Kelly Collis: From Political Animal to the Morning Muse

HeadshotKellyKelly Collis has a job many would envy. As co-host on D.C.’s The Tommy Show on 94.7 CBS radio, – she spends her mornings chatting away on the radio, laughing alongside her co-host and best friend, rubbing elbows with visiting rock stars, and scoring choice seats in the house at local concert venues. But don’t be fooled. Collis didn’t stumble into this job. Her path was one of non-stop hard work, astute media skills, a fierce entrepreneurial spirit, and a genuine appreciation for community service.

As a child of Washington, D.C., Collis was exposed to the power of communications and people skills from a young age. Later in his career, her father, an emergency-room physician, was a Bush appointee at the Pentagon during the first Gulf War, and she attended the Holton Arms School for girls, where many of the students were the children of diplomats and the current head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, attended.

For most of her life she had her eyes set on a career in politics. Heading to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, to study politics and interning at the state capitol for a Senator, Collis recalls, “I thought for sure I’d return to be a big-time communications director for a Senator or Congressman.”

After graduation, she landed a job back in D.C., working for the Senator-turned-Congressman. Starting as a low low-level legislative aide, and moving on to help with fundraising, after almost four years, Collis was networking with local CEOs and other decision-makers in the area, including the new leadership of AOL.

She caught the start-up bug as the lure of new media eventually got the better of her. Collis headed for Freedom Channel, a start-up founded by local media entrepreneur Doug Bailey. In the pre-YouTube era, the online video platform was a great vehicle for local luminaries interested in expanding their reach and influence.

“It was a perfect transition for me. I was using all my media and political skills. Because my marketing budget was exactly zero dollars, I really learned how to use the media to tell our story and that’s really where I cut my teeth.” Collis also drew on a skill ingrained in her from her time on Capitol Hill – call it what you like, constituent relations or customer service, but the Hill helped Collis become a pro at it.

But like so many others who dreamed of following in AOL’s path only to be disappointed, Freedom Channel faltered and Collis did not make her millions. Unemployed, single, and the owner of her first mortgage, Collis answered an ad posted by a communications exec looking for part-time help building media lists. With nothing to lose, she took the gig. Wise choice as the part-time position turned into a partnership at a small PR firm with $5 million in billings, which counted MSNBC, a leading cable and satellite news media channel, among its clients.

Six years and many life changes later, including a husband and two children, Collis tired of the constant travel to Redmond, WA, where MSNBC is headquartered. Eager to be her own boss, and spend more time in her hometown, she hung her own PR shingle and scored National Jean Company as her main client. “The position at NJC was perfect. I could bring my daughter to work in a pack-n-play, and control my hours.” It didn’t hurt that Collis was a fashionista who leveraged her killer communications skills promoting NJC across the city at like-minded events. But not one to let moss grow under her feet, as she got more involved in the fashion scene in D.C., Collis spotted a trend that led her to a new business and later forged the path to her work in radio.

“I would see these young women all over the city waiting in line to go to trunk shows, restaurant openings and the like, and that’s where I got the idea for City Shop Girl.” Similar to Daily Candy, but with a focus on deals, events and openings, Collis’ daily email newsletter took hold quickly. The newly single mom was flying around town, feeding the appetite of her tens of thousands of readers with news of hot events, unique products, and Collis’ recommendations for must-try restaurants. But like so many women who find themselves making major changes at times of personal upheaval, Collis found herself struggling to figure out if City Shop Girl would support her new life as a single mother. “Going through the divorce was very emotionally distracting. The kids were young and I was working for myself. It weighed on me that I didn’t have a safety net.”

But she knew a few things for sure–she loved working with the media and had even started doing guest spots on TV to promote City Shop Girl news. But, in her late thirties, she felt she was past the point of launching a new career in TV. “Someone told me I should brainstorm with Tommy McFly, a new local radio whiz kid, but I was hesitant. I wanted to hate him – this young guy coming to my city and thinking he’s a big deal on the radio.” But the unlikely pair struck up a fierce friendship from the start. Geography helped. McFly lived down the street from Collis, and the two started spending more and more time together. “He was a creative entrepreneurial spirit, and we had a lot in common.”

Soon, McFly was offered his own morning show on 94.7 FM, The Tommy Show. One of his first calls was to Collis. “You’re not going to get the job,” he started, “but as your friend I need to tell you about this opportunity. The station wants a female cohost that has kids. You should apply.”

With no radio experience, Collis applied for the job. It was a long shot she knew, but the more Collis pondered the idea, the more she wanted the job. “I started thinking about how it could change our family… a steady job, health insurance. That mattered to me.”

Detractors at the station were silenced when they heard the demo tapes cut by Collis and McFly. The chemistry and camaraderie was palpable. Being that it was a new station and new show, having a strong PR background worked to Collis’ advantage and she charmed her future-boss-to-be: “I can be your marketing and PR person. I can pitch stories, promote the station, and be on the air.”

It was a compelling package. And it sealed the deal.

Today Collis, now 40, starts her day at 4 a.m. when she drives out to the station in Maryland to review the day’s news and talk with McFly about that day’s show. Still leaning on her political skills, Collis knows that while laughing all morning on the radio is great fun, the job doesn’t end there. She spends time after the show and weekends visiting fire stations, schools, local malls and hospitals – understanding that radio can be beneficial medium to be part of the greater D.C. community. “It very much reminds me of when we used to do events with the Congressman.”

For those of you that have tuned in on your morning commute, it’s obvious why Collis, now approaching her third anniversary with the station, has been a hit. Sure, she yucks it up with her co-hosts, but she also connects with listeners, sharing very personal details of her life. In fact, Collis’ fiancé recruited McFly to take part in his proposal – documenting the process on the radio in the morning, and recruiting the band Train to take part in the engagement surprise.

Kelly Collis’ Tips For Success:

  • Efficient use of time is my motto, there is only 100 units a day I can spend on everything – that includes job, children, my personal relationships, exercise, and everything else. Prioritize every day!
  • Don’t take a conference call or meeting without an agenda and knowing in advance all parties in attendance.
  • Get rid of the fear of missing out (FOMO). We live in such an age where everything is real time. There is no way to be everywhere. And saying no is ok.

Have you ever wanted to be a radio DJ or TV presenter? What did you do/are you doing to turn this dream into a reality?

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