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KSL(AM/FM) Heats Up in “Cold”

Trailblazing radio station adds true-crime podcast pioneer to résumé

Sheryl Worsley
Sheryl Worsley heads a new podcasting division for the venerable KSL in Salt Lake City.

It won’t be that long from now. On May 6, 2022, Utah’s first radio station will be 100 years old. Less than two years before KSL could be heard at 1160 kHz on the AM band in Salt Lake City, KDKA/Pittsburgh had launched in time to provide coverage of President Warren G. Harding’s election in spoken word rather than Morse Code. Starting KSL was courageous at the time.

So it should come as no surprise that Bonneville, KSL’s owner, is once again leading the way with a new local medium — on-demand digital audio, commonly referred to as podcasting. KSL is, to my knowledge, the first commercial radio station to launch a local podcast that shot to #1 on the Apple Podcasts’ national chart.

“It’s so cool to work for a company that recognizes when there’s a need to shift resources,” says Sheryl Worsley, KSL’s director of audience development.

“I had been KSL’s news director for more than a decade, while also heading up our digital initiatives. As we added more podcasts, the time commitment of doing both was large, even with help. Our VP/GM Tanya Vea asked me what I wanted to do, and I decided to make the jump into digital and podcasting full-time.”

Worsley now oversees a roster of more than 70 podcasts for KSL and its local sister stations, KRSP(FM) and KSFI(FM). Thirty of them are completely original productions, not repurposed content.

“We had early success with a couple of sports podcasts, ‘Helmets Off’ and ‘Rivals.’ Those have healthy sponsorships, and we now have a variety of podcasts that are also cutting through.”

“COLD” COMING IN HOT

Dave Cawley
KSL reporter Dave Cawley investigated, wrote and edited the popular “Cold” podcast series.

The biggest of them all is “Cold,” an audio investigation of the 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell. After extensive searches didn’t turn up a body or other “smoking gun” evidence, as authorities were honing in on her husband Josh as the primary suspect — spoiler alert — he burnt down a house with himself and the couple’s two young sons in it. The tragedy made big headlines at the time, and that’s how most news outlets covered the story, reporting headlines rather than launching an investigation.

KSL reporter Dave Cawley, like many Utahans, found himself fascinated by Susan’s story, including “some of its unique social and religious components. Having grown up in the same faith tradition as Susan — as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — I felt positioned to tell this story with a precision and nuance that might not come from an outsider’s point of view.”

Cawley kept digging into the case files. Then he dug more.

“When he found audio journals, clandestinely-taped video, and compelling new interviews, it became clear that this whole story needed to be told,” says Worsley, “and that a podcast was the way to do it.”

The result is addicting, a 15-part series available wherever you get your podcasts. Cawley tells the saga dramatically, while maintaining his journalistic responsibility to stick to the facts.

“We started talking with national podcast studios in August about a possible partnership, and despite some interest, we didn’t have a deal in place at the time of our launch in November.” During negotiations, one distributor told Worsley about the dangers of going it alone, warning that a local media outlet in a similar-sized market had declined their offers and received very few downloads of an investigative series.

So imagine the excitement at KSL when “Cold” debuted at #1 on the Apple Podcasts’ national chart.

“I didn’t believe my eyes, so I called a couple of coworkers over to my computer to verify they were seeing the same thing,” laughs Worsley. Cawley agrees, “It was surreal.”

[When Audio Is a Utility, Distribution Wins]

The spectacular debut heightened interest, and now KSL has an agreement for “Cold” to be promoted and distributed by a national studio, and national advertising revenue will follow.

If your radio properties are planning to invest in a podcasting division, Worsley warns, “There isn’t a manual to follow.” But she offers three pieces of advice:

  1. Podcasting is an investment. You have to devote time and resources, but it can bring a solid return.
  2. Podcasting isn’t the same as broadcasting. Understand the differences.
  3. Time shifting your on-air content is smart, but that isn’t a podcast. Producing original content grows your media brand’s reach and revenue.

“Cold” proves the potential of local podcasting by radio. But telling Susan Powell’s story has left Cawley with an even more important takeaway: “Domestic abuse in any form cannot be tolerated. Further, family dysfunction can cascade down through the generations. Action must be taken to interrupt the cycle.”

“21st Century PD” columnist Dave Beasing works with broadcasters who podcast. His new studio, Sound That Brands, co-produces “Inside Trader Joe’s” with Amplifi Media, and he’s now on the road to states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He’ll announce why soon (no, he’s not running for president). Tweet @DaveBeasing.

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