WHEN BILL CLINTON ASKED TOM JOYNER if he’d like to take his show on the road and accompany him on an official visit to South Africa in March, the Dallas radio personality was flattered. But he didn’t let it go to his head. “I know why he’s calling me,” says the 47-year-old Joyner. “It ain’t like I can get him on the phone and say, ‘Hey, Bill, what’s going on?’ I know why people invite me to things like that.”
The reason is numbers. The Tom Joyner Morning Show, which broadcasts from Dallas Monday through Friday from five to nine in the morning and is carried by 95 stations in the ABC Radio Networks, reaches more African Americans in the country than any other electronic media. In “urban”—radio parlance for formats aimed at black listeners—Joyner rules the roost, claiming a daily audience of more than five million, a fact duly noted by someone on Clinton’s staff. “When he needs to talk to the black community,” says Joyner, the first African American elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, “this is his best stop.”
A seasoned veteran of 26 years in the highly competitive Dallas—Fort Worth market, Joyner has always found a way to adapt his career to the unstable nature of the radio business, including once simultaneously holding down air shifts in both Dallas and Chicago. For the past four years, as station ownership has consolidated into a handful of large companies, he has responded to the scarcity of black programming by doing a show specially tailored for African Americans that is syndicated nationally but sounds local, no matter where you are.
You have to be in ABC’s Galleria-area studios in North Dallas to understand. It is here, amid a cacophony of sound, that Joyner lives up to his reputation as the hardest working man in radio. He is always on one of four microphones, chatting live with one of his correspondents in another city, taping a call-letter station ID, introducing an R&B chestnut (all of the stations air the same song), or hyping tomorrow’s show with a customized announcement for each station. “Friday, the seventeenth, it’s the Tom Joyner Morning Show in Charlotte,” followed by “Good morning, Hampton Roads!” and “This is the Fly Jock, Tom Joyner in the morning, with the Bald One in the afternoon on the V.” He records plugs for B100, B92.1 (the Touch), B102.7, EZ107.5 (the sound of the Twin Cities), Charleston 107.7, and 98.9 WOWE. Engineer Ross Alan cues Joyner on the spots, programming the soundbites into a computer and keeping track of which station’s audience Joyner is talking to. Then, as the song winds down, Alan, assisted by second engineer Doctor Rock (Cleo Turner), cues the entire network.
Meanwhile LaDor Frank, Joyner’s personal assistant, fields calls from listeners around the nation, Sybil Wilkes prepares to read the news in an adjacent booth, and the voices of writer-comedian J. Anthony Brown in Los Angeles and political commentator Tavis Smiley in Washington, D.C., banter back and forth. During the next break, Joyner does more drop-in local ID’s and then speaks live into the mike again, his congenial voice betraying his Southern roots. Joyner is upbeat and over-the-top—he sounds like the popular guy who always manages to make himself heard above the din of a crowded party.
Joyner’s emphasis is squarely on entertaining, with regular segments such as the “It’s Your World” soap opera, “Melvin’s Lovelines,” comedy bits from Brown, Myra J., and Miss Dupree, and the “Old School Breakfast Mix” music medley of soul classics, tailored for Joyner’s over-thirty demographic. (Two subjects are sacrosanct: Oprah and Aretha.) Joyner knows his listeners wield considerable clout, and he has promoted voter registration drives, among other causes, on his show. “Most African Americans don’t read the newspaper or watch the news on TV,” he says. “People depend on us for that.” Last year Tavis Smiley, a Joyner regular and talk show host on Black Entertainment Television, reported that Christie’s auction house was about to sell runaway-slave reward posters. Pressure applied by Joyner’s audience forced Christie’s to cancel the auction.
Radio is Tom Joyner’s life. “It’s all I do,” he says. A native of Tuskegee, Alabama, Joyner got hooked on radio early in life, inspired by role models like Father Rock, who spoke in fast-paced, jive-talking rhyme on WRMA-AM from nearby Montgomery, and John R., a blues and soul deejay heard around the nation on Nashville’s 50,000-watt WLAC-AM. Joyner landed in Dallas in 1972, hustling a shift on KKDA-AM. That led to a gig in Chicago five years later, where exposure in magazines like Jet and Ebony helped establish the smooth, gregarious Joyner as the most recognized black deejay in America. He returned to Dallas in 1983, claimed the morning drive slot on KKDA, and generated even larger numbers. Two years later he began his famous eight-year Fly Jock gig, doing the morning drive shift on KKDA-FM in Dallas and flying to Chicago for the afternoon drive slot on WGCI-FM. When Joyner shelved the commute in 1993, ABC was conveniently waiting with a five-year, $15 million contract. The Tom Joyner Morning Show debuted in January 1994, broadcast on 28 affiliates.
The concept was built upon reaching an older, more affluent black audience with national advertising. So far, it’s one of the few syndicated daily radio shows not in New York or L.A. that are actually working. The number of stations carrying the program has more than tripled in four years, and his ratings have increased respectably. Still, Joyner is not in every market. Yet. “There are big holes in the lineup right now that we’ve gotta fill. We’re not on in New York, we’re not on in San Francisco—Oakland, and we’re not on in Houston.” And he’s no longer the top black jock in Dallas either—two local morning shows are beating his syndicated fare.
The real challenge, though, says Joyner, is overcoming the institutional racism riddling his industry. He points to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allows a single company to own up to eight stations in one market. The law sent the price of a radio station skyrocketing into the tens of millions, making it harder than ever for black people to own a station. That, in turn, limits advertising opportunities, and ad revenues drive the medium. “We can’t get CompUSA to advertise with us,” he complains. “I was in CompUSA last week, and I saw plenty of black people shopping there. Why wouldn’t you want to go after black folks? We’ve got money. My audience costs less to advertise to than [Howard] Stern’s. It’s institutional racism. Institutional racism is stupid business.”
It’s time to get back on the air. “Cleveland’s on line ten,” LaDor Frank shouts over the Commodores’ seventies hit “Brick House.” Ross Alan speaks quietly into the mike. “One minute before you join the Tom Joyner Morning Show.”