This article originally appeared in the 11/12/13 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.
TOOELE, Any given day in 1968 – A young disc jockey sits in a small radio studio at the corner of Main and Vine, sorting through a stack of vinyl records. The station’s reel-to-reel automation block has ended and it’s time to go live. He unscrews the side of the massive belt-driven turntable, adjusts the gear speed and cues a Hank Snow track. When he drops the needle, Tooele Valley is bathed with the lo-fi sounds of classic country music.
The station is KDYL 990 AM, “The Country Gentleman.” The fledgling DJ is a high school student from Salt Lake City by the name of Doug Wright. At age 16, Wright also serves as program director, news reader and janitor for the bare-bones, 1 kilowatt operation. Being more of a rock and roll guy, he’s not particularly keen on the station’s country format.
But he’s obsessed with radio—and that is all that matters.
45 years later, Doug Wright is a mainstay at KSL Newsradio in Salt Lake City, and one of the best-known radio personalities in the business. He sat down last month with the Transcript Bulletin to reflect on his radio career and its humble beginnings in Tooele.
“I always loved radio,” Wright said shortly after signing off his daily topical program, The Doug Wright Show, at KSL Studios in downtown Salt Lake. “I was one of those geeky kids that would listen to those big old tube radios. The game was to see how far away your mom’s old set could pick something up. I remember thinking, if I could ever just be able to say that I was on the radio—just once—how cool that would be!”
Wright’s first turn behind a radio microphone, a volunteer gig at the University of Utah’s KUER, came when he was 16 years old. After only a few months spinning records there, he set out to begin his commercial career.
“At that age you think you own the world and you think you’re a whole lot better and hotter than you are, and I just couldn’t understand why anybody wouldn’t hire me on a commercial basis,” Wright laughed.
After failing to find work in the Salt Lake area, Wright turned his focus westward to Tooele’s KDYL.
Relatively little has been documented about the early history of Tooele’s only long-lived radio station. In fact, commercial radio amounts to only a side note in Tooele County history. For most Tooele County residents, clear signals pouring in from stations in the Salt Lake market were local enough. But that fact didn’t foil a significant run for Tooele’s AM station.
KDYL Tooele began airing in 1955 with the call sign KTUT, originally broadcasting from the Ritz Theater on Main Street. The station was renamed re-branded KDYL in the mid-1960s and was purchased by Wendell Winegar, who moved it across Main to the building that now houses the LA Hispanic Market at the corner of Vine. The cascading diamond shaped outlines of the letters K, D, Y, and L are still visible on the south face of the building. The studio itself was located on the second floor in the southeast corner. The station’s 200 foot tower still stands in a field at 600 N. 400 W. The station switched from middle-of-the-road (MOR) programming to country in 1966.
The late 1960s marked a period of transition and mild upheaval for KDYL. According to Wright, when Wright came calling in 1968, only the General Manager of the station remained.
“His name was Don Hall,” Wright recalled. “And he was so desperate that, instead of seeing this pathetic little kid who wanted to be on the radio, he saw somebody that maybe could actually help him. So I was hired pretty much on the spot.”
Together, Hall and Wright operated the small-town station using equipment that seemed ancient to Wright at the time.
“It was a great, great old station and everything was hand-me-down. We used to just keep that place together with spit and bailing wire,” Wright said.
KDYL was a daytime station broadcasting between sunrise and sunset, with Wright at the helm as often as his schedule allowed.
“High school was kind of a casualty, if you want to know the truth,” Wright said. “I was so in love with radio that high school, well…”
He commuted each day from Sugarhouse in his mother’s 1960 Plymouth. Because his pay at KDYL was negligible, he financed the commute by working a part time job at a Salt Lake grocery store.
The station’s Schafer 800 reel-to-reel automation system allowed Hall and Wright to fill in parts of the day. The format was country music, which Wright said was mainly geared to the adult population. KDYL hosted weekly live show on Saturday mornings called “Country Jamboree” (or Country Jubilee—neither Wright nor Winegar could remember exactly), which featured local artists. A block of Spanish language programming ran on Sunday. For several years, KDYL covered Little League baseball games. Surplus speakers from the Tooele Army Depot were installed on light posts along Main Street so listeners out and about could hear the coverage. Wright remembers providing live coverage of a parade on Main Street by stringing a microphone through the roof of the building.
“It was a mishmash of things. It was an eclectic place,” Wright smiled.
Hall and Wright integrated news into the programming where possible, but since a traditional news wire service proved too expensive, they occasionally lifted stories from newspapers (including the Transcript Bulletin). Even so, Wright remembers the particularly jarring experience of going to a murder scene near the Tooele Post Office to gather details on the crime, then breaking into programming to provide updates over the air.
Particularly memorable to wright was the need for careful timing—especially when it came to the Tooele Valley Railroad, which used to run down Vine Street.
“You had to be really careful of what you were doing when the [train] came down,” he explained. If you had a record on, it would just shake the needle right off. If you heard that whistle blow as it would cross Main Street, you better not have a record on!”
In time, Winegar allowed Wright to break format on Saturday afternoons to play rock and roll. This, according to Wright, was refreshing to younger listeners who began to visit him in-studio on Saturday nights. He maintains friendships with many of them to this day.
“The kids just gravitated to it,” Wright recalled. “I say ‘kids,’ but they were the same age that I was. They kind of tolerated the country station, but it was so exciting to them to have something [of their own].”
Wright paused to point out that despite his initial aversion to the country genre, he acquired a taste for it while at KDYL.
“I used to joke with my friends, saying all I do out there is play Hank, Hank, Hank, and Hank. Hank Locklin, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Hank Jr. But it got in my blood,” he said.
It was also during his time at KDYL that Wright became fascinated with mining history. After signing off the air, he would frequently take excursions to local ghost towns and historic sites. While venturing further south into Juab County with a girlfriend from Tooele, he fell in love with the small town of Eureka and later bought a home there.
After about a year at KDYL, Wright returned to the Salt Lake market, finally landing at KSL in 1978. Originally working as a fill-in host, he became Program Director and began hosting his own show. The Doug Wright Show airs from 9:00 to noon on weekdays. According to KSL Program Director Kevin LaRue, Wright’s show is heard by some 50,000 listeners each day.
Winegar sold the station in 1979 and KDYL continued broadcasting as such until 1982 when it released the call sign to a Salt Lake station, assumed call sign KTLE, and switched its frequency AM 1010. The station switched ownership and formats several more times until 2009, when it was purchased by IHR Educational Broadcasting. The station, now KIHU (for Immaculate Heart Utah), broadcasts Catholic religious programming.
The seasoned broadcaster looks back on his KDYL days fondly and said his experience broadcasting from Main and Vine helped shape his career. He lamented the demise of small-town, community focused media like Tooele’s KDYL:
“When we lose that small town newspaper, that small town radio station, we lose a little bit of our soul.”
But channeling Mark Twain, he posited that the reports of radio’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It must adapt and evolve, but the need for local radio will always remain.
“There’s something to tuning in and knowing that person’s right there too, that they’re in the same time frame that you are in, that the weather you’re experiencing, they’re experiencing too,” Wright explained. “The core of it is that friend on the radio.”