For Ellen K, every morning on the airwaves is sunny
By Peter Larsen
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Radio host Ellen K says she was deep into a particularly intimate examination of a pregnant cow when it struck her that the life of a veterinarian might not be for her.
“You have to get in there and make sure everything is in the right place, and then you get outta there,” she says of the barnyard epiphany that hit her one cold and snowy Indiana day in her sophomore year at Purdue University in the early ’80s. “It was a very dramatic day, actually, that I’ll never forget, and it was my turning point.
“I realized at that moment, I love people a lot more than I think I’m going to love examining animals like this,” Ellen K continues, laughing as she talks in the empty Burbank studio where a few hours earlier she’d hosted the “Ellen K Morning Show” on KOST (103.5 FM).
It turned out to be a very smart move.
Today, after years as a cohost on shows led by celebrated men such as Rick Dees and Ryan Seacrest, Ellen K is one of the few women ever to have her own morning show on Los Angeles radio. She’s got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, hosts the celebrity hand-and-footprint ceremonies at the Chinese Theatre, and is the unseen, omnipotent voice of the Grammy Awards.
“It was dream come true stuff,” she says of the journey so far.
Transistor radio days
She was born Ellen J. Thoe in Palo Alto, where her father was a doctoral student at Stanford University, but grew up in Indiana, where the high-powered AM radio stations in Chicago were home to superstar DJs such as Larry Lujack and John Landecker.
“I listened to John Landecker every single night with a transistor radio,” Ellen K says. “I’d share a room with my sister because there were so many of us and I had to keep it kind of low. So I put it under my pillow and then I could hear. He did this thing called ‘Boogie Check’ and he’d have celebrities on and it was so much fun. I never missed a night.
“And then in the morning, when I’d wake up to get ready for swim practice before school, there’s Larry Lujack,” she says. “I constantly had them on and loved their shows even before I knew that I would fall in love with radio.”
Looking for a new direction soon after the bovine baby business, Ellen K spotted an internship at a local radio station, applied for it and soon found herself inside the funhouse world of FM radio in the early ’80s.
“I loved the atmosphere of the radio station,” she says. “Everybody just seemed to be goofing off but yet they’re working. I was like, ‘Oh my god, not only is this a fun job surrounded by music and people who are loving what they’re doing, but all those flashing lights [on the request lines] you could answer and talk. There’s a different person on every line. I loved that connection, and I still love it today.
“To me that was magical.”
After the intern semester ended, the station, WXUS-FM in Lafayette, Indiana, hired her as the overnight DJ, changing her air name to Ellen Thomas to protect her privacy.
Sometimes she’d invite her sorority sisters over to keep her company and do homework as she played music for the night owls. Once she fell asleep in the wee hours as a record played, and woke only after the station manager raced to the station to rouse her.
“He laughed it off, and it was my first learning curve experience,” Ellen K says. “Even the mistakes are great memories.”
Go west, young woman
Vacations in San Diego after her younger brother moved there convinced Ellen K that she wanted to live there, too.
“I’m sitting on the beach in La Jolla watching my baby brother surf and I said, ‘I don’t want to leave,’ ” she says. “I love this radio station they have in San Diego. I want to be in this beautiful Southern California.”
For a year or two she sent audition tapes, building a bridge with the boss at KFMB (100.7 FM), who eventually hired her — after she briefly worked at a station in Modesto — for a late-night shift from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. In the dark, a row of phones blinking, she took calls from listeners about different topics each night, some dark, some uplifting, all of them fascinating, she says. “I knew right then this is what I’m meant to do,” she says of the way she moved past spinning records to engaging listeners in more meaningful ways. “It was amazing.”
At the end of the ’80s, though, she landed a job in San Francisco, a bigger market, which was great until a month or two after she started, when the station announced a format change along with the layoffs of all its staff, including Ellen K.
K for a KIIS in L.A.
Ellen K says she believes in saying what it is you want — “If you say it out loud, you’re going to do it,” she says — so when in San Francisco, she ran into the producer of radio legend Rick Dees’ morning show on KIIS-FM. She moved to LA. after an audition with Dees led to a job in 1990 as his co-host.
It’s Dees who is responsible for her current name. Ellen Thomas wouldn’t work, he told her, because his L.A. radio rival was Jay Thomas on “Power 106.” Dees suggested she use her middle initial instead.
“I said, ‘Well, you’re not going to like it, my middle initial is J, so I’m Ellen J. Thomas,’ ” she told him. “So he said, ‘That’s got to change; we’ll go to the next letter in the alphabet, K.’ ” From 1990-1994 she was Dees’ sidekick, and when Ryan Seacrest took over mornings on KIIS in 1994, he kept her as his wingwoman, too. “Being on the air in the morning, in this city, we experienced so many things,” she says. “So I really feel like I grew up in L.A.”
That connection she felt with the Chicago jocks as a kid she now felt with those who listened to her on KIIS, or at sister station KOST, where she jumped to launch her own morning show in 2016.
“It feels like family,” Ellen K says. “It’s that connection.”
And while she’s not as instantly recognized as a TV host or actor, there’s one thing that can always give her away.
“I’ll be in the grocery store with [my husband] and I’ll say something — ‘Oh, honey, could you get the milk’ or whatever. And then someone in line will say, ‘Are you Ellen K?’ Because they recognize my voice.”
At KOST, Ellen K got to shape her own show, mixing celebrity interviews with topic-of-the-day discussions with her on-air team and listeners, often bringing her family and her own life into the show to create a sense of community. Her son Calvin’s broken arm led her to do the show as a fundraiser for Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles on Giving Tuesday, the week after Black Friday.
When her mother, Eileen, was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, she launched a regular series titled “Meaningful Makeovers” to give women of all ages a bit of feelgood pampering as they deal with the disease.
Sharing her life — even when it’s difficult, such as the morning this year when she went on air to let listeners know her mother had died — is important to her because of the community she has built over many years on the radio, which she cherishes.
“I realize that everything I go through my listeners are going through or have experienced,” Ellen K says. “As far as kids and being in a hospital, it is every parent’s nightmare. And then cancer — there’s not one person I know who’s not touched by cancer.”
In addition to her weekday morning shows that air live from 5-10 a.m., “The Ellen K Morning Show” is syndicated in 60 markets in a taped version that airs Saturdays at the same time. This year she started hosting the Chinese Theatre ceremonies in her new role as the historic venue’s official ambassador. She’s been the voiceover announcer for the Grammys for a few years, too.
But still, there’s more on her todo list. She wants to make a TV show version of her radio show and has shot a pilot as that inches into development. She’s got plans to write a book, a mix of motivational essays and stories from her life and career. And she wants to do more work on cancer-related causes such as her partnership with Thrive Causemetics, which released a pink lipstick in her mother’s favorite shade and named it Eileen Pink.
“This is the feel-good station,” Ellen K says of the adult contemporary format at KOST, which has held the top spot in the Nielsen radio ratings for Los Angeles so far this year. “I was really attracted to that. And I really want to do positive, good things with my show.”
“I loved the atmosphere of the radio station. Everybody just seemed to be goofing off but yet they’re working. I was like, ‘Oh my god, not only is this a fun job surrounded by music and people who are loving what they’re doing, but all those flashing lights [on the request lines] you could answer and talk. There’s a different person on every line. I loved that connection, and I still love it today.”
— Ellen K, radio host
Radio personality Ellen K is the host of “The Ellen K Morning Show” on KOST (103.5FM) in Los Angeles.
HANS GUTKNECHT — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER