Laramie, Wyoming-born Joe Redburn is Utah’s own Renaissance man: a Bar owner (of the old Sun Tavern, Bricks and now the Trapp), one-time politician, charitable worker, Gay Rodeo grand marshal and, of course, long-term host on Utah’s most well-known talk station, KTKK (K-Talk).
Joe took a moment out of his busy schedule to talk to me about his life on and off the air.
JoSelle Vanderhooft: How did you start out in talk radio?
Joe Redburn: I went two years at the University of Wyoming and then I went to the armed forces radio school at Ft. Slocum, New York. In those days you either gave yourself up to the draft – which I did – or wait ‘til they drafted you. I just wanted to get it over with. In those days, if you checked the box that you were gay they rejected you, so I didn’t. I went in actually lying to them. I was in the US Army at Fort Riley in Kansas for two years. What we did was the news on local stations. Then when I got out, I went back to Laramie and then I came over to Salt Lake to get a job here.
JV: Why did you choose Utah?
JR: A guy I knew, a gay guy, worked at KWOB, where I worked before I went into the army. He was from Salt Lake and he knew Starley Bush who had just bought what is now K-Talk radio. So he helped me get a job over here.
… I started out as a DJ and then I worked for a station in Salinas, California for awhile. I’d also heard KGO in San Francisco, which was one of the first-odd talk stations. I taped it and sent it to Starley, and he said, come back and we’ll give it a shot. It was a big success. KSXX, which is now K-TALK, was one of the first all-talk stations in the country besides KGO and I think KLMX in St. Louis.
JV: You had a show on KSXX in the 70s and 80s, where you were a co-host. Then you went solo for the Joe Redburn show in the 80s and 90s Tell me a little about both shows.
JR: We started out with a program called Controversy. This was one of the first times in Salt Lake talk radio where the talk show host actually gave his own opinions. So we were different and we were probably that successful because I could give my opinions. I was a Goldwater Conservative at the time.
JV: What were some of the things you’d talk about?
JR: One of our first shows was on, actually, prostitution. We had a female prostitute on – that was shocking in those days in Salt Lake radio. But the main subjects in those days which probably made talk radio was the Vietnam War and then Richard Nixon. Watergate and all that. You didn’t have to say a word, the lines just lit up.
JV: [laughs] So they did all the work for you.
JR: Yeah. Vietnam – I consider Vietnam to be the reason we have talk radio. That was the main stuff – of course we interviewed people who were in the anti-war movement nationally and locally and, you know, local politicians.
JV: I’m guessing things got a little heated then. I mean, with you being a Goldwater conservative talking to anti-war people.
JR: Well yeah, but I went from Goldwater to McCarthy, exactly like Hillary Clinton did. She was a Goldwater girl and then she became a McCarthyite. So I changed my views really from being pro-Vietnam to being against the war. I ended up being the alternate delegate for Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago … and got tear gassed just like everybody else. All that changed my political perspective – and all the time being on the radio, too. So talk radio really did change my political views.
JV: Were you surprised to see how talk radio exploded after Vietnam?
JR: Yeah. We were just sort of experimenting with it. Advertising would shy away from it in the beginning because they were afraid of it, the controversy. But the ratings – we went from a radio station with no ratings that played jazz and folk music to doubling our ratings and then, at one point, we were the second highest rated radio station in Salt Lake City. But the station was all talk in the 60s. We started off with Controversy for one hour, and then when the ratings came out, that did it, so they went from talk from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and eventually the owners said, let’s just go all talk.
JV: I know you were dropped from K-Talk for awhile in ‘93.
JR: I was, yeah. And I went into the bar business for a little while.
JV: Yeah, at the old Sun Tavern – which I hadn’t known was where the Energy Solutions Arena is now.
JR: When we got the old Sun, I think we put the first sound system in for a DJ in Salt Lake. I’ve never just catered to the gay community, everyone was welcome. So we had a lot of straight people that liked it, especially when we put in the sound system.
