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Originally published September 28, 2012 at 12:00 PM | Page modified September 28, 2012 at 3:22 PM

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Seattle's Bob Rivers: On with the radio show!

With bad jokes, big hearts and Twisted Tunes, Bob Rivers and his KJR crew keep playing.

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don't know Bob and all the gang personally, but still I count them as my good buddies. ... MORE
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THE FIRST guest this morning on "The Bob Rivers Show" is defensive, indifferent and — worst of all — really boring.

Bob, a master interviewer, presses on. It's not like this is the first time he's had an uncooperative guest. Billy Bob Thornton was surly, Ann Coulter just plain nasty. Kim Kardashian hung up on Bob, and so, weirdly, did Miss Manners.

But Bob doesn't give up easily, which helps explain how he's stayed on the radio in Seattle since 1989, now with his third station, 95.7 KJR-FM. He's done thousands of interviews, most with guests more famous, and more agreeable, than this guy.

Arik Korman, the show's Zen master/executive director, grabs a piece of paper, writes a message in big, bold letters and holds it up to the control-room window for Bob to see: GUEST HAS TO GO.

Bob takes one more shot at it, gets nowhere, then ends the call.

You'd have thought the story of the man with the World's Largest Measured Penis being detained by overzealous airport security would have been more interesting. Oh well.

During a break, cast and crew good-naturedly throw each other under the bus. Whose idea was that? (Consensus: It was Bob's fault.) Spike O'Neill, Bob's longtime sidekick, has the final word on the personality-challenged guest: "Well, they say God gives everybody something."

THE RADIO business is changing: Fewer stations, fewer jobs, fewer personalities. But for nearly 23 years, Seattle has been listening to lovable misfits Bob, Spike and "Downtown" Joe Bryant. Since April 1, 2011, after adding Seattle radio veteran Jodi Brothers to the mix, they've been cracking wise from 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays on KJR. The show is consistently one of the top three in its time period with the all-important 25-to-54 age group, along with "The BJ Shea Morning Experience" on KISW and "Morning Edition" on KUOW.

It's the last remaining local talk/entertainment program on Seattle morning radio — others play music between gabbing, or focus on news. The show — "Bob Rivers Twisted Radio" on KISW from late 1989 through August 2000, "The Bob Rivers Show" from 2001 through September 2010 on KZOK, and now on KJR — is stronger than ever.

Everything's rainbows and great ratings now, but the incredible longevity, the easy chemistry and current success of these radio survivors has been hard-earned. Their long, strange trip has included failed contract negotiations, cast changes, rehab, a lot of work and a recent health scare. But as the show and its players have evolved, there has also been laughter, love, support and family. Always, family — on and off the air.

IN THE RUNUP to the show this morning, Spike shares before-and-after pictures. Of his arteries. Less than 36 hours earlier, five stents had been placed in the major arteries leading to his heart. It was a 4 ½-hour procedure. He took one day off.

Spike stands in front of his microphone now, his first day back, dressed in his usual shorts, T-shirt and sandals, and shares his story. Bob, Joe and Jodi listen intently, not as quick as usual to jump in with a joke. Spike, who is 49, talks about blocked arteries, bad habits and choices that put him in the hospital, about "kissing the angel of death on the mouth every morning."

Bob encourages listeners to see their doctors, and asks Joe if he wants to go with him to get a stress test. He tells Spike his color is better and that his Pat O'Day impression sounds 10 years younger. He also tells him how worried he'd been about him, how he feared the show — their show — might be finished.

RIVERS MET O'Neill in 1989, only because he was being punished by his Baltimore radio-station bosses. A few years earlier, working in Worcester, Mass., Rivers had begun writing, producing and recording song parodies he called Twisted Tunes. A little ditty he wrote in Baltimore — "Hyundai, Hyundai (Can't Trust That Car)," to the tune of The Mamas & the Papas' "Monday, Monday" — wasn't a big hit with one of the station's major sponsors, a local Hyundai dealer.

The son of the dealership's owner called to complain. Rivers was told he'd have to test drive a Hyundai, then describe the car's awesomeness on the air.

The sleazy salesman who accompanied Rivers on the test drive — the dealership owner's son who had complained — was O'Neill.

Spike — known then by the name his mother had given him, Jamie O'Neill — talked his way into an unpaid internship on Rivers' show. On his third day, he wrote his own Twisted Tune, "Lucy's in the Hospital Dying," about Lucille Ball, to the tune of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Around the same time, Rivers was in the studio recording "Roseanne," to the Police tune "Roxanne," and O'Neill, a singing bartender when he wasn't trying to sell Hyundais, told him his singer sucked and he could do better. Go ahead, Rivers challenged. "I crushed it in one take," says O'Neill.

Rivers hired O'Neill as a producer for the show and singer of Twisted Tunes, then got fired a couple months later. He made two crucial decisions before starting his new job at KISW. He would buy a house in North Bend, a spot he circled while looking at a map in his parents' Connecticut home. And he would take O'Neill with him.

He still lives in North Bend, where he gardens, tends to his bees and chickens, hikes, and records and plays music in his home studio.

Spike? He started with a small on-air role in Seattle, delivering the sports report each morning. But that grew after Rivers spotted his gift for mimicry, his improvisational genius, his quick-witted conversational style. And, "Spike has an incredible heart," Rivers says. "He's always on the side of caring." Rivers, ever-willing to take the other side, had found his perfect partner.

BOB TEASES to the next segment, an interview with a researcher who claims that, for the first time, women are scoring higher than men on IQ tests. Spike seems confused. "Did they add a baking section to the IQ test?"

The interview with James Flynn turns into an amiable discussion about what's more important, being smart or giving your best effort.

Bob poses a question: Isn't the best way to find out what you're capable of to try hard?

It usually works for him.

RIVERS GREW UP in Branford, Conn., and, when he was 5, got a transistor radio from his grandfather. "I thought, 'That's cool, that's what I want to do.' "

So he did. He hosted a Sunday morning show on a New Haven, Conn., station when he was 14 and started a high-school radio show. ("I was not real popular," he says. "The few friends I did have were social outcasts, like me.")

He got his first paying radio job when he was 16, a gig he lost after playing his Led Zeppelin records: "The boss said he was impressed by my enthusiasm but that I might not yet have the maturity to work at an easy-listening station."

For the next 15 years, he worked as a DJ at stations in the Northeast, including six years in the Boston market, where Twisted Tunes was born. Rivers took his act to Baltimore, gaining attention by staying on the air for 11 days until the Orioles finally ended a 21-game losing streak in 1988.

A year later, "I found myself suddenly fired," Rivers says. "I also found myself not happy with my need to party. I wasn't always a good person then. I needed to find myself, my integrity, and a place where I could be a good dad."

One of the first things Rivers did when he got to Seattle was enter rehab at an outpatient clinic. Rivers, 56, has been married to Lisa for 31 years, their sons now 29 and 27. He didn't talk about his recovery on the air for years, confusing anonymity with silence. He eventually discovered that sharing his story of sobriety deepened his relationship with listeners.

"Getting sober, and doing this show," he says, "I've learned what family is."

The show has changed, from a typical morning mix featuring music to an all-talk format by the end of the run at KISW. Rivers' performance has changed, too.

Today, when Jodi mentions a Facebook effort to encourage more people to vote, he says, "I don't think everybody should get to vote," claiming, half-seriously, that potential voters must display some interest, and at least a passing grasp of certain facts, before being allowed to cast ballots. As is often the case, the devil's advocate is outnumbered 3 to 1. But he doesn't mind, even if it makes him sound like a cranky, self-righteous gasbag.

"I know we can't sit around and all agree," he says. "And I know a lot of the time, I don't know what I think. So I take the other side."

But he's a gentle interviewer, treating guests with respect. It's a style that comes in handy today, when Mandy Schendel, a 22-year-old from Newcastle, enters the studio wearing a shiny purple dress and Miss Washington sash, practically begging to be made fun of. Rivers will leave that to his snarky texters. He isn't interested in creating a Miss South Carolina-style YouTube moment, so there are no tricky geography questions.

JODI'S NEWS report this morning begins with suicide bombers in Syria, then moves to an online dating service's study of which states have the best- and worst-looking people. (Joe disputes Kansas' placement in the bottom five, claiming women there have a "healthy glow." Jodi thinks it's probably sweat.)

