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In 1968, a group of people protested a Tuskegee, Ala., radio station for not playing soul music. When the station owner offered the protesters a regular Saturday afternoon slot, 19-year-old Tom Joyner volunteered to DJ. He would remain behind the radio mic for over 50 years.
As host of The Tom Joyner Morning Show, the first nationally syndicated black radio program, his mission was to entertain, educate and empower African Americans. Now 70, Joyner's influence was so profound that when he signed off on Dec. 13, surprise call-ins to his show that week included Lionel Richie and former President Bill Clinton.
"Everyone is saying the same thing, that they can't believe I'm retiring," says Joyner, who will be succeeded by fellow syndicated morning host Rickey Smiley beginning Jan. 2. "I guess because I've done so much and stayed so busy."
In the mid-'80s Joyner was christened as "the fly jock" because he hosted a morning show in Dallas and an afternoon show in Chicago — flying back and forth every day for seven years. In 1994, Joyner struck a deal with ABC Radio Networks to launch the first syndicated morning show with music. That prompted another breakthrough: Mainstream advertisers like Southwest Airlines, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Allstate began buying ads on a black radio show.
In carrying out his "Party with a Purpose" mission for the last 25 years, Joyner picked up another nickname: "the hardest working man in radio." The Radio Hall of Famer took his morning show on the road to various markets (aka Sky Shows), established the annual Allstate Tom Joyner Family Reunion music/lifestyle expo in Orlando, founded cross-platform entertainment company Reach Media Inc. and raised more than $65 million through the Tom Joyner Foundation to support students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
The foundation's chief fundraiser, the Fantastic Voyage Cruise, will set sail again in March 2020 with headliners Usher, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys — and captain Joyner. While his radio mic may be turned off, he will continue working with the foundation.
Why are you retiring now?
When I came along, you didn't have a lot of listening choices. Now you can get anything you want, anytime you want, anywhere you want — and you don't have to wait for radio or television to do it for you. That's why I decided to retire. Whatever happens to newspapers and magazines — I'm sorry to say it, but I think radio is next on the list. And we've done it to ourselves. We're not relevant anymore. That's across the board. Black radio has probably been more relevant than any other format because we concentrate on informing and empowering our community.
What moments stand out from your career?
Every day was a highlight. My worst day on the air was anybody else's very good day, you know? Practically every day, something would happen, something was done or people would tell me they appreciated what I'm doing in the community. Now that's a good highlight. I'm not a person that looks back a lot, though. I haven't listened to a show that I've done since I stopped flying back and forth.
How did your show's approach differ from that of fellow syndicated radio pioneer Howard Stern?
The big question was, "Can you remain local?" Black radio has always been involved in the community. So we approached it as a local show that reflected the entire African American country. Every black community has the same wants and needs, and that's what black radio has always been about. To help with that, for example, I'd say what time it was, but not the hour. Like, "It's 17 past the hour," and I'd hit a button to cue the radio station. And the station would announce it was "17 past the hour of 8 o'clock." People didn't know; they thought I was right there [in the market]. People listening to Howard Stern knew his show originated from New York. We fooled people for a long time.
Who's the one interview that got away?
Stevie Wonder. He performed live on a Sky Show in Miami in 2005, but he never did an interview or stopped by the studio. I wanted Stevie really bad. (Laughs.)
Besides stumping for education, you've been a strong voter advocate. Any predictions about the 2020 election?
This time I won't be on the air. But I think voter turnout in the African American community is going to be record-breaking again. I'll still be pushing people to vote, but because Trump is so controversial — so busy tweeting from his toilet stool— he's doing the work for me.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of Billboard.
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