Tom Joyner has always been recognized as a man on the move. He first came to public attention by hosting a morning radio show in Dallas and an afternoon show in Chicago simultaneously for eight years, flying back-and-forth between jobs daily. In the 1990s his popularity soared as the host of a nationally syndicated morning radio program. As nationally syndicated radio programs became a hot trend in the 1990s, Joyner became the biggest star in black radio.
Tom Joyner was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, around 1949. As a young man he sang with the Commodores but left before the group became successful. Years later he would tell the Los Angeles Times that he would forever kick himself for not staying with the group until it became successful. “This is a bitter subject,” he claimed. “I’ve been friends with Lionel Richie since childhood. We go back to nursery school. And here I am getting up at three in the morning. Do I regret it? Here I am going to the bank every Friday and the bank comes to him. ‘Got any checks for us today, Mr. Richie?’ Don’t get me started,” he joked. It was around that same time, however, that Joyner formed a more lasting relationship, marrying his wife Dora.
With his music career over even before it started, Joyner embarked upon a radio career. By the early 1980s he was a fixture in Chicago, working at his third station in that market. In 1983 Joyner got a big break when he was hired by radio station KDKA in Dallas to host its morning program, and within a couple of years his show was the second-rated morning show in that market.
In 1985 Joyner was faced with a difficult career dilemma, and he solved it in a way few people would have considered. He was negotiating a new contract in Dallas, and at the same time, WGCI, a station in his old hometown of Chicago, expressed interest in hiring him as its afternoon host. Negotiations were fruitful, with each station offering him a million dollars over several years. Joyner decided that both jobs were too good to refuse, and took the amazing step of signing contracts with both stations.
“I got to thinking,” Joyner told People Weekly. “Dallas and Chicago are in the same time zone. There was plenty of time between the morning and afternoon shows,” he continued. He looked into travel arrangements, and discovered that between available flights and typical weather patterns, he would likely be able to make both jobs almost 100 percent of the time.
Convincing his bosses and his wife that the dual career was a good idea was the next step. His boss in Dallas was not forthcoming with his opinions about the arrangement. But Marv Dyson, president and general manager of the Chicago station, told People Weekly, “It came as sort of a shock to me when I found out that Tom had signed a contract for the morning show in Dallas and the afternoon show with us without really telling either station. But after I talked at length with Tom, with his whole family, with the airlines and with doctors, I knew it would work.” Dyson’s station took advantage of the situation by staging a promotion in which listeners would guess the date that Joyner would first fail to make it to his afternoon job.
Convincing Dora both jobs were a good idea was another matter. While Joyner had never had a fear of flying, Dora was less confident in airline travel. “Sure, I have an uneasy feeling about him doing so much flying, but he’s never worried about it,” she explained to People Weekly. “So I’ve tried to accept it. He’s worked a long time for this opportunity, so he won me over,” she added.
A typical day during the two-market era for Joyner saw him up at 3 a.m., eating breakfast by 4 a.m., on the air in Dallas at 5:30, off the air at 9, on a plane to Chicago by 10, on the air in Chicago from 2-6 p.m., on a plane back to Dallas by 10 p.m., eating dinner with his wife by 11:30 and in bed by midnight. He even found time to play racquetball at the Downtown Sports Club in Chicago between shows. Joyner cut a deal with American Airlines to fly the 8,000 miles a week for a $30,000 annual fee, and was bestowed with the nickname, “The Fly Jock.” Fatigue was a factor, but as he told People Weekly, “I’m not an air traffic controller, nor am I out digging ditches eight hours a day. I talk and play records. No big deal.”
If the arrangement gave pause to executives at the two stations, they need not have worried. Within three years Joyner had both his programs in first place in their respective time slots and markets. His format on both stations was urban contemporary music, but Joyner’s easygoing personality was also a key part of his shows’ appeal, and raised him above the status of a disc jockey. During the late 1980s Joyner also first dipped his toes in the syndication pool with a weekly countdown show entitled–what else?–“On the Move.”
Although the contracts Joyner originally signed would only have required him to do both shows for five years, he wound up doing both for eight. During that time he logged over seven million frequent- flyer miles. When the run was up, the airline retired two seats in his honor and presented them to him for use in his radio studio.
The opportunity to give up the commute came in 1993, when ABC offered Joyner a syndicated morning show. The arrangement would allow him to be on the air in countless markets while staying in one city. Syndicated radio was having great success, with Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Larry King and many other radio personalities making a strong impact in the ratings in markets large and small.
“The Tom Joyner Morning Show” debuted in January of 1994 on WGCI and 28 other stations from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. and Miami to Flint, Michigan. The format was not a radical departure from what he had been doing, but there were adjustments to make the show more like television. There was a studio band, like Jay Leno’s and David Letterman’s, but the band was in a studio in Chicago while the host and his cast were in Dallas. There were also comedy sketches and a steady parade of guests. Joyner’s easygoing, agreeable personality was still the factor that made the show work.
Joyner made use of his new national platform to exhibit his political and social consciousness from time to time. He came to Michael Jackson’s defense when public and media attention from child molestation accusations was negatively focused upon him. After Jackson agreed to settle a lawsuit out of court, Joyner polled his audience for its reaction and found that 90 percent of his listeners said they supported Jackson. Joyner also stopped an auction of slave posters at Christie’s auction house later in the decade, waged a write-in campaign that convinced Fox television to renew “Living Single,” rated the most popular TV program among black audiences, and rallied support for the defeat of an anti-affirmative action bill in Houston, a market in which his show was not even heard.
Joyner’s morning show was a quick success, expanding to 62 stations within its first two years on the air. While there was some debate within the industry regarding what format Joyner fit into best, it was usually found that his program drew its highest ratings when broadcast on black-oriented stations, and companies that owned two or more stations in a market usually chose to broadcast his show on such stations. The show was considered a hot property in many markets, and when ABC moved it from WGCI to WVAZ in Chicago, it was a major story in that city.
There was also a good deal of debate within black radio circles regarding whether Joyner’s program was good or bad for black radio in general. Programmers found it a dream come true. Joyner’s program, slickly packaged and highly professional, accrued high ratings, and the only cost stations paid to broadcast it was an agreement to run all ABC network commercials, leaving only station breaks for stations to run their own commercials. But others in the business were concerned that Joyner’s show would disrupt the local community aspect which had always been central to black radio’s appeal, and would eliminate jobs as prospective morning hosts would find more and more stations opting for Joyner’s show and others like it. “I’m not taking jobs,” Joyner defended himself to the Washington Post. “I’m making sure we have jobs. We have the [ratings] numbers that allow our stations to compete with other stations and we bring those stations a morning show that’s difficult for anyone else to compete against.”
By early 1998 Joyner’s show was heard in 95 markets. His list of guests included Don King, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Donaldson, Tipper Gore, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and President Bill Clinton. His mix of urban contemporary music with talk, comedy, news, politics and sports was making him a force in the highly coveted 25-54 age bracket. His show was highly competitive in many markets, and was the number one morning show in Washington, D.C. No longer a man on the move, Tom Joyner had already arrived, not just as a major player in black radio, but in radio in general.