“When I was 10, one day I came home from school and my mother was listening to a man broadcasting from a shopping center, playing records and interviewing people on the air,” recalls Tom Kelly. “She said to me ‘Tommy, you got to go down there — maybe he’ll put you on the radio!’”
In this case, the proverbial “mother knows best” words of advice turned out to be prophetic.
“Everything stems from one’s childhood, doesn’t it?” muses the KRTH DJ about his career path. With his mother’s encouragement and father’s influence, Kelly’s radio identity emanated from his life experiences — specifically his signature name and style.
“My folks used to go camping and every summer we visited state parks,” he recalls. “The rangers had these hats and as a child, I was drawn to them. Smokey the Bear was a big deal then and the rangers were always nice to me.”
When Kelly wanted to stand out from other DJ personalities, he picked up the ranger hat and it stuck.
Kelly grew up with “Shotgun” as a nickname because he was always the one to yell out, “Hey, I’ll take shotgun!” when riding in the car with his dad and two brothers. His adventures in the radio trade began in San Diego.
“Sunny” Jim Price of San Diego’s KGB gave him his first job at age 13 in 1966, a time when radio was all about the music and the primary means to listen to it.
“I think there is enough controversy on other radio stations now — that’s how they thrive,” says Kelly. “K-Earth is more like a safe haven. Nothing will embarrass our listeners.” Kelly gravitates toward Motown, Chicago and the Beach Boys in his programming. He says the Beatles and the Stones are also frequently included on his afternoon drive shift playlist.
“My show is not vulgar or off-color; I’ll never do that,” he says. “The listeners that are mothers and children don’t have to fear that.”
As Kelly’s broadcast personality grew, his activities radiated beyond the radio dial. He hosted his own game show, “Words-a-Poppin,” from 1973-78. He also does voiceovers for commercials, announcements for the Chargers’ Qualcomm Stadium Jumbotron and dedicates time to charity work.
With 40 years in the business under his belt, it was inevitable that he would rub shoulders with the rich and famous. In 1987, Kelly made a special visit to the Oval Office, where then-President Reagan posed with Kelly wearing the DJ’s signature hat.
But Kelly confesses his favorite celebrity is Stevie Wonder, due to a favor he did for Kelly’s daughter Melanie a few years ago.
“When my daughter was born, I was working a morning radio show and I played (Wonder’s) “Isn’t She Lovely” to celebrate. So for her graduation from San Diego State University, I asked Stevie to record a greeting I could play for her. He agreed and even recorded himself singing the song just for Melanie. I was touched.”
Kelly credits program director Jhani Kaye as the one who rejuvenated his career and helped K-Earth move forward, expanding their listening base.
Also radio personalities like the “Real” Don Steele and Chuck Niles inspired Kelly, along with someone closer to home. “I listened to Jim Carson when I was growing up and now I get to work with him at the station. Isn’t it crazy?”