Jodi discusses with Joe recent bat, beaver and otter attacks, debates with Spike whether being a judge on "American Idol" is a career-killer (no, she says emphatically) and opines, "We should just take Canada over."

She cracks up during a break when Joe does a live commercial for Applebee's by reading from the menu.

JODI BROTHERS, a 36-year-old New Jersey native who has worked in Seattle radio since 2000, is a funny, smart, strong addition to the show.

She has taken the news position previously held by Maura Gallucci, then Kaci Aitchison, then Gallucci again. Brothers is quick to say she doesn't have the news chops of Gallucci, a former KIRO reporter, or Aitchison, who left the show in 2008 for Q13 FOX News.

"The fact I do the news is just because I can read," she says.

Brothers, who performed stand-up comedy while she was earning a broadcast journalism degree from Ohio State, won't say she's funnier than her predecessors. "I'm more of a smartass."

She has found her place on the air among the trio that has been together 23 years.

"This is the only thing that I feel like I'm supposed to do," she says.

Of her co-stars, and those behind the scenes — Korman, the executive director, and the husband-wife producer team of Pedro Bartes and Luciana Bosio — she says, "They're the loveliest people I know."

She'll travel with Korman in November to India, part of the show's work with World Vision, a humanitarian organization based in Federal Way. Korman and other members of the show have traveled to Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Bangladesh and the Amazon Rainforest, encouraging listeners to sponsor more than 4,000 children.

JODI FINISHES the news with a report on Nelson Mandela, who entertained Bill and Chelsea Clinton on his 94th birthday.

Joe's take: "Bill's not making it to 94," he says in a Southern drawl he's managed to maintain even though he moved to Seattle 39 years ago, at the age of 10. "I love Bill Clinton ... but he's looking older. You see him and Nelson Mandela standing together ... 'You know, they might have gone to high school together.' "

The next sound you hear is Jodi's wonderful, infectious laugh.

BRYANT, HIRED as an unpaid intern shortly after the show launched in Seattle, got his start as "Downtown Joe" driving to phone booths in different cities, waiting for listeners to find him and answer a trivia question. (Nailing the multiple-choice quiz was easy enough; the answer was always "C.")

After about a year, he was hired as a producer, then began working on the air, the straight-talking everyman.

"A woman who listens to the show told me once that she smiles every time she hears Joe's voice," Rivers says. "That describes him perfectly."

One of his hobbies is dreaming up themed restaurants, which he pitches — unsuccessfully — to famed chef Tom Douglas, a frequent guest on the show. His latest gimmick: a restaurant that sells buckets of chicken legs ("legs are cheap!"), delivered by women with shapely legs. What did Douglas think? "He didn't go for that one, either."

HOW COOL are these guys? As this morning's show comes to a close, Bob reminds listeners that his band will be playing soon at the Tulalip Amphitheatre. You don't hear that on NPR.

Spike and the Impalers is a classic-rock cover band, featuring talented, professional musicians plus cast and crew from the show, who have taught themselves to play.

The Impalers draw a near-capacity crowd of more than 2,000 to Tulalip on a perfect summer night. Bob plays keyboards, taking a solo on "Breakdown," the Tom Petty song. Pedro is a percussionist. Joe clangs a mean cowbell. Arik plays bass on a few songs, including The Who's "Baba O'Riley," doing his best John Entwistle ("minus the coke and hookers," he says).

Spike, rocking a sleeveless Harley jacket, rips into the first song, AC-DC's "Sin City," sounding a lot like Bon Scott. Later, he'll sound a lot like Roger Daltrey and a lot like Bruce Springsteen.

The other lead singer is Kaci Aitchison, the radio show's former news director. Squished into a black vest you're not likely to see her wearing on Fox, she belts out a stunning version of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." (Kaci fun fact: pierced belly button. Game on, Enersen.)

Nearly 20 musicians have taken the stage by the time the two-hour set ends, plus friends and family who join in on the last song, "With a Little Help from My Friends."

Now it's time to go home. Playing rock star was fun. But on Monday morning, Bob and his gang will have to be back to their day jobs — keeping Seattle company.

Bill Reader is The Seattle Times deputy sports editor. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW staff photographer.

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