Air Joyner

Onetime fly jock Tom Joyner has landed a radio deal with Corporate America that is making him the conscience of the black community

Behind a glass wall in the high-tech North Dallas offices of ABC Radio Networks is what pretends to be a live broadcast featuring a large cast of characters all interacting with each other in the same studio. But the radio players who are doing political commentary, comedy sketches, running gags, and bits of shtick are nowhere in sight. The local news-weather-sports guys found on almost every station doing drive-time morning radio have no place here. No traffic helicopter reports its tales of caution to sleepy commuters on crowded freeways.

What does exist this particular November morning is a lone DJsitting behind a huge desk, his headphones resting comfortably over his baseball cap and bald head, his toothy, wraparound smile edging close to the microphone, as if he were about to kiss it. He is Tom Joyner, and this is his show--a miracle of modern technology, a satellite feeding his smooth, friendly, non-offensive voice locally to KRBV-FM(100.3) and nationally to more than 95 markets. This is the magical world of syndicated radio that seems to broadcast at the same time from everywhere and nowhere, a national show that tries to have a local feel, a show that is cobbled together at different places and made to sound as though it comes from one.

Peering over the rim of his eyeglasses, Joyner checks a hodgepodge of playlists, "drops," reminders, and other notes pinned to twin clipboards in front of him. He picks up a couple of drumsticks and, on a set of drums only he can imagine, quietly bangs out the beat of the song that's playing. He tells his engineer, Ross Alan, "Play Aretha next,"--one of his favorites--alternately standing and sitting, seeming both restless and energized at the same time.

Joyner's frenetic energy behind a microphone is legendary. In the late '80s, his vaulting popularity here earned him the nickname "Mr. Dallas" and pushed black contemporary station K104-FM into the No. 1 ratings spot during much of his 10-year tenure. Later, when he began the seemingly impossible daily commute between Dallas and Chicago--earning himself the monikers Fly Jock and the Hardest-Working Man in Radio--Joyner's name became synonymous with urban contemporary radio. And now, with his Tom Joyner Morning Show reaching some 5 million people, Joyner may well be the most-listened-to music DJ in the country.

In the majority of its markets, the show dominates the morning airwaves and is often ranked No. 1 overall. That is not, however, the case in Dallas, Joyner's adopted hometown, where his ratings are disappointingly low. "This is home," says Joyner, "and the toughest place to play is home. Every entertainer will tell you that."

By combining slapstick comedic bits with serious news and political commentary, Joyner has managed to do what industry pundits insisted would be a futile venture: successfully deliver syndicated programming in radio's most aggressive time slot--the morning drive. Instead, the show, produced and promoted by media giant ABC Radio Networks, has not only captured the loyalty of its primarily black audiences, it has single-handedly rescued more than one station from the ratings cellar.

Joyner has done it, in part, by becoming the beneficiary of the merger fever that has overtaken Wall Streeters, as new radio conglomerates went searching for cost-efficient yet polished product for their many stations. In the process, white Corporate America has given an African-American a national forum to reach black America. The irony isn't wasted on Tom Joyner. Apart from having entertainment value, his radio show at times pricks the conscience of black baby boomers, helps awaken their collective memory, and goads them into action.

On this morning in November, after letting his 95 stations break for local news, Joyner eagerly waits for Alan to flip a switch on the large control board for a remote feed from Washington, D.C. It's political commentator Tavis Smiley joining the show live as he does every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:25 a.m. Dallas time.

"I thought, Tom, you'd like to know that tomorrow the world-famous Christie's, the auction house in New York frequented by the rich and the famous, most certainly the rich, is having an auction," he says.

"It seems that Christie's has decided to auction off slavery memorabilia as part of the American Civil War Collection. I should say, slavery paraphernalia, since there ain't much memorable about slavery.

"The only thing wrong with capitalism is that they always get the capital and we always get the ism--racism, sexism, ageism," continues Smiley. "Christie's has a house policy to not sell any paraphernalia related to the Holocaust. Now where, I ask, is the moral consistency here? How can an auction house decide not to sell paraphernalia from the Holocaust, a decision which I applaud, by the way, but instead decides it's OK to sell slavery paraphernalia? I mean, is there some kind of statute of limitations on black pain? I think not."

Joyner was equally outraged by the behavior of Christie's, having discussed the commentary and agreed to its appropriateness for the show the evening before. Smiley encouraged listeners to register their disgust and immediately phone the auction house whose phone number was repeated several times both during and after his piece.

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