“I love this,” Jennifer Sawalha remembers thinking in the fourth grade as she sat behind a microphone, reading aloud the story of a little girl and her magical pet fish.
The story was titled “The Wilderly Beast.” Sawalha, whose maiden name is Granader, wrote it in Mrs. Bennett’s class at State Road Elementary School in Fenton. The tale later won her the Michigan Young Author Award in 1984.
Her prize? An interview, and the chance to read her story live, on air, for a local Detroit radio station.
Today, at 38, Sawalha isn’t just reading stories. She’s writing and producing entire broadcasts for the Live On Air With Ryan Seacrest show in Los Angeles.
As it turns out, Sawalha’s fourth-grade glory was a prelude to a successful career in Hollywood as a producer not only with Seacrest, but with some of the country’s most influential media personalities. The names Oprah Winfrey, Wanda Sykes, Dr. Phil, and Tyra Banks all appear on her résumé. These days, she’s also a consulting producer for the locally taped medical show Ask Dr. Nandi — proof that her Detroit roots still run deep.
Sawalha got her first big break in Detroit when she decided to quit her first stable job out of college to take a radio internship. That might seem like a step back to some, but it wasn’t just any unpaid gig — it was a chance to work on the Mojo in the Morning show on 95.5-FM.
“I really believe in following my intuition,” says Sawalha, who considers show co-hosts Mojo and Spike among the best mentors she’s ever had. She remains friends with the top-rated Detroit radio personalities. They’re “really, really good at what they do,” she says.
Things might have gone differently if Sawalha had followed her first career path in psychology. For a while, she worked as a social worker in Detroit, and she soon became inspired by the teens she helped. She pitched a teen advice column for the Wayne County Observer, “and they gave it to me,” she says from her home in Los Angeles, still sounding surprised the editors thought it was a good idea.
The experience of writing the “Ask Jen” column is what finally motivated Sawalha to get serious about her first love — the media. She’d always wanted to work in television. An internship with Mojo, she thought, could at least help her get a start.
From the beginning, Mojo and Spike could tell that Sawalha wasn’t your average intern.
“She was way overqualified,” says Spike, recalling her side job of making salad dressings and selling them to grocery stores during the same year. “If she wanted to do something, she went out and did it.”
“We always wanted to know what the hell she was doing because she was so intelligent,” Mojo adds with a laugh. “She set the table, made the dinner, and we just got the opportunity to be invited over and enjoy it with her.”
After a year and a half at Mojo in the Morning, Sawalha moved to Phoenix to be the executive producer of the morning radio show The Edge. Seven months later, an associate producer position opened up at the local Fox News station. The hours at her first experience in TV were grueling — sometimes 100 a week — but satisfying.
“There’s something electrifying about being in a news pit,” Sawalha says. “It’s very intense. It moves very quick, but that’s the beauty of live [TV]. You’re in the thick of it, and when it’s over, tomorrow’s a new day.”
Sawalha’s move to Hollywood came by way of her half-sister, who was working on the Dr. Phil show. She passed Sawalha’s résumé along to The Tyra Banks Show, and Sawalha immediately got the job.
As Sawalha built a solid reputation within the industry, other gigs followed, leading to an impressive portfolio today of past production jobs in both daytime and late-night TV.
Now, as a producer with Seacrest, Sawalha says it’s the first time in her career that she doesn’t have her eyes on the next thing. She’s also a new mother, something she says is a “million times better” than she ever imagined.
One thing she still wants to do, though, is become the kind of mentor that she says was so valuable on her way to the top.
“You have to start paying it forward,” Sawalha says. “It’s fun to watch people’s dreams come true.”
Her own mentors are a witness to that.
“You’re never going to keep someone with talent down,” Mojo says.