The Middlebrow

Tom Joyner

The voice of Hurricane Katrina.

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Who was the voice of Hurricane Katrina? Not CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who met the floodwaters with a commensurate response from his own tear ducts. And not Kanye West, the hip-hop mogul, whose anti-Bush tirade was bush-league. Allow me to nominate Tom Joyner, the self-proclaimed “hardest working man in radio,” who has out-hustled Cooper and out-sloganeered West. On The Tom Joyner Morning Show, which has 8 million listeners, Joyner has styled himself as the newsman, altruist, and social conscience of the hurricane. In the morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 30, Joyner summoned reporters from black-radio affiliates across the South for an on-air debriefing. They described the early casualties while the TV networks stumbled into action. Joyner’s verdict, reached instantly, was that Katrina’s victims were mostly African-American. That morning, Joyner and Tavis Smiley, a longtime collaborator, dubbed the hurricane the “black folks’ tsunami”—a phrase so catchy and wildly overheated that Al Sharpton was repeating it a day later.

To listen to the Joyner show lately has been to swim in an alternate media universe. What Fox News is to CNN—a refuge for the dispossessed—Joyner’s radio show is to Fox News and CNN. His show is pitched to African-American listeners with an abiding distrust of the major news media. Since Katrina hit, Jesse Jackson has appeared on Joyner’s show to make common cause; New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gen. Russell Honore have called in to defend themselves. Joyner has begged listeners to donate plus-size clothing, explaining that Size 10 blouses will not fit many of those swimming out of New Orleans. He started his own relief fund, which has raised more than $1.5 million for Samaritans who are housing the displaced. This in addition to the free-range comedic riffs that characterize The Tom Joyner Morning Show. “They’re gonna blame the mayor,” one of Joyner’s sidekicks quipped a few weeks ago. “It’s the Nagin’s fault. It’s always the Nagin’s fault.” Substitute another n-word for “Nagin” and you get the joke—and a good idea of the worldview of The Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Joyner has been called “the most powerful media personality you’ve never heard of” so many times that I won’t repeat the charge here. What makes Joyner worth pausing over is his retrograde vision for black radio. The more swollen Joyner’s media empire has become—his show plays in 120 markets, and he has a new book and TV series in the offing—the smaller and more concentrated his vision. Joyner wants to move black radio back toward its founding mission, when radio was a subterranean political mechanism—a conduit, Joyner writes, for “talking specifically to black folks.”

The notion of “black radio” has been around since radio’s infancy, though not always in a pleasant way. As WilliamBarlow notes in Voice Over, a history of black radio, one of early radio’s lowest moments was its embrace of blackface comedy—thus the monstrosities of Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show,and Aunt Jemima, who for a time had her own morning show on CBS. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that station-owners realized there was money to be made from the underserved black audience—what Sponsor magazine called the “forgotten 15,000,000.” Early experiments in “black appeal radio” featured black announcers spinning records, along with segments devoted to society news, sports coverage, and job listings.

It was into this milieu that Tom Joyner was born in Tuskegee, Ala.,in 1949. A pudgy, unathletic kid, Joyner tried his hand at performing with boyhood friend Lionel Richie. Since Joyner could not sing, and since his dancing resembled self-taught karate, it was politely suggested that he remain in Tuskegee and finish his college degree. He turned to radio almost as an afterthought, when a white-owned station was pressured to provide more black programming. However accidental, Joyner’s timing couldn’t have been more ideal. In 1953, William Barlow notes, only about 250 stations in the country offered “black appeal” programming; a decade later, when Joyner was beginning to consider his career prospects, there were more than 800.

The civil rights movement made black radio into a potent political tool. Martin Luther King proselytized through a group of black deejays from Birmingham to Detroit; Jesse Jackson landed his own show on Chicago’s WVON in 1964. Along with church services, black radio became the chief organizing tool for protests and sit-ins. “People only knew about Selma because of radio,” said Oscar Joyner, Tom’s son and the president of their company, Reach Media. “Nobody had print ads for the march on Washington.” Joyner would move from Tuskegee to take various deejay jobs, including a stint as the “Fly Jock” who hosted a local show in Dallas every morning and then flew to Chicago to host afternoon drive. He took The Tom Joyner Morning Show into syndication in 1994.

On air, Joyner sounds like an apostle from a low-wattage jazz station. He speaks in a voice that is at once soothing and atonal—call it a dulcet honk—and he rarely raises it in anger. Where talk radio feeds on outrage, actual and imagined, Joyner pitches his show at a relentlessly mellow octave; even the comedy bits have a goofy, offhand smoothness to them. In that sense, The Tom Joyner Morning Show is an update of the 1950s black community-affairs program, down to the spun records and the weekly pleas for charity. It is not unusual for a listener to call Joyner to explain that her dad—the dear man who bought her feminine hygiene products as an adolescent—needs money for a new water-heater. Joyner, ever the mensch, nearly always grants the wish.

Underlying this folksiness is the idea that the Joyner show is a place to find out “what’s really going on”— where truths overlooked by the TV stations and newspapers get told. “Black radio is culturally ingrained in African-Americans,” Oscar Joyner told me. “We’re culturally ingrained to listen to our radios because we know that’s where we can speak directly to each other.” Thus the parallel-universe feel of Joyner’s show, where a regular soap-opera segment, “It’s Your World,” features black characters who are filthy rich; and where Red Cross President Marty Evans comes to seek the host’s blessing after Hurricane Katrina. Black America Web, an Internet venture Joyner calls an “honest look at news from a black perspective,” has lately featured headlines like “Dave Chappelle happy to be working clubs.”

Joyner has stated that his show is not designed for white listeners. In his new book, I’m Just a DJ But…,he argues that “to deliberately try to cross over to attract white people is detrimental.” Those of us who are white fans of the Joyner show find ourselves in a slightly odd position. One can admire his altruism while noting that this is a decidedly limited view. For those of us who insist on sticking around, Joyner encourages us to think of listening to The Tom Joyner Morning Show as eavesdropping—as “a chance to hear what we really talk about when they’re not around.” During Hurricane Katrina and the gruesome, racially tinged catastrophe that followed, that’s exactly why I tuned in.