Disc jockeys don’t walk down hallways the same way television announcers do. TV announcers walk down halls like they’re off to an important meeting, staring at some memo in their hand; coiffured, rosy, manicured statesmen of the air. But DJs slither down the corridor; they wave and shake and slap hands. They turn their patter on and off, flipping it out and retrieving it like a yo-yo, dodging into a doorway, peering out, and then sliding on down the hall.
Shotgun Tom Kelly, voted the nation’s number-one Top-40 DJ last year by Billboard Magazine, is almost a parody, a flesh-and-blood caricature of what a disc jockey is supposed to be. At some of Kelly’s rival San Diego stations, they’re whispering that he is really an anachronism: “Nobody’s told him yet that he’s extinct.” But what they don’t understand is that Shotgun Tom has it all figured out.
Underneath the veneer of bushy monster beard and ranger hat, he has arrived at a shrewd and important conclusion: to be hip in the 70s, one must be square. While the latest trend in radio is the “mellow” formula, which tends to depersonalize the disc jockey, Kelly has headed off in the opposite direction. He intends to survive the current practice of blunting disc jockeys so they come out all rounded off at the edges, laid-back, interchangeable. This he will do by talking faster and louder, and being at more ribbon cuttings than anyone else, and perhaps even tossing his famous hat into the San Diego political arena. There’s already a mini-generation of Shotgun fans (and potential voters) out there. To be hip, one must be square.
What he wants to do for his city is be its mayor. “Damn, if I could get enough supporters I’d do it...Let’s face it, the mayor just does what the city manager tells him. I haven’t told Pete about this yet; probably bum him out.”
Heading for his studio, Shotgun Tom struts down the hall like a hyperactive Smokey the Bear. His ranger hat is perched up on top of earphones; his feet kick out from under him like Charlie Chaplin— a modified waddle. At 28, he’s overweight, and his eyes have dark circles under them. Lately, he’s considered making a recording of his inimitable chortling howl (an untranslatable “Brlbrlbrlbrlbrlbrl Ahhhhhgggggh!”) just in case his baritone finally cracks from the strain of constant abuse. Until recently, if he was not in the studio, he was charging around town, shaking hands, opening shopping centers, and kissing babies seven days a week; it led to a physical breakdown. He entered a hospital for a week and swore off working Sundays.
In the studio, strapped in behind his VU meters (“They tell me my voice is headed out. I love them very much”), he is transformed. Thirty-thousand watts of adrenaline start coursing through his ample body. Hunched over the controls, he delicately gestures with his hands, as if he were conducting an orchestra. Or— BAM!— his arms are flailing about him, marking time for his bewildering staccato delivery.
At San Diego’s B-100 (KFMB-FM) Kelly holds down the all-important morning “drive-time” shift. In order to befriend his many bleary-eyed listeners at seven a.m., he must have the right approach, the proper attitude. It is a mental condition he describes as “cosmic... an altered state of consciousness.” He visualizes one person getting ready for work, and the image is clear as a hologram. “I get a picture of somebody—usually a man (I’m gonna get it now)—brushing his teeth while the radio is on. Seems like... I can’t see his face, but I know he’s there. I can see him having a cup of coffee; he’s thinking that he’ll listen to the end of this song and then get going. He wants to know the time, so I tell him the time. He hasn’t looked out the window yet.
“What I do in the morning is this: I get your pants on, your eyeballs open. I create the illusion that we’re having a party at the station, and you’re invited—the guest of honor, in fact. That’s what people turn the radio on for, isn’t it?”
From its beginning, radio programming has been formulized. It started with a Dr. Elman B. Myers, who claimed (along with the Jesuits at St. Louis University, station WEW) to be the first disc jockey. He broadcast records 18 hours a day in New York City. His wife, Sybil True, may in fact have come up with the first (still popular) music formula on her program, “The Little Ham.” She played “up-to-date, young people’s records,” which, she hoped, her listeners would faithfully run out and purchase the next day. She also conducted contests every week to expand her following.
When radio theater and live entertainment took over the air, platter spinning took a respite, but on February 3, 1935, Martin Block, a New York announcer, started playing phonograph records between bulletins from the Bruno Hauptmann trial. He played five Clyde McCoy records and created the illusion that the music was arriving live from a dance hall. The idea developed into the “Make-Believe Ballroom,” which attracted four million listeners every day. Pushing a weight-reducing pill called “Retardo,” Block sighed into the mike, “Be fair to your husband by taking the reducing pill. The next day, the station received 600 orders for the pill; by the end of the week, there were 3,750 replies. Advertisers realized quickly that there was power between the platters.
