Media Watch


It couldn't be your normal, everyday heart surgery. Not for Jon Justice, the boisterous morning host on conservative talk radio KQTH 104.1 FM. Justice was sidelined for most of April due to a valve leak and an aneurysm that appeared to develop shortly after his first heart surgery three years ago. Justice says the aneurysm apparently acted as a bubble surrounding the defective valve leak, and that the bubble probably kept him alive.

"The bizarre thing about it is they've never seen anything like it," Justice said of the doctors who treated him. "You get a leak like I had and you don't live. You certainly don't live for three years. When they discovered the leak, they were sitting there perplexed. I'm sitting there in perfect health for the most part, and yet now they're looking at their screens and scans and can't understand how I'm there talking to them."

Justice's first open-heart surgery was designed to correct two issues: a birth defect that left him with a partially functional valve and an aneurysm, which likely developed as a result of high blood pressure. But unbeknownst to the medical staff, a leak had developed near the new valve, while at the same time a second aneurysm was forming. Neither was supposed to happen, but the aneurysm acted like a bubble that kept the damaging effects of the valve-related leak contained.

"There was a lot of trepidation for a couple days. There were a lot of question marks. What do we do? How is this possible? This doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Justice said. "So they went in and when they saw what happened, it was more understandable. They're not 100 percent sure how that hole got there. They went in knowing I had a leak, but not knowing what to expect.

"These guys do this for a living and they're kind of giddy because they're walking into something they haven't seen before. (The heart surgeon is) telling me, 'This is what I expect, but I don't know what's going to happen.' They cut through the mess, and once they got to the aorta and graft, sure enough, sitting in a spot where there shouldn't be was a hole. He sutured it three ways, just to be sure. The surgery itself was three or four hours, and most of that was doctors coming in, staring at my chest and saying, 'I don't know what we're looking at.' Every layer they went through, he was telling me he had to bring in another doctor."

Justice said his recovery from the most recent heart surgery was "monumentally different because I've been seeing a personal trainer over at Evolution Fitness for nine months. I was seeing him to get into better physical shape, but in retrospect it was nine months of training for this. I basically put myself a week ahead of schedule compared to the last surgery because I was way stronger, a lot thinner and on a better diet."

Justice returned to the air last week. He will broadcast his show from home until his first public appearance since the surgery, the station's fifth anniversary party on May 12 at Casino del Sol. It will feature a bevy of conservative speakers, including S.E. Cupp, UA graduate and news editor Katie Pavlich, and syndicated talk show hosts Jerry Doyle and Roger Hedgecock.

Justice said they "genuinely want to come because they know we're doing something special. This station was one of the first (talk radio stations) in the country to go FM. We may be a smaller market, but people know what we've done is special. I want to make sure I'm doing the right thing in terms of my recovery, but I'll be more than recovered to make it out to the party. I wouldn't miss it."

The Journal Broadcast Group flipped KQTH, a station with limited signal strength, from a music format that floundered in the ratings to one that now routinely lands in the top 10. KQTH has had books that occasionally best longtime market news/talk leader KNST AM 790 in some key demographics. And it has significantly closed the overall gap with KNST's lineup, which includes syndicated juggernauts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. But the benefits of FM—more people tend to listen to FM than AM, and the separation in this market is especially dramatic—helped KQTH make a real dent in the news/talk race. Eventually, KNST followed suit, and now broadcasts on 97.1 FM in addition to its AM location at 790.

Justice has been a big part of the success of KQTH. Hired six months after the format flip, he commands strong listenership, with his morning program generating controversy almost from the moment it was launched.

"It's amazing to me I've been here this long. I was on a vicious two-year turnover cycle when I was doing rock radio," said Justice, who worked in Tucson as part of the KFMA FM 92.1 morning team about a decade ago. "One of the main reasons I decided to get into talk is it was more aligned with who I was as a person in terms of my views and politics. I was thinking as the rock guy. I was thinking like the hip rock dude when I was really more the geeky conservative all along.

"I do the show I want to do. It's been awesome that people have enjoyed going along for the ride. ... Regardless of where your politics land, if you are providing compelling content, even if you don't agree with that host, you're going to listen. People can hate me; I don't care. But are they still listening because it's entertaining? That's what I'm going for. I am who I am. I don't craft my views trying to get an audience. I craft my views based on who I am, and I hope it's entertaining enough that people will take part in the ride."

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