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

But Joyner refuses to content himself with a few gags and some golden oldies. "We've got the ears of so many black people," he says. "It's our responsibility to try and make a change." Since its debut, the Tom Joyner Morning Show has broadcast live from the Caribbean, from the Million-Man March, and from South Africa twice, most recently traveling there with President Clinton. "We're African-Americans," he says, "and if the president is going to our motherland, I felt that since we reach so many African-Americans, it was important that we go and broadcast back."

Tavis Smiley, the political commentator for the Joyner show, also accompanied Joyner as he and Clinton boarded Air Force One bound for Africa. Offering passionate editorials in defense of black causes, Smiley has developed a national reputation as a "black Ralph Nader."

Joyner and Smiley were first introduced during a White House conference aimed at getting the black media more involved in the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign. Around the same time, Joyner was trying to come up with a way to center a voter-registration campaign around his show. "I wanted to take a 1996 Lexus to each of the 95-plus cities where our show is heard, register people to vote, and give each person who registered a chance to win the Lexus, complete with a gold kit, of course."

When he and Smiley discussed the idea, Smiley suggested a voter education and registration drive. During the summer, the Joyner crew hit the road to do their morning show and "party with a purpose." The price of admission: a voter's registration card. Within six weeks, the campaign had added 250,000 new black voters to the rolls.

The show's influence has been demonstrated time and again, even to the point of effecting programming decisions on Fox television. In 1997, after network executives announced that they were canceling Living Single, a sitcom about six upwardly mobile black friends--at the time the No. 1 rated show among black viewers--Smiley encouraged listeners, with Joyner's blessing, to mount a letter-writing campaign in protest. After two months, Fox had received so many letters, it reversed itself, holding up its press release until the decision could first be announced on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Last November the show's clout was again felt after a listener called in to tell the crew about Linden and Jackie Thompson, a black couple living in a cramped three-bedroom Washington, D.C., apartment with their five newborns. The call had been precipitated by an on-air conversation between Wilkes and Brown about the birth of an Iowa couple's septuplets--an event that the media had blanketed with coverage. While corporate donors had immersed the white couple with gifts, the Thompsons, the caller said, hadn't received so much as a mention in the press, and only a sprinkling of donations.

"We had a lot of people," says Wilkes, "including members of the Tom Joyner Morning Show who were white, say, 'Well, what's the big deal? They didn't have as many.' But it's always like that, and if we don't step up and say, 'Something should be done' or 'We need to take care of our own,' who will?"

As a result of that and other on-air discussions, several community and corporate sponsors offered the Thompsons their help. General Motors donated a 1998 Astro minivan, and Howard University guaranteed the babies' scholarships there.

Despite Joyner's expanding influence and reach, in Dallas-Fort Worth, the Tom Joyner Morning Show, heard locally on KRBV-FM (100.3) ranked a disappointing 13 in last fall's Arbitron ratings and is, among the market's four black stations, No. 2 behind Skip Murphy and his morning team at K104. "I wish that it was the same in Dallas as it is in Miami or any of the other places that we broadcast," he says. "It doesn't make you feel good."

Tom Joyner's spirits must have been boosted last April when he arrived at a book-signing in Oak Cliff and was greeted by an enthusiastic, mostly African-American crowd of loyal radio listeners who jammed the aisles at Black Images Book Bazaar. They had come to get his autograph, but what they wanted most was a chance to shake his hand, to put a face to the voice, and to exchange a few words with him.

The crowd was the first to sample the recently released book On Air: The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, a collection of Smiley's weekly commentaries. Among them is one Joyner is particularly proud of: the show's plea to storm the phone lines of Christie's to protest the auction of slave artifacts.

Before the commentary aired, Christie's had already refused to put a halt to the sale, even over the vehement objections of New York's arts community and New York state senator David A. Patterson. But within minutes of Smiley's segment, Christie's was inundated with Joyner listeners, and within two hours, the auction house--which had never even heard of the Joyner show--canceled the sale and would later donate the "slavery paraphernalia" to a museum. Patricia Hambrecht, the president of Christie's in the U.S., subsequently appeared on the show and apologized to Joyner's audience, detailing changes made to their house policy so this kind of incident would never happen again.

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