JV: How about the community outreach you did at the Sun and at your other bars?
JR: Well, we actually probably started Gay Pride. We started having keggers up the canyon, and that kinda started everybody thinking – since Gay Pride was getting started around the country – that we should do more. And then other people kind of got involved so we started having another at Fairmount Park with a couple hundred people. And that probably launched Pride out of the old Sun. Then it evolved into what it is today.
JV: Of course, Gay Pride also came with lots of nasty things – like the anti-gay witch hunts at BYU during the ‘70s. Did BYU security ever come to the Sun looking for gay students?
JR: Oh, they used to come up all the time. A couple times they tried to come in and we would ID them so we knew who they were, and we harassed them, so they gave up.
JV: [laughs] So you’d just tell them to go away?
JR: Yeah, we’d try to be as gay as we could with them and drive them nuts. So they gave up trying to come in but they were trying to take license numbers like the Gestapo – in fact, we called them that. I think it was when Earnest Wilkinson was president at BYU.
JV: I understand that the Sun Tavern has an anniversary of sorts coming up on Feb. 20.
JR: We opened at noon on that day in 1973. I’d never done it before, we were all scared. The Sun Tavern had been the Railroad Exchange, and I found it because that’s where the anti-war people hung out. It was owned by a former Pittsburgh Steeler, and they had a sign outside – it was a Pepsi sign that said Railroad Exchange. And I changed it to say The Sun Tavern. I can remember a guy who had a bar just south who said, “You can’t do that! The gay bars can’t have signs!” And I said, “Well, I’m gonna do it, anyway.” That’s what got me, how oppressed this community was. We were oppressing ourselves. We didn’t think we could put a sign in front of a gay bar.
JV: How did you end up owning it?
JR: Actually it was another Wyoming connection. The Malouf family owned it, and they were from Evanston. One day the door was open and I poked my head in and Mr. Malouf was there and his mother. I told them I was from Laramie and they said, we want to rent this back out. I think they rented it to me because I was from there. I named it after the Midnight Sun in San Francisco.
JV: Getting back to your conversion to the Democratic Party a little. You did some work on the anti-Briggs group in California. And you’ve contributed a lot to political campaigns, like Karen Shepherd’s and Howard Dean’s.
JR: I was involved in his campaign with his relatives – one of who is now our Salt Lake County mayor.
JV: And you’re a big Rocky and Becker supporter.
JR: With Rocky I was a member of the ACLU’s board for two years, that’s where I met him. He was as much of a slave-driver then as he is now. He’s always been hard to work for. I worked on his campaign for congress – one thing he did, though, is he realized there was a big gay vote. He went down to the Trapp and I think some other places and got the gay vote which, he’ll tell you got him elected first time. I don’t think you can be elected mayor of any major city in this country without the gay vote. And then Ralph Becker came down and campaigned at the Trapp last summer and he told me he was taking a page out of Rocky’s book. I told him, “Well, you’re doing the smart thing.”
JV: Tell me something that you’ve done that a lot of people don’t know about?
JR: I ran for the legislature in 1976 in the Avenues, but I lost two to one to Genevieve Atwood. And then the Republican right wing got rid of her because she was too liberal. But now the avenues are like Democrats. Salt Lake has become so Democrat, it’s amazing. I only ran for the legislature once, but it was quite an experience. Everybody ought to do it once.
JV: Politics, charity, bar tending. What do you do when you’re not working at one of these?
JR: I still do talk radio on Wednesday nights at KTALK between 9:05 and 11:00 p.m. with Jim Kirkwood who is a staunch conservative, but we’ve been friends for years. We do the liberal/conservative thing and we get calls. I still do it because talk radio is the love of my life. I love listening to it, and now talk radio is like huge. I think it’s the number one format in the country. On AM radio it sure is. Who would’ve thought, huh?