Mojo in a lot of Mornings: Radio show hits 20 years

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The first time Mojo met Dick Purtan was at Costco. He was holding down Purtan’s old shift on one of Purtan’s old stations, and he'll tell you he was awestruck as he introduced himself to a Detroit radio legend.

“You're fat,” Purtan said.

The first review of “Mojo in the Morning,” days into its launch on WKQI-FM (95.5), suggested the show wouldn’t last. Too blue, it said.

Here's Mojo in the Mojo in the Morning radio booth from the first year of the show, 2000.

Two decades later, Mojo is less fat. The show is more blue, at least after 8:20 a.m. when listeners have dropped their kids at school. And as “Mojo in the Morning” celebrates its 20th anniversary Friday, it stands as the longest-running FM morning program in local history.

Mojo and "Mojo in the Morning" celebrates its 20th anniversary Friday on local airwaves today.

Or maybe the second-longest, behind “Drew and Mike.” There are asterisks involved. What’s important is that as current and former staffers and assorted well-wishers congregate from 6-10:30 a.m. at the iHeartRadio studios in Farmington Hills, Mojo and his partners have confounded everyone, starting with themselves.

“My biggest thing was, I didn’t want to screw up and get fired,” Mojo says.

He arrived in Michigan from Arizona with two young sons, a three-year contract and a deal with his wife, Chelsea. “I agreed to three years,” she says, and then they’d move on to Chicago.

Spike, the show’s eternal delinquent, remaining co-founder and chief co-host, had a one-year deal and a nagging doubt: should he have taken that job in Washington, D.C., instead?

Now the older of Mojo’s kids works the afternoon shift at the station, the baby is in college and they have a little brother in high school. Spike has had two children and three arrests.

The arrests were in the line of duty, the result of the absurd pranks known as Street Scams. Who knew the authorities would get testy if you got curious about the range and top speed of a golf cart, paid for nine holes at Pine Knob Golf Club in Clarkston and drove your cart down I-75? 

This 2000 promotional photo shows former cast member Sara Fouracre, Mojo (center) and Spike in the front row, along with other cast members of the Mojo in the Morning radio show.

The two daughters, one at Grand Valley State and one in her high school marching band, have been raised with thousands of radio aunts and uncles.

“I still remember the day the younger one was being born, when Mojo tried to get through on the air to the delivery room,” Spike says. “He tried to bribe the nurses with concert tickets.”

Hey, it’s morning radio. Precious little is sacred, besides ratings.

When Mojo and company replaced Kevin O’Neill, who had replaced former child actor Danny Bonaduce, who had replaced Purtan, the station was No. 13 and the morning show was one slot worse.

Today the morning show consistently leads the ratings in its target demographics, and the station has risen with it. Women from ages 18-34 and 25-54 tune in and call in. In the overall 25-54 sector, according to station executive Tony Travatto, WKQI is a steady runner-up to another iHeart property, WNIC-FM (100.3).

The show scores equally well in Toledo and Grand Rapids, where it’s carried on iHeart stations with the assistance of local hosts who contribute to the broadcast.

On a standard recent show, co-host Shannon Murphy tells of coming home to a 49-degree house, summoning a repair service and discovering her 5- and 2-year-olds have been happily stuffing rocks and tennis balls into the exhaust pipe of the furnace.

Listeners immediately dial and text with stories of misadventures from their own lives.

"The personal stories we tell aren't so that we can be the stars," Spike says. Rather, they're so listeners can take ownership of the show.

One woman managed to thrash her family's boat to the point that the outboard motor sank to the bottom of a lake. Another, who works at a day care, figured out after weeks of plumbing problems that a boy was shoving squeaky toys down the toilet. A third admitted to plowing the family car through the garage door at age 9.

“The personal stories we tell aren't so that we can be the stars,” Spike says. Rather, they're so listeners — “the fifth Beatle,” he calls them — can take the spotlight and take ownership of the show.

The regulars know all of the program’s standard bits, like the weekly trap for cheating partners called War of the Roses. They suggest victims for Spike’s daily prank phone call. They give to the show’s Christmastime non-profit and join Time Team Detroit, where Murphy rounds up swarms of volunteers to spend a day with a chosen charity.

Shannon Murphy, co-host of Mojo in the Morning talks to listeners during the show.

Befitting its swelling fan base, the show has twice the staff of 20 years ago, a core of eight with a rotating cast of interns. The cast enjoys more leeway, a product of success and an increasingly lenient society, and plays less music: if Mojo cues up a song once an hour, it’s probably so the team can catch its breath or do some editing.

The tech is higher, the experience greater and the paychecks significantly weightier — none of which seems to make the confidence level loftier.

Not in radio. iHeartMedia laid off hundreds of people nationally in January, and the contracts of Mojo, Spike and Murphy expire in December.

“When I got here,” Mojo says, “I didn’t want to let my family down. Now I not only feel that sense of don’t-mess-this-up for them, I feel it for every one of the people on the show.”

Another Joe

Mojo and Spike have real names, and Mojo’s is not a difficult Google. But enough random uninvited people have showed up on their doorsteps that they prefer not to see their given names in print.

Mojo, 49, grew up in Chicago. He’s the youngest of six kids, all with Joseph or Josephine as a middle name, which made him one mo’ Joe.

