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Gordon Monson: The real story of … the real hope for … 97.5 and 1280 The Zone

After 20 years on the network, the Tribune columnist says goodbye to the station he helped create

(Paul Fraughton | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson, left, and Kevin Graham on the air in 2007.

It was 20 years ago this fall that Craig Bolerjack and I huddled up to discuss the birth of a new sports-talk radio station in Salt Lake City. We had both been tossed out by another local sports station because, as they said it, they no longer could afford to pay us.

That was a bit of an issue.

Management at the station previously had promised to increase our pay, not decrease it or eliminate it altogether and thereby eliminate … us.

It happens in radio.

A manager informed Boler and me of that decision minutes before we went on the air for our last show. We had some fun with that awkward circumstance over the next few hours, and then we walked away, making a different promise, this one to ourselves, one that would actually be kept — to go out and build a new show on a new station that would do sports talk right.

Make it fun, make it entertaining, make it informative, make it daring, make it bold, make it honest, make it fearless, fill it with strong opinion, with the opinion of listeners and with our own opinions, the opinions of pirates.

That’s what we saw ourselves as — freaking pirates in the studio, at the ballpark, at the stadium, at the arena, toting and talking into our microphones, taking notes, taking calls and taking no prisoners.

Yo-ho, me hearties, we were unafraid to tell the truth, or at least our version of it. We might be wrong sometimes, and we knew that up front. On occasion, we needed correcting. The two things we wanted to avoid: cheap shots and cheerleading.

I called an executive at Simmons Media, left a telephone message for him, told him what we aimed to do. He called back within 15 minutes and said the radio company wanted to meet with us at 10 a.m. the next day.

We walked in, introduced ourselves, made our pitch — and they told us, in so many words, to shut the hell up and listen good. They straight handed us an entire station — the one the Beach Boys sang about in their song “Salt Lake City” — and told us to build it from the ground up.

That station was what became 1280 AM The Zone, later adding 97.5 FM The Zone.

The stations — but not really — that fired me last Thursday, or … no, that were “letting me go,” or “not taking me with.”

In a deal made with the Jazz, there was an interloper on the scene. KSL, after two decades of The Zone’s existence, was taking over operation of the stations, and they were moving all the on-air talent with them — including all the guys who I helped hire, some of the guys whose jobs I had saved in the past when one manager or another got upset about one thing or another — everyone except for … me.

As it turned out, through all the years, I could save other people’s jobs, but ultimately I could not save my own.

And it was OK. All good. No pity needed for me.

I know, I know, I still look and sound young, charming and energetic, and oh-so handsome, but … I didn’t and wasn’t and I’m not. I was coming to the end of the line anyway, planning to walk away on my own. It would have been decent, after nearly 30 years on the air, for KSL to allow me to do so.

They did not.

When the Jazz took over ownership of the stations nine years ago, and ever since, managers with the team had always been fair to me, even though I likely ticked them off regularly, and there are many good people in that organization, top to bottom, who I respect. They know who they are.

At KSL, I knew no one, not really.

But they, apparently, knew me.

Nobody could tell me why I, rather singularly, was uninvited.

Was it because, as a journalist, I couldn’t endorse advertisers’ products on air?

Was it because I also worked for The Salt Lake Tribune, and that didn’t sit well with KSL and its owners, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? That would be ironic, since I’m a lifelong member of that church, and was once offered a columnist job at the KSL-affiliated Deseret News, which I turned down.

Was it because I had recently written a column criticizing church leader Jeffrey Holland for a speech he gave at BYU and someone somewhere wanted to avoid a difficult explanation for having a host on the air who would do such a thing?

Was it because I occasionally ripped BYU’s football team (I praised it, too), and KSL is the home of the Cougars?

Was it because I voiced my own independent thoughts about sports and a wide range of other topics that made the folks at KSL uncomfortable?

This is where the discussion here separates from poor me and turns to a much more important matter — open reporting and free commentary in this town and state that is not controlled or swayed by a dominant overlord.