Shotgun Tom Kelly is derivative of a long line of “morning” disc jockeys. Their essential style was established in the 30s by Arthur Godfrey, who began his radio career in 1929 as “Red Godfrey, the Warbling Banjoist.” Fred Allen called him “the Huck Finn of radio,” and his name became synonymous with zany, light-hearted irreverence and mischief. He smashed records he didn’t care for; he used near-obscene material; he was reprimanded for buzzing people in his airplane. WJSV, Washington, woke him up each morning with a studio-activated gong in his apartment; and he had a microphone beside his bed, just in case be didn’t feel like getting up.
Godfrey’s antics, his unpredictability, and his success set the tone for disc jockeys across the nation. The style, in one form or another, has filled the morning airwaves ever since. It is this tradition which Shotgun Tom has followed, and it is one his detractors point to with disdain.
Kelly, whose real name is Tom Irwin, was born and raised in San Diego. He got his first look at a disc jockey when he saw KOGO’s Frank Thompson doing a remote broadcast at Oscar’s drive-in. “I was about ten then, and boy, that looked like a lot of fun, so I went home and built my own radio station.” He got a 100-milliwatt transmitter, but “that was a drag ’cause it would only go about five houses.” So he broke the law; he bought a 25-watt transmitter and threw his voice right over the AM frequencies. He even traded commercial time for food from a Mexican restaurant until the Federal Communications Commission came and told him to knock it off.
Soon after, he went legit with a Junior Achievement show broadcast on KDEO, and moved to KPRI-FM while he was still at Mount Miguel High School. Later, he worked in Merced, Ventura, and Bakersfield (where he was Nemo the Clown on a TV kiddie show called Prize Party). Then he returned to San Diego and worked a while for KGB, then KCBQ. In protest of the way management was treating a fellow DJ, he and several other jocks staged a walkout at KCBQ, and he ended up in Phoenix (“I wouldn’t do that today; I’ve matured”). He finally came back to the “Q,” worked there four and a half years (“longer than anyone, I think”), and then, seeking more secure pastures, he accepted an offer from B-100.
“I’ve observed two varieties of program directors in this business,” he says. “One uses fear to control his jocks and the other uses encouragement. My favorite program director- other than, you know. Dr. Boogie (Bobby Rich), my present director— was Buzz Bennett. I was over at KGB the first time I heard about Bennett. He had a real drug reputation; they used to say he’d shoot up every day, but it wasn’t true. He was director of KCBQ, and over at KGB we were trying to kill him.
“But when KGB fired me I got a call from Buzz. I was really scared. When. I went to see him he was sitting behind his desk—he looked like Frank Zappa—and he was pushing around some white powder and snorting it.” Kelly moans, grabs his head, whines. “Ohhhh, noooo, how unhip. It’s true, I thought. Here I am entering this den of iniquity.
“ ‘Hey man, you want some? he says. Then everybody comes in and they’re all standing around sniffing this stuff, and it turns out to be peppermint snuff.”
Bennett called KCBQ his “family.” “He was a little bit like a benign Charlie Manson. Whereas I never felt comfortable at the other stations—everyone was always afraid of losing their jobs at any minute— Buzz wanted us to be human on the air. If you needed ‘maintenance,’ he’d call you in and talk to you like George Carlin’s hippy-dippy weatherman. He’d say, ‘Shotz, you got to shorten up on your “back sales,” but I don’t care if you get a “one” in the ratings; you’re still going to work for me.’ ”
On the other hand, one director in Kelly’s past called his jocks, “boy,” and “son.” “Most program directors still control their DJs with fear, and I can see it affecting their lives. It’s not drugs that ruin their lives; it’s the insecurity and alcohol.”
But the insecurity felt by many DJs seems to derive from more than program directors alone. The demographics—the holiest of radio concerns—are changing. The whole hump of post-war babies, now in their mid-20s, is, as KGB news director Lou Rogers says, “moving down the snake like a swallowed egg.” For a decade, the American radio audience was all pubescent exuberance, and jocks like Shotgun Tom were the shamans. But each year, the demographics revealed an older population; thus the new trend toward “mellow” radio.
Rick Liebert, KGB’s program director and the enfant terrible of San Diego radio, uses his pioneering mellow sound to dominate the local ratings. He is the direct descendant of Bill Drake, one of the business’s most respected program directors, who was director of KGB during the late 60s. Drake deplored what one critic called “those shouting joyboys drowning in their own adrenaline”—joyboys like Shotgun Tom.
Drake’s format then was a hint of things to come. He deemphasized the disc jockey, stressed split-second timing, grouped commercials to allow more uninterrupted music, and generally streamlined every aspect of on-the-air business.
