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.
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."
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."
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.
In 1995, ABC Radio Networks unveiled its new state-of-the-art broadcast facility on Montfort Drive in North Dallas, the biggest and most technologically advanced commercial facility in North America. With 13 studios and seven satellites, it provides programming to more than 4,000 affiliates nationwide. Another 2,900 stations broadcast the network's pre-packaged formats around the clock.
When ABC called Joyner in '92 and reportedly offered him a five-year, $15 million contract to host a nationally syndicated black radio show, the corporate giant was already gearing up for its future growth. Challenged once again by what had never been done before, Joyner changed his plans to retire. The money didn't hurt either.
He convinced WGCI and K104 to release him from his contracts early so he could prepare for the upcoming show. "When you listened to Rush Limbaugh," he says, "you didn't know exactly where he was coming from, but you knew it wasn't your hometown. I knew black radio was not going to buy a Dallas show--that just wasn't going to fly in Washington, D.C., because they hate the Cowboys." And a talk show, says Joyner, would have been easy to do, but a music-based show, "that's tough...I wanted a show designed for a national audience that still had the feel of a local show." Radio-station owners around the country liked the idea, telling ABC and Joyner that if he could pull it off, they would buy. On January 3, 1994, the Tom Joyner Morning Show hit the radio airwaves, broadcasting to its 28 affiliates. Noticeably absent was any Dallas station. K104 had the right of first refusal on his show, which it decided not to exercise, and that kept him out of the local market until October 1994.
Most big radio conglomerates aren't interested in micro-managing the programming of their many radio stations. "They just want to invest their money, get their money out, and everything is cool," says Joyner. So he was given a free hand to produce his kind of radio show, one that would be created in his image and be done his way, on his terms.
In March, 3,000 charged-up Nashville fans packed into Tennessee State University's Kean Hall for a sunrise party with America's premier breakfast host. Broadcasting live, Joyner and his comedy crew had taken their act on the road and were "partyin' with a purpose," as Joyner puts it. The crowd began to chant his jingle: Oh! Oh! Oh! It's the Tom Joyner Morning Show. He's got comedy, celebrities, special features galore. When Joyner's on the air, yeah, you never know what's in store. That morning, the funk group Morris Day and the Time would be the musical performers, joined by drop-in celebrity guests CeCe Winans, the gospel group Take 6, and Oprah's dad, Vernon Winfrey.
"Hellooo Nashville!" Joyner took center stage. "It's the Haarrddeesstt-Working Man in Radio."
The crowd roared with delight.
"I give my audience the Milk of Magnesia," explains Joyner later. "That's the serious stuff we deal with every morning. But I also add a whole, whole, whole lot of peppermint to it. That's all the fun and silly stuff we do."
Joyner's partner-in-comedy, J. Anthony Brown, makes his daily contributions from a studio in Los Angeles, where he lives. A former joke writer for the now-defunct Arsenio Hall Show, Brown made his debut on the Joyner show in 1995 with the weekly Friday feature "J. Anthony Murders the Hits," a parody of popular songs with Brown's own lyrics dubbed in.
Sybil Wilkes, the show's news director, is another of the show's regulars. Bright without being brainy, Wilkes has become the First Lady of the Tom Joyner Morning Show. "Sybil and I were together in Chicago," says Joyner. "She was like a sidekick who did traffic. That's how we met. We jelled, we hit it off really good."
Veteran comedian George Wallace delivers his Monday satirical commentary, "That's the way I see it. That's the way it ought to be."--and also exchanges "yo' mama" jokes with Brown. Also on Mondays, Myra J., another professional comic, parcels out humorous "Tips for the Single Mom." She is one of three writers for the show's radio soap opera, "It's Your World," set in the mythical town of Wellington, where everyone is, not surprisingly, well-off. Featured bits "Real Fathers, Real Men" on Tuesdays and "The Thursday-Morning Mom," honor deserving moms and dads with $500 cash prizes based on listeners' faxed-in nominations.
"Voodoo Priestess" Ms. Dupree ("She's got the gift, and she's got to use it"), played by Jedda Jones, appears every Wednesday, giving call-in listeners "psychic advice for entertainment purposes only," along with the lucky lottery numbers of the day and problem-solving potions. On Fridays, Joyner plays host to the flamboyantly gay character Melvin, portrayed by actor Kevin Woodson, who dispenses advice for the lovelorn on "Melvin's Lovelines."
Joyner has hand-picked his cast of characters, managing to maintain control of the show's format at the same time that he gives his actors creative freedom. The show's comedians have only two restrictions: no jokes about R&B's Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and no Oprah jokes.
Joyner offers his listeners no hip-hop or rap; instead the show's musical personality is fashioned out of classic R&B, old-school Motown, '70s-style funk, and a sprinkling of old-fashioned black gospel. "Radio has now become a little specialized," says Joyner. "You've got radio stations targeted to a hip-hop audience. You've got radio stations that target adults...after about two years, we decided we were just going to be an old-school show for older adults, and that made life a lot simpler."
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.
"People ask me all the time about how it feels," says Joyner. "But it's not a power trip; it's an empowering trip."
Joyner had to figure that some of the listeners who protested Christie's were the same people who were now purchasing his book, the proceeds of which will be donated to his latest venture, "Dollars for Scholars." Each month needy students attending historically black colleges or universities will receive funds to assist them with their education. If the crowd at Black Images is any barometer of the success of On Air, book sales should be brisk. Every book was purchased within minutes, as many stood in line for hours to obtain an autographed copy from Joyner, Smiley, and Wilkes.
Although Joyner has renewed his multimillion contract for another six years, he has been in the business long enough to realize that the medium is full of copycats, and in an industry hungry for product, he may face stiff competition in the future. "I'm just the first," says Joyner. "There will be others."
But as Tom Joyner goes, so goes urban contemporary radio, and for his five million listeners--in markets as diverse as Tuskegee; Miami; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles--for those who hang on his words to guide their thoughts and actions, there is only one Tom Joyner.
Of course, that just might be enough.
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