That’s a gigantic point that I already mentioned and will hammer, again and again, because of its importance.

When The Zone was formed in 2001, it was done with one central governing principle — preserving freedom to voice opinions, popular or unpopular, reverent or irreverent, about sports, about sports teams in this market, about coaches and players, about institutions of all kinds, and about other things, without boundaries.

Not infrequently, with BYU such a big deal in this market, religion crossed over into sports. With current events being what they are, especially with the Jazz and their players at the center of so much attention, bits of politics did, as well.

Some people say they want nothing but sports. Sports, sports, sports. But in a complex world, doing so is impossible, and it’s also irresponsible.

No legitimate sports-talk station should shy away from such matters. What do you do when Luke Staley, one of the Cougars’ all-time football greats, wants his jersey number taken off LaVell Edwards Stadium because of concerns over the enforcement of the Honor Code and LGBTQ issues at BYU? Cover it up? Gloss over it? What if Donovan Mitchell emerges not just as a great basketball player, but as a social leader of an entire generation? Ignore it?

Come on.

The Zone was meant to step up, not down, to stir thought, to break through tradition and conformity, to punch sacred cows and puncture sanctimony, to praise great performances and criticize lousy ones. To find solutions through discussion.

The formula worked.

One host told a caller making racist comments to “take the white hood off.” Others went after coaches who mistreated their players. Another host did have to apologize for taking his play-role too far — into the realm of the inappropriate. Another called a high-ranking Utah administrator a liar. One host, with whom I’m rather familiar, was told by a coach not to “come here once every two years and ask that question. … Nice of you to show up. … Ball didn’t go in the hoop.” Two hosts laughed so hard at some cockamamie thing, the air went dead for a full 30 seconds. Another three or four repeatedly broke significant news stories.

All did their jobs professionally … well, most of the time.

A couple of us banged on then-BYU football coach Gary Crowton on the air so resolutely that he called the show to confront us. Karl Malone threatened to beat up a host. Two hosts got flashed in the studio by a couple of female listeners in hopes of winning Jazz tickets smack dab in the middle of a show. A cocksure host bet his life that BYU would lose to Oklahoma back in the day. When the Cougars won, he did not follow through, thankfully. One host, after losing a bet, incorrectly predicting that Utah would lose to BYU in the big rivalry game, had to dress as a Cougarette and read a poem in front of the entire Utes team, everybody busting their guts laughing. One host most regrettably did a radio remote from a Salt Lake City strip club.

It was a bit rough around the edges. But, as mentioned, it worked.

Sports fans flocked to their radios.

Against our old employer, the station that dumped Boler and me, ratings were considerably higher on our side, advertising sales were more lucrative, listenership was more vast, more loyal. All the shows — filled by talented hosts such as David James and Patrick Kinahan, Ian Furness, Ryan Hatch, John Lund, Sean O’Connell, Hans Olsen, Alema Harrington, Pace Mannion, Bolerjack, Scott Garrard, Kevin Graham, Jake Scott, Kyle Gunther, Jan Jorgensen, and a slew of others — were successes.

Over time, before the LHM Group bought the stations, personnel changed, the Jazz-affiliated station lured away some talent, and the competition was fierce.

One of the highlights for us was having Larry Miller make a weekly appearance on our show. Larry always showed up in person, ready to talk, ready to share information, ready to argue, ready to brawl, if that’s what the issue of the day called for. What a remarkably interesting man. The only problem with that arrangement was that while the Jazz owner was on our air, he was directly competing against his team’s station. He didn’t own 1320 KFAN, but the Jazz had an operating agreement with it.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Larry and Gail Miller watch a game with Gordon Monson in 2007.

And, yeah, his weekly show was on “The Big Show” on 1280 The Zone.

When his lieutenants asked him what on God’s green earth he was doing, coming on a show with the “other” guys, he uttered the essence of what our station was about. He said: “None of our guys asked me to come on. These guys did. I’m here because they asked and I have something to say.”