When Drake’s formula is combined with an aging population, a generation becoming more comfortable with computers than with the sweaty black roots of rock music, one arrives at Liebert’s present formula, which has little room for the broadcast ecstasy of people like Shotgun Tom. Says Liebert, “Mellow radio reaches out to the 24- to 35-year-old person who has outgrown rock, the person who represents the majority of the market, but isn’t ready to be thrown into the Sinatra bin. Mellow radio takes the irritating elements out of rock, like fuzz guitars, the driving beat, and screaming vocals. Instead of Led Zeppelin and T. Rex, we’re promoting James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King. And we don’t rely on the disc jockey’s personality anymore.”
Unless America’s population suddenly begins to get younger, mellow radio, or something like it, may be around for a long time. Liebert sees it replacing the Top-40 stations, which aim primarily at teenagers. “Mellow stations are developing all over the country. There’s an emphasis by record companies now to sign up mellow artists. The country is starting to consume mellow products.”
Liebert once fired Shotgun Tom because “we’d say, ‘Tom we want you to mellow out,’ and he’d come on the radio and jump around; he was one-dimensional.”
Tonight, Shotgun Tom Kelly is hosting the Johnny Carson show. He has his wife on as his first guest.
“I understand you’re on tour,” he says.
“Yes, I am. Atlanta, New Orleans, El Paso.”
“What’s your act?’
“Dog and pony act.”
“What’s it like?’
“Lots of dogs and ponies.”
For his next guest. Shotgun welcomes Harry the cat. Harry latches on to his arm and won’t let go. “He’s gone crazy! I understand you’re from the Wild Animal Park. Get him off!” Tom glances at the camera. “Oh, ’scuse me!”
Kelly has built a replica of the Tonight Show set in his garage, complete with a videotaping system. This is one of the few nights he is the guest host; usually he has friends over and they get to be in the spotlight. He stays behind the camera. “I like to elevate my friends,” he says. “I get enough of that.”
Much of his public exposure is the result of his real television program, a video scrabble game for kids that taxes the intelligence of most adults who watch it. Words-a- Poppin’, broadcast in San Diego, Indianapolis, Bakersfield, and Denver, was named the top local children’s program by the National Association of Television Program Executives, which led to an Iris Award, and last year won a local Emmy which sits on his mantle. His walls are papered with awards—he was one of the local Jaycees’ ten outstanding young men, and he’s the local chairman of Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy telethon. He goes to church every Sunday (“I don’t promote anything in church. I take my hat off there”). Square is hip, and it works.
Shotgun Tom has been thinking about a new project lately, one which would, in a peculiar sort of way, make sense for him.
“Sometimes I’m at conventions, you know, with the mayor and Harold Greene, and we’ll sit up in a hotel room and talk about our futures. We talk about Pete’s race for governor and Harold’s move to San Francisco (he’s really a nice guy; you’ve probably heard those bad stories about him). It gets me to thinking about what I could do for my city.”
Kelly loves San Diego; he insists he’s been offered the top DJ jobs in the country—$50,000 in Boston, $45,000 in Hollywood—and he’s turned them down because he doesn’t want to leave San Diego (he now makes around $35,000, including his TV show).
What he wants to do for his city is be its mayor, and, in all seriousness he says he’s probably going to announce sooner than later. And he’ll do it as a Democrat.
“Damn,” he cries, his eyes getting big, “if I could get enough supporters ... I’d do it, not as a joke, but really do it. I’d hip up this city. You'd vote for me, wouldn't you?
“Probably 60 Minutes would come and do a piece. Let’s face it, the mayor just does what the city manager tells him. I haven’t told Pete about this yet; probably bum him out. But I’d like to promote this city, make it look important around the country.
“I was at Ace Auto Supply last weekend and all these little old ladies were playing with my beard; one was. making circles in a wheel chair. I’m very fond of elderly people, like to do something for ’em. And I’d like to do something for the movie industry here, bring more movies down to San Diego.”
“So you could be in them,” adds his wife.
If he had to choose between being a national television game-show host (another ambition) and mayor? “I’d choose both.”
Whether all of this is as serious as Shotgun Tom is charming is certainly debatable, but in order to survive, he has to think big, especially if Rick Liebert is right that personalities like Kelly must keep topping themselves to say one jump ahead of aging America.
“What fascinates me most about this business,” Shotgun says, “is that, electronically, I’m shooting myself through space. You talk to an engineer and he’ll tell you about electromagnetism and all that, but I think of it as more than that. Radio is powerful. You know, if you get near active radio frequency—if you touch a transmission tower, for instance—you’ll get burned from the inside out. But there’s a way to touch a tower without getting hurt. I used to see repairmen up on the tower and I asked them how they did it, and they told me; you jump up so your feet aren’t touching the ground, and then grab on. As long as your feet aren’t touching the ground, you won’t get burned.”
It’s easy to imagine Kelly up there on that tower, like a good-natured Kong who assumes there’s safety in high places.