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

Each morning, Joyner would broadcast his show in Dallas, then his wife would meet him at the station with a briefcase containing a VCR, a tape recorder, videotaped news programs, copies of both cities' newspapers, a USA Today, and a vegetarian lunch--his "I-spy kit," one station manager called it. Then he would race to the airport, catching up with the day's news en route to Chicago. A waiting limo would take him to a health club, where he'd work out before heading to WGCI in time to do the afternoon show. Then he'd hop a plane and head back to Dallas just to start the process all over again the next day.

"People listened to see, 'Now, is he going to be at work today, or is he going to be in the obituary column?'" says Joyner. "And the numbers just went through the roof."

Soon, he was America's quintessential black DJ--the Fly Jock and the Hardest-Working Man in Radio--each city claiming him as its native son. In 1994, Joyner was among the black dignitaries invited to the White House to honor the arrival of South African president Nelson Mandela in the U.S. after his historic election.

Joyner recalls how everyone retired to the Rose Garden after dinner to listen to Whitney Houston perform and a military band play Broadway tunes. "The President and the First Lady and the Vice President and Tipper Gore and all these black people were there," recalls Joyner. "But nobody was dancing. So, I said to the conductor, 'You got something with a beat to it?'"

Once the band began playing some old Motown tunes, the White House revelers started showing signs of life, with Joyner encouraging them to start a Soul Train line. The Clintons messed up the line, going right when they were supposed to go left. "I went down the line with the First Lady," recalls Joyner. "The President went down the line with Whitney Houston."

Joyner's continuing notoriety also landed him a job hosting a CBS Radio syndicated weekend music-countdown show--Tom Joyner's On the Move. WGCI picked the show up, but K104 ignored it, insisting that Joyner fulfill his contractual obligation to do the station's Saturday midday broadcast. "That really ticked me off. I was ready to quit," he says. "That's what finally brought [Childs] around to speaking again...My countdown show was running all over the country, but not running at home. I was really upset." Eventually, Childs recanted and picked up the show.

While Joyner was becoming a household name, his own family life and health were suffering under the strain. Leaving home at 4 a.m. and not returning until 10 at night--assuming his flight was on time--had turned him into a weekend father, and his wife a single parent. The strain on his marriage would eventually prove too much; after 26 years of marriage, he and his wife agreed to divorce in 1995. When he was at home, his hectic schedule prevented him from sleeping properly. He put on weight, and the constant sitting also aggravated a lower-back sprain he'd suffered in 1989.

Joyner cut his commute to four days in 1987. A year later, he cut back again to three days, broadcasting the WGCI show in Dallas via satellite when he wasn't in Chicago. Eight years of being the Fly Jock had exhausted Tom Joyner, and in 1992, he announced he would retire when his contracts expired in '93. "The plan was to stop doing the back-and-forth shows," he says. "I had worked for so long, flying so many miles and having so many long days. Thriller, my youngest, was going to college. It was just going to be me and my wife and a weekend countdown show."

Then the telephone rang. ABC Radio Networks was calling.

While Joyner was racking up frequent-flyer miles, advancing technologies were making permanent changes to the radio industry. Seemingly overnight, listeners were introduced to Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, who had both begun broadcasting via satellite. The expanding medium also began attracting multibillion-dollar corporate advertisers eager to reach a larger buying public.

In 1996, Congress passed the first major overhaul of telecommunications laws in almost 62 years--the Telecom Act of 1996. Only a small portion of the bill actually addresses radio broadcasting, but by allowing a company to own up to eight stations in any given market and eliminating other ownership restrictions, the bill triggered a corporate buying frenzy. "The Act tilted the playing field in their direction," says Graham Armstrong, national radio editor for Urban Networks, a radio-industry magazine. "It also drove up the price of stations, because the big boys run the game now. It's like Wall Street discovered this new, almost virginal investment opportunity in broadcast properties."

Radio station buy-outs, mergers, and acquisitions became white-hot investments, as huge conglomerates, such as Tom Hicks' Chancellor Broadcasting Co., scrambled to dominate more and more markets. Looking for popular, low-cost programming to help recoup the premium prices they had paid for their stations, these conglomerates turned to providers of syndicated programming, who, in turn, sensed the opportunity to fatten their coffers by pumping out pre-packaged radio formats like the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

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