At 38 years old, Shelley Irwin decided it was time to take a 180-degree turn and pursue a career in broadcasting. Photo by Michael Buck
Shelley Irwin likely would not have been this year’s ATHENA Award recipient had she remained content working as a physical therapist.
After earning her master’s in physical science therapy from the University of Indianapolis in 1985, Irwin paid the bills working in physical therapy for 15 years in Savannah, Georgia, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina and Rochester.
Then at age 38, Irwin decided it was time to take a 180-degree turn in her life and pursue a career in broadcasting.
Her decision made some people in Irwin’s life scratch their heads in bewilderment. But Irwin thrives on expanding her intellectual horizons by speaking with people in the know.
Plus, she possesses a never-ending curiosity.
“I’m interested in people,” Irwin said. “I am authentic, so I can make people comfortable. That’s one of the best compliments people give me. They were scared walking into an interview, and they feel good walking out. I treat you (the interviewee) like it’s a service profession. I still have a job to do, but you can trust me.
“I’m not an in-your-face interviewer,” Irwin added. “I want you to talk about you. This isn’t about me. We all like to talk about ourselves. So, if I put you in that position, then you’re going to be comfortable to share.”
At first, knowing how to land a job in broadcasting was an enigma to Irwin, so she went to a Borders bookstore to read biographies on trailblazing women journalists Lesley Stahl and Barbara Walters.
“That’s how I got my start,” Irwin said. “I’d sit in Borders and read their biographies to find out how they got their start. A lot of it was paying dues, yet you still follow your own path.”
She also went back to school, earning a broadcasting certificate in 1999 from Southfield-based Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts.
That’s the same year Irwin plunged into her new field with a frantic work schedule.
Irwin established herself in broadcasting first working as an intern at the Detroit-based radio station WJR and, three months later, as an associate producer for the morning drive Paul W. Smith Show for the same station, while still squeezing in work as a physical therapist from 3-7 p.m.
Irwin also worked from 1999-2001 as a production associate for WXYZ Channel 7, where she assisted with news production.
Also from 1999-2000, Irwin was a product specialist for General Motors’ Pontiac division, giving her the opportunity to travel to auto shows in Dallas, Louisville, Kentucky, Grand Rapids and Omaha, Nebraska, to demonstrate the latest models to potential buyers.
WGVU Public Media radio and TV hired her in 2001 initially as a fill-in host/producer.
These days, Irwin is best known as the host and producer of the 9-11 a.m. “WGVU Morning Show,” as well as several informative PBS TV programs, including “Family Health Matters,” “Community Connection,” “Kalamazoo Lively Arts” and the former program “Ask The Expert,” which still is available for online viewing.
Having worked in commercial and now public broadcasting, Irwin said there’s much to be said for working in the fourth estate that isn’t tied to ratings.
“I’m not going to say I’m not glad to be in commercial broadcasting,” Irwin said. “It is a different animal, and yes, I do have a platform now and have some independence, but I do have a long format that I wouldn’t have in a commercial setting. But that (commercial broadcasting) is how I cut my teeth. We’re not privy to the ratings. They’re not pressuring us. It takes that stress away a little way. We’re more of a community service.”
Irwin believes she has a pretty good idea of who her public radio and TV audience entails.
“They want to know what’s going on in the community,” she said. “They enjoy fast-action conversation (and) variety from a veterinarian to a business person. It’s nice to know tomorrow, I’ll have 20 regular interviews with two or three book interviews in a day.”
Irwin is a high-energy, up-and-at-’em person. Her rise and shine starts at around 5:15 in the morning, and she arrives at the WGVU studio at 301 W. Fulton St., by 6 a.m. to review her emails and prepare for her cavalcade of interviews that she relishes doing.
“I produce my own shows, which means I gather guests, arrange the times, formulate the conversations and make sure they’re here on time,” Irwin said. “I have two assistants, so they can bring the guests back. I may do eight interviews in two hours for the radio.”
And despite a whirl of interviews Irwin has done the past 15 years for WGVU, there are celebrity interviews she especially remembers. Among them are public radio talk show host Diane Rehm and actors Richard Thomas of “The Waltons” fame and Christopher Knight, who played Peter Brady on the 1970s TV series “The Brady Bunch.”
The interview with Knight edged on the surreal side, Irwin said, since she remembers watching the show in her younger years.
“That (‘The Brady Bunch’) was my Friday night for five years, that and reading Tiger Beat magazine,” Irwin said.
This year, Irwin became the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 27th recipient of its annual ATHENA Award, which honors an individual who has demonstrated leadership in their professional field, mentored women and made time and talent contributions to the community.
In Irwin’s case, she is an active and vocal supporter of encouraging women and young leaders to color outside the lines of their lives.
Irwin’s community activity is extensive and includes Girls on the Run, Gazelle Girl Half Marathon/5K, Girls Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore, Girls Choral Academy, WGVU Women and Girls Lead, Go Red for Women and Michigan Women’s Foundation, to name a few.
Irwin is a trailblazer in her own right. She is the first female president for the Grand Rapids Lions Club and third female president for the University Club of Grand Rapids.
Irwin pauses when asked the reason she cares for others. Perhaps, one motive stems from her personal dearth of role models that she could have benefited from, she said.
“Maybe I didn’t have a lot of role models in my life,” Irwin said. “I’m just blessed to be put in a situation to pursue what I love and don’t have to fake it, and maybe that inspires someone to choose to be goal oriented, too.”
Irwin describes herself as a “goal-oriented” person who relishes variety.
“I did a job that was repetitive, putting price tags on jean and shirts,” she said. “Repetition is not my cup of tea. Work ethic is. I like to work. I like this profession. It’s still new to me after 15 years.”
Irwin attributes her svelte self to her athletic side. She is an avid runner who competes in marathons and triathlons, including the recent Zofingen ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Championships that included teams from 34 countries. The duathlon challenged her to run six miles, bike 90 miles and run another 18.5 miles and finish it all in within 12 hours — all in the mountainous region of Zofingen, Switzerland.
“I love a physical challenge,” Irwin said. “I wanted to reach a goal. I sought it, and I did it.”