Did he ever.

Everyone on 1280 and 97.5 The Zone had something to say.

Over a period of time, the Jazz’s agreement with KFAN ended and LHM Sports and Entertainment went ahead and bought our signals and reunited much of the old crew, blending it with the new, including on-air talents like Spence Checketts, Riley Jensen, Tony Parks and producers such as Lloyd Cole and Austin Horton and Jake Hatch. Additional visits and contributions from Bolerjack and David Locke and a thousand guests made up a mix that provided some of the best sports talk ever in Salt Lake radio.

There was a complication in that mixing. Since I was also a columnist for The Tribune, with strict journalistic rules to follow, working simultaneously now for a station owned by the Jazz, a team I covered and opined about for the paper, there had to be hands-off orders to follow. As a part of my work for the station, there was an arrangement not to censor or pressure me in any way, to not attempt to change or steer my opinions, or hinder or punish me on any issue, whether that commentary was in print or on the air.

The Jazz showed organizational self-confidence and security in agreeing to allow me and others to express whatever we saw fit to express.

So the station powered on: Speak your mind, deal with the consequences — for or against, positive or negative — from listeners and advertisers.

We were all pirates on an unpredictable ship, part of a general pattern of controlled chaos, with all the attendant foibles and shenanigans and fun, but also responsible reporting and sometimes brilliant, sometimes idiotic discussion and commentary.

Sweet.

Before and after the Miller Family sold the Jazz and the station in separate deals to Ryan Smith, the overall spirit of the station remained.

I was extremely proud of the whole endeavor, of what it had become, what it had been preserved to be, and certainly was close to darn near everybody who was at work in it. The action behind the scenes was every bit as crazy and entertaining as you might think it to be.

A laugh a minute. Maybe a shout here and there. Maybe an occasional palm to the forehead. Maybe an argument now and again.

(There are more stories to tell, really fantastic stuff, and at some point in the future, I will write them.)

Then came Thursday of last week, when word rolled out that KSL had taken over the station, had been ceded control of the station, and that Austin Horton, a terrific producer, and I were casualties. KSL had long been rumored to covet what we built at 97.5 and 1280, wanting to solidify its connection to the Jazz and to build its own sports media empire.

I hope they achieve that.

I’m rooting for them. I’m also rooting for ESPN 700. Those are my guys over there, too. The more sports talk around here, the better.

But KSL, in this specific case, absorbed my brothers and sisters, my longtime partners, my friends.

They’ve taken over my baby.

Auf Wiedersehen.

I’ll go on writing my column here, loving the written word, same as it ever was, for a while yet.

Please forgive the personal tone of all this.

But I sincerely hope they let the voices on air do what great on-air voices do best — say whatever is on their minds, whether those spoken words, in or out of sports, fall in favor of established institutions, teams, schools, clubs and churches, or not. Whether those views are beautiful or blistering, popular or painful, convivial or controversial, easy on the ears or hard to hear.

Do not muffle them, even if you don’t like what is said. Do not lord over them — with direct orders or by implication.

There aren’t enough truthful, independent, diverse voices amplified in our community. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

An attempt by the powers-that-be to sanitize that or slant it or bottle it up would run counter to everything The Zone was meant to be, everything it should be, everything it was envisioned to be.

Take it from someone who was there when the thing was born, when it spoke its first words, when it took its first calls, when it informed and entertained and angered its first listeners and made its first audiences laugh.

Will church-owned KSL celebrate critical thinking — about sports and other topics, too? All topics? All sides of all topics? Will it allow honest evaluations of sports teams and coaches and players and icons and institutions, whether they soar or suck?

It’s a big question. It’s the question.

The vast mayhem in and around sports, in the middle of that sloppy intersection where athletics sometimes collides with religion and pop culture and politics and open opinion, where no cow, no nothing, is sacred or sanctimonious, that’s more than just the code by which The Zone lives. It’s who these guys are.

They are the on-air, microphone-toting, talking pirates — minus one who walked the plank.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

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