Spike, 48, is from Philadelphia. He needed a handle in a hurry when the afternoon host called in sick at the station where he was a part-time board operator. Another deejay was already using his first name, so he went with the college nickname inspired by his haircut.

Here's Mojo with a Valentine's Day card in 2019.

Mojo left college a semester before graduation in 1992 to take an afternoon job in Tucson. Then he moved to mornings to replace a guy named Jimmy Kimmel who’d caught on in LA.

WKQI reached out in ’99. The rest of his team had no interest in moving to Detroit — but it turned out the right partners were already here.

Spike and Sara Fouracre had come from Dallas to help launch an alternative rock format on WXGD-FM (105.1), which is now a throwback rap station called the Bounce. When the format changed, he says, “they fired us all on Easter Sunday.”

He and Fouracre went on the air as placeholders at WKQI a month before Mojo arrived.

“We’d talk about Madonna’s bra,” Spike says, and the station manager would growl at them for being too risque.

Frustrated, they were ready to take an alt-rock offer in D.C. when Mojo showed up. WKQI promised it was going younger and hipper, rebranding from Q-95 to Channel 955.

For weeks before they went on the air together, Spike and Mojo simply palled around, seeing if they were a match. They touched off enough of a spark that Spike and Fouracre decided to stay.

Two months later, the station in D.C. flipped to all-Spanish.

Different folks

Mojo has been narrating testimonial ads for a weight-loss clinic, and he says he’s lost 40 pounds. Before that, he was twice the man Spike is.

For now, he’s 6-feet-3 and 279. In one of the show’s fearlessly goofy moments, Spike went back-to-back with studio guest Kevin Hart, the comedian and actor who claims to be 5-feet-4. Spike towered over him by a good two inches.

He and Mojo are different in other ways, too.

Mojo is conservative by nature, a homebody whose idea of a great date night involves a couch, a pizza and a remote control. Spike is a sleep-in-a-yurt adventurer and talented photographer who has launched a small tour business called Explore with Spike.

Spike says he figured out early on that Mojo “didn’t have an ego. He wasn't doing this to be famous. He had the same desire to entertain that I did.”

Notoriety showed up anyway. Spike says he was hiking a remote Pacific Northwest trail a few years ago when the first person he’d seen in hours called him by name. It often takes multiple calls to record a usable Phone Scam because people recognize his voice or his act.

Other than helpfully driving the Detroit Red Wings’ Zamboni from Joe Louis Arena to its future home on Woodward Avenue two years ago, he hasn’t attempted a Street Scam in ages because social media has made him too familiar to fool anyone.

Such are the hazards of a record run on radio — if that's what “Mojo in the Morning” has achieved.

Local radio historian Art Vuolo Jr. notes that Purtan, Jim Harper and current WNIC fixture Jay Towers, among others, spent more than two decades hosting FM morning shows, but they switched stations along the way.

Drew Lane of “Drew and Mike” puts his ratings behemoth’s tenure on WRIF at 22 years, from 1991-2013. But he debuted with a different co-host than the late Mike Clark, and while Lane was on hiatus tending to his ailing girlfriend from 2007-09, the show was renamed “Mike in the Morning.”

Mojo says he can’t help counting his own years, but he’s not competing.

“I can’t even compare us to Drew and Mike,” he says. “I have too much respect for what they did and how they did it.”

Early on, Mojo would sometimes end the show at 10 a.m. so he could catch Lane and Clark’s final half hour.

Lane, who now hosts a thriving podcast, says he’s equally impressed with “Mojo in the Morning.”

“Even when they first got here, something would be going on and we’d find a guy to talk to about it, and we’d find out he talked to Mojo 45 minutes ago,” Lane says. “They work hard over there. They’re very disciplined. They’ve got a great antenna for the market.”

Hosts Spike, from left, co-host Shannon Murphy and Mojo are now part of the longest-running FM morning program in local history. Or maybe the second-longest, behind "Drew and Mike."

Hard work

With the microphones on, Mojo is part ringmaster and part air traffic controller.

Standing at a wide audio panel, with a rundown of waiting callers on a screen at his left and four other screens to his right, he decides on the fly which calls to take in what order, while simultaneously overseeing the conversation in the studio and tossing in jokes of his own.

The hosts, including producer Rachel Giordano, trade text messages every night about their lives, discussing the trivial or deep occurrences that might turn into conversations.

“We work really hard,” Spike says, “to sound like we’re not working really hard.”

Murphy announced her divorce on the show last summer, and that led to contributions from listeners about what to call her ex-husband. “Wasband” was a favorite.

“That was tough to live out on the air,” she says, but opening the occasional vein is in the job description.

Murphy joined the show in 2009, almost three years after original co-host Fouracre left. Mojo and Spike had signed new contracts, and expected Fouracre to do the same.

Instead, she was laid off, “and our ratings went down,” Spike says. Lesson learned: now the principals negotiate together.

Travatto, the executive vice president of programming for iHeartMedia Detroit, says he can’t comment on the contract situation. Mojo says it’s too early to be concerned, and there’s no sense talking about a decision that will likely be made at levels far from Farmington Hills.

He has shows to do, and another decade to start.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn