Long before this Rockford native became a familiar face on the evening news, her life was changed by one act of serendipity.
It was 6 a.m. on an autumn Saturday in 2015 and Shannon Kelly, then a sophomore at Michigan State University, was getting herself ready to watch the Spartans play football.
ESPN’s “College Gameday” was in town, so Kelly and her friends were ready for the pregame show. But this wasn’t just any pregame show. A former member of her sorority was married to someone who worked behind the scenes, and he had provided Kelly with backstage access.
“It was the first time I really saw how a TV production works, and I was just blown away,” Kelly recalls.
It was truly an eye-opening experience coming face-to-face with the same people she watched on TV every Saturday.
“When I saw how everything worked, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do with my life, and this is something that I could do,’” she says.
Soon after, Kelly changed her major from marketing to journalism. Today, she’s the one with backstage access and a familiar face on the air as an evening news anchor at WIFR-23, Rockford’s CBS affiliate.
“I never grew up thinking I wanted to be in journalism,” says Kelly, a Rockford native and 2013 graduate of Boylan High School. “It was never on my radar growing up, and I never thought about being on TV.”
When she changed her major, Kelly hit the ground running. She got involved with Student U Productions, which is part of the Big Ten Network. It gave her real-world television production experience while still in college.
“We livestreamed some of the smaller sports, like softball, baseball, wrestling, gymnastics, you name it,” she says. “I was really able to get my hands dirty with production, working the camera, setting up audio and getting a behind-the-scenes experience.”
She made the switch from sports to news when she started at WIFR in May 2017, a gig that Kelly considers her “first big girl job.” She started out as a general assignment reporter and assumed the anchor desk in the fall of 2018.
Her climb happened quickly.
“I never thought I would get into the role as fast as I did, which was really awesome,” she says. “Within my first year, I was anchoring the weekends here, so it was awesome moving up into that role. Not long after that, I became one of the evening anchors. The other co-anchor left for a different station, so when the position opened, I moved into it. It was a bit of a shock, because I was new and I was only 23, which was very young.”
The past three years have been full of growth for Kelly. She’s continued to evolve as a journalist just by continuing to mature.
“I’ve learned so much,” she says. “Being put into that role at a young age challenged me in the best way possible, because it helped me grow up and become a newsroom leader. I think I’ve definitely grown into that leadership role.”
Kelly and her co-anchor, Mike Garrigan, have been a fun-loving duo on the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts ever since.
“He’s really become one of my best friends,” Kelly says. “Being able to work with someone like Mike, who inspires me to do better every day, makes me excited to come to work. Any success that I’ve had in this business Mike’s had a hand in, because he’s helped me in every single aspect. He’s shaped who I’ve become, and I’m forever indebted to him.”
No two days are ever alike in the world of news reporting. Kelly understands that firsthand.
“Things happen, stories break, and you have to be able to stay on your toes and adjust as needed,” she says.
There are things, however, that she does do on a regular basis. Most days, she gets to the studio at about 2 p.m. and participates in a daily editorial meeting. There, the producers and reporters pitch story ideas and brief the anchors on what’s happening.
“We start writing, editing and producing, and then we approve reporter scripts,” she says. “Then, we proofread everything that we can before the 5 p.m. newscast.”
The duo also co-produces the 6 p.m. newscast, so they try to find ways to differentiate both shows.
Kelly’s passion and determination for the daily news get her out of bed each morning, and they keep her excited about each new day.
“Mike and I didn’t get into this to be on TV and to have that publicity,” she says. “We got into it because we love telling stories and we love journalism. We also have bright personalities, and we want to show that, and I think it’s important because it makes viewers want to keep watching.”
She also knows people trust her to get the news out fairly and accurately. Being able to tell those stories is something Kelly doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s very rewarding when someone’s able to open up to you, tell you their story and trust you to put it out to thousands of people,” she says.
One of those trusted stories ran in 2019 when Kelly interviewed a handful of high school students from Roosevelt Community Education Center, in Rockford. They created a poem called “I Got Flowers Today,” but it was about each girl’s battle with domestic violence.
“These were 16- and 17-year-old girls, and the poem was just super powerful and eye-opening,” Kelly says. “We do a lot of stories on domestic violence, but when you hear it from a 16-year-old, it gives you a totally different perspective.”
That story earned Kelly an award from the Illinois Broadcasters Association for best hard news story. It’s one of the biggest highlights of her growing career.
“That was a story I worked really hard on,” she says. “I shot it myself, and I wrote it and I edited it from start to finish. It was just something that I really took a lot of pride in, because not only was it a good story, but it was a really important topic to me.”
Kelly says she loves what she does for a living. The best part is she can continue to grow and evolve her career while staying right at home.
“This is my way of showing my family, my friends, my classmates and my teachers that you can be from Rockford and you can still do something really cool, whether it takes you away from Rockford or you’re doing it right here,” she says. “I hope I can be a product of that and hopefully a role model to someone thinking about doing this, too.”