey hired. Anaya recently retired from Channel 5 after a 33-year career there. At KTAR, he says, news feeds from ABC Radio News enabled the team to add more dimension to its newscasts.
“Coupled with reporters assigned to cover the State Capitol, Phoenix City Hall, county government and the police department,” he says, “we generated a lot of news stories right from the beginning.”
Expanding the format
Local talk show hosts were added. By 1984, Arizona entertainment icon Pat McMahon, who played many memorable characters on the long-running local kids TV show “Wallace and Ladmo,” had become the centerpiece of the talk-show lineup. During his storied career, McMahon has interviewed many celebrated achievers from all walks of life, including Mother Theresa, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, Walter Cronkite, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Joe Garigiola, just to name a few.
Today, McMahon’s contributions to KTAR’s programming include a daily commentary and weekly shows “The God Show,” a broad look at spiritual issues and “The McMahon Group,” a freewheeling discussion among guests representing various professions.
“KTAR is one of those organizations listeners just know they can depend on for accuracy,” McMahon says, “especially in a day and age when it’s kind of difficult to determine who’s telling the truth or who’s speaking from a personal or prejudicial perspective. We’re not telling you what to think, we’re simply telling you to think.”
News still the cornerstone
KTAR maintains the largest radio news team in the state.
“When the status of a news event is rapidly changing, we are at our best,” says news director Paul Ihander. The station is responsible for coordinating the broadcast of public information in an emergency situation among all other local radio stations, a designation colloquially known as “the red phone.” The symbolic red phone in the newsroom is the “representation of our position as the source for information about public safety,” Sutherland says.
The red phone concept is a combination of “talk, news and digital content and engineering that connects us to the emergency alert system,” Sutherland explains. All Amber (missing children) and Silver (missing older residents) alerts broadcast on local radio are coordinated by KTAR, he says. “Whatever the emergency situation may be, other stations can either read a prepared script or broadcast our anchors’ voices.”
“We’re the calm in the storm,” says Ihander, who throughout his career has purposely chosen to work at heritage radio stations. “I take our responsibility to the community incredibly seriously. We’re that voice that says everything’s going to be OK.”
As much as KTAR and its sister stations are known for keeping the community informed, they also are expanding their reach in championing important causes and partnering with organizations to raise money for populations that face ongoing challenges.
“We’re committed to doing well by doing good,” Sutherland says. “ We know we can do well with respect to our business by doing good work in the community.”
The stations’ largest annual fundraiser is the Give-a-Thon for Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
“Last year, we raised $1.5 million in 18 hours,” Sutherland says. Held in mid-August, “it has become the single largest hospital fundraiser in the country.”
KTAR also holds a radiothon every year called Action for Autism, benefitting the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in Phoenix. The stations also hold fundraisers for first responders, Luke Air Force Base, and for charities that help patients with lymphoma and ALS, among other medical conditions. In September, the station celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month with a multi-part series recognizing Latinos’ achievements and influence.
The newest community venture, promoted on Arizona Sports and on the station’s digital platforms, is called Big League Dads, intended to encourage fathers to get involved in their family’s life.
“We want to inspire and educate dads to take a more active, positive role in the lives of their families and communities,” Hatch says, adding that the spokesman for the effort is Christ Church of the Valley pastor Travis Brown. In August, the initiative hosted an event at Cardinals Training Camp for 200 fathers.
No shortage of awards
The stations’ excellence has been rewarded and recognized often. The National Association of Broadcasters bestows its annual Crystal Award to only 10 radio stations around the country in recognition of outstanding community service. No station can win the award in consecutive years, but KTAR won it in 2014 and 2016 and a third time in the past six years. Arizona Sports has been nominated for the Crystal Award twice, Hatch says.
“I can’t remember another sports station even being nominated,” he says.
KTAR also has won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for news broadcasting excellence multiple times over the years from the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Sutherland says KTAR, Arizona Sports and ESPN Phoenix will continue a tradition of dedication to the local community.
“The focus of everything we do is Greater Phoenix and Arizona and the impact we can have to uplift, educate and inspire.”
Story by Debra Gelbart
Photo by Lipczynski