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

This was the kind of call-to-arms that Joyner felt comfortable encouraging. For him, it was just another chance to bring the disparate segments of his African-American audience together, a way to generate a sense of black community--something he had been trying to do, through one publicity stunt or another, practically since he got into radio, nearly three decades ago.

Because of the faceless nature of radio, Tom Joyner believes he can kid about his age and get away with it. "I have been 23 for a while," he jokes, although the deeply etched laugh-lines that cause his eyes to squint at full smile reveal his true 47 years. Joyner is proud of his heritage, born in Tuskegee, Alabama, the city that sprang up around one of America's oldest black colleges, Tuskegee Institute.

"With all its rich history, Tuskegee was a great place to grow up," says Joyner. "From Booker T. Washington to George Washington Carver--there was all this history there. It kind of rubs off on you. You never feel like there's anything you can't do."

Joyner's father, "Pop," still lives in Tuskegee and often travels with his son. "My father is something," says Joyner, shaking his head. "His name is Hercules. But he goes around telling people he's Tom Joyner Sr., won't buy anything unless he gets a discount because he says, 'I'm Tom Joyner's producer. I produced him.'" Joyner's mother passed away nearly 10 years ago; his older brother still lives in Alabama. Although he has a close relationship with his nieces and nephews, Joyner refuses to let them call him "Uncle Tom."

After what he describes as a so-so academic career--"I hung out on the Ignorant Bench"-- Joyner received a degree in sociology from Tuskegee Institute in the mid-'60s. One of his classmates was Lionel Richie, then-lead singer of the R&B group the Commodores, and Joyner performed with the band as a singer before they hit it big in the early '70s.

In 1969, while still in school, Joyner married his college sweetheart, Dora. His oldest son, Thomas Jr. (also known as Killer), was born about five years later, followed the next year by Oscar (also known as Thriller). Guided mostly by his ability to talk to just about anyone, Joyner took a job as a news announcer at a radio station in Montgomery, Alabama. "I started doing news," says Joyner, "and just got interested in anything and everything I could learn about radio." After Montgomery, he worked at stations in Memphis and St. Louis before landing a spot in 1972 as a DJ on Dallas' newest black station, KKDA-AM (730).

Recalling his early on-air personality, Joyner says he "tried to rhyme" every sentence that he spoke. Chuck Smith, then KKDA's program director, broke him of the habit and helped him develop his "radio voice." "'Stop all the rhyming,'" Joyner says Smith told him. "'When you talk, pretend that you're only talking to one person.'"

Black Dallasites quickly gravitated to the young DJ's energetic radio persona and his knack for handling celebrity interviews with ease, but after five years, Joyner accepted a job offer in Chicago--the bigger market meant more money. He only worked for a year at WVON-AM, "the Voice of the Negro," after a change of ownership resulted in the summary firing of all its radio jocks. Joyner was luckier than some, soon landing another job at Chicago's WBMX, his first FM station. "I was happy because it was FM. With FM, you get that little red light to come on [your radio]," he says jokingly. "Stereoooooooo."

After being at WBMX only a few months, Joyner attracted the attention of black media pioneer John H. Johnson, who stopped listening to his own Chicago station, WJPC-AM, after he started listening to Joyner. WJPC had been losing money for years, and Johnson began courting Joyner in the hope that he could turn it around. Johnson invited Joyner and his wife to his office and closed the door behind them. "I'm not going to let you all out," he told them, "until Tom tells me what it would take for him to come to our station." To Johnson's surprise, Joyner told him that what he really wanted was his own television show, and before he left, he convinced Johnson to give him one if he brought the ratings of his radio station up to at least No. 2 in the Chicago market. Johnson had to buy out Joyner's WBMX contract for $25,000 before he could make the move. "Tom used to go around joking that I bought him," says Johnson. "He'd tell people, 'Mr. Johnson is still buying slaves.'"

By the late '70s, inflation was running rampant, unemployment was high, and the country was in the midst of a gasoline shortage. Every day, Joyner's black listeners called in to complain that they were being hit particularly hard. Black radio's greatest strength has always been its ability to provide listeners not only with their favorite music, but with a forum for airing local concerns. Feeling ignored by print journalism and television, blacks have often relied heavily on radio, particularly black-owned radio, which has given voice to their social and political activism. "I've always tried to do radio in such a way that it involves the community," says Joyner. "So I came up with this promotion to sell gas for 50 cents a gallon. I don't know, I think Mr. Johnson gave me like $1,000. And I went to these gas stations on the South Side [of Chicago] and rolled the prices back, and we paid the difference."

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