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

The stunt was a Chicago first and an instant winner, snarling traffic around the participating gas stations for blocks and exposing the radio station and its new DJ to all sorts of publicity. Joyner hit the grocery stores next, selling listeners $25 bags of groceries for $5. "You didn't have a choice of what was in the bag," he says, "but we had a little bit of everything in it. We had some meat, some cereal, some bread, and some eggs." Joyner later came up with the idea of selling money at several Chicago banks. "We had people come through the drive-through, and I'd sell you a $2 bill for $1, a $10 bill for $5 and a $20 bill for a $10. It was 50 percent-off money," he laughs.

Joyner then suggested a promotion that allowed listeners to send in copies of their monthly bills--telephone, electric, car notes--and the station would randomly pick a listener's bill and pay it. "That [promotion] eventually turned into something that you hear about radio stations doing all the time now," says Joyner, whose popularity soared as listeners tuned in just to hear what he would do next.

His boss loved the publicity stunts as well. "Tom did a heck of a job," says Johnson. "He has a vivid imagination, and he has the energy and creativity to bring it about. He jokes and kids, but you have to know, he works hard." When Johnson began featuring his hot new DJ in Jet, his national news magazine catering to African-Americans, the exposure pushed his popularity far beyond Chicago, says Joyner. "People who didn't know anything about what I did looked at those pictures and said, 'He must be the baddest black DJ in the country,' because there weren't any other DJs in there."

It took only two years for Joyner to fulfill his end of the bargain, lifting WJPC near the top of the Chicago market. Johnson, a man of his word, created a television show just for Joyner--the Ebony/Jet Showcase--a black celebrity talk show. "I barely knew how to turn a TV on," claims Joyner. "All I'd ever done was radio. But I was host. I was producer. I was director. I was editor. I was going out for sandwiches." After only 26 weeks, the show was canceled.

Johnson wanted Joyner to return to WJPC, but by the early '80s, FM radio had replaced AM in sound quality and listener popularity. "The question at the time was, 'What's going to become of AM radio?'" says Joyner. "Everybody had an FM band on their radios and in their cars...I said, 'Shoot. I'll go back to Texas before I'll go back on AM.'"

With little money and no prospects, Joyner packed up his family once again and returned to Dallas in 1983. But within two weeks, KKDA-FM (K104) offered him its morning shift, and within six months, the show had climbed to No. 1. Joyner was so popular, he was nicknamed "Mr. Dallas," the voice of morning drive-time. "Because I had been in Jet every week, [black listeners] thought I'd gone to Chicago and just blew up," he says. "So when I came back, I was big because I'd been in Jet."

When Joyner's contract with K104 came up for renewal in 1985, WGCI-FM in Chicago offered him its afternoon slot. "They both knew they had offers on the table," recalls Joyner. "I gave them both the same proposal, and I said, 'All right, whichever one takes it, that's the one I'll go with.' To my surprise, they both said yes to it. I had to make a decision. That's when the light went on."

Joyner's idea was something no other DJ had done before: accept both jobs.
"You can't do that," his attorney initially told him, but after closer review, she found no language in either contract that prevented him from taking both positions. The contracts only stipulated that Joyner couldn't work at another station within a 100-mile radius. "So I signed both contracts without the other knowing," he says. "Then after I'd signed, I announced to them what I'd done."

Each station thought it was getting him exclusively, and each explored possible legal action against him. WGCI's management was upset, says Joyner, but they hadn't lost their station's anchor personality. K104, however, would be losing their go-to guy for grocery-store openings, the one who records commercials for the owner's important advertisers. Its management, Joyner says, didn't have that option anymore, and "they were pissed. Oh, were they pissed." It wasn't as easy to win over K104's owner, Hyman Childs. "He didn't speak to me for over a year," says Joyner. "He was that mad." Childs declined to be interviewed for this story. Nevertheless, Joyner was just too strong, and both stations agreed to his terms.

Industry insiders, who considered the move just another Joyner publicity stunt, began placing bets--not on whether he could make the commute work, but on how long it would take him to fail. "I don't think I'm a risk-taker," says Joyner. "I think I'm the kind of person who doesn't mind looking into how to do something, even though it hasn't been done before. I think that describes my personality. That it hasn't been done before doesn't bother me."

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