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An Appreciation

Radio gave Tom Joyner the reach to be a vessel of empowerment for black people

The legendary host’s exit from radio will create new opportunities across the industry, says ‘The Daily Show’s’ Roy Wood Jr.

Growing up, I didn’t know much about the Tom Joyner Morning Show. It was nothing more than my parents’ show as they drove me to the bus stop.

The syndicated show has entertained millions across the country since 1994. But between the music and the jokes was a delicate blend of news, culture, health awareness and a message of black empowerment. Brought to you not only by Joyner and his co-hosts but a cavalcade of the most acclaimed black professionals in their fields.

At the core of his work is Joyner’s desire to give back to the black community. He started the Tom Joyner Foundation to help students attending historically black colleges and universities with tuition money. These same institutions also receive endowments and building enhancements. To date, the foundation has given scholarships totaling $65 million to more than 29,000 students.

But what more would you expect from the son of a man, the late Hercules Joyner, who trained with the Tuskegee Airmen? In the center of Joyner’s hometown was Tuskegee University (then Institute), founded by Booker T. Washington.

The same city where a young Tom would lead a protest against the local radio station that refused to play black music. (Which is also how he got into radio, by offering to play the music himself.)

There are levels to celebrity.

Some you see out and don’t dare approach, and some you see out and if the situation is right, you may speak.

And then there’s radio DJs.

Radio celebrity is different. Because you’re with people every day, the relationship becomes intimate. That familiarity that takes down the barriers associated with other celebs. Seeing your favorite radio DJ in public is like seeing an old classmate. Most DJs wont hesitate to make small talk or take a photo. But not many would put themselves on a cruise ship with said fans for an entire week. Joyner has done that for the last two decades.

Joyner recognized that the entertainment needs of black people on cruises were not being met. So, much like he did with that Tuskegee radio station, he did it himself, creating the Tom Joyner Foundation Fantastic Voyage, a cruise experience that catered specifically to his audience. It’s a weeklong party with a bevy of social functions and A-list performers.

It is also in these constantly sold-out cruises that Joyner showed sponsors the power of the black dollar. And because most of the money from these cruises benefits the Tom Joyner Foundation, Joyner’s big party in the ocean is tax-deductible.

And if it not on the boat, Joyner was accessible at one of the many traveling Sky Shows. Between the live music and revelry you could find Joyner promoting anything from veterans affairs, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, teachers, or health awareness with Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day.

If someone says that you are dressed for a Tom Joyner cruise, it is an instant critique of the “type of black” you are but also the type of black that you choose to represent and, depending on your age, it can either be a compliment or a jokey insult to suggest that you are dressing older than your age. It’s a lighthearted way to tell someone that they’re “over the hill,” or at least dressing like it. Mainly, because “the Cruise” by far attracts an older demographic for the most part, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see some millennials partying with 50-year-olds at 3 a.m., if the millennial can hang.

This all comes to an end this week. Tom Joyner is retiring from radio.

Before the Tom Joyner Morning Show launched in 1994 there was no national forum for African Americans to hear the kind of discussions they had in their living rooms or in the break room when their bosses weren’t around. No Facebook, no Instagram.

John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony magazine and Johnson Publishing Co., warned his young mentee Tom against going after a crossover audience and suggested that he stay true to the black audience he serves.

Joyner took this message to heart and created a place for black people to learn about entertainment, news and politics solely from their perspective. Unapologetically black.

This was the original black Twitter.

When the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” happened between Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson in 2004, it was the show that led the charge in defending Jackson. When computer retailer CompUSA (in an internal memo) referred to some black customers as “suspects,” it was Joyner and Tavis Smiley who led the economic boycott. The examples are endless.

Change is inevitable.

But, it is this change that might emerge Joyner’s greatest gift to radio.

Syndicated radio veteran Rickey Smiley has been tapped to take over most of Joyner’s stations. The hip-hop stations vacated by Smiley will carry a new show from his current co-host Headkrack. Some affiliates will pass on this product. The same will happen with the stations that Smiley vacates to take over for Joyner. These stations will either carry one of Joyner’s many competitors or opt to create their own local morning shows.

Some markets didn’t wait until the end of 2019 to do this. Nashville, Tennessee; Philadelphia; and Atlanta are among the markets that already have local shows on in place of Joyner. Miami will be doing the same in lieu of Smiley in 2020.

Joyner’s exit from radio will create new opportunities across the industry. Not many can make as big an impact on an industry in both their entrance and in their exit.

It is in these local voices we will find the next Tom Joyner. But we live in a much more noisy media landscape, it will be much more difficult now as a radio DJ to be as impactful. Especially with the many radio stations run by corporations that would rather the DJ play music than fight for what’s right.

It is a disservice to call Joyner simply a radio DJ. Radio gave him the reach to be what he was destined to be, a vessel of empowerment for black people, and I can assure you he won’t need a microphone to continue that mission.

In October, Joyner began challenging students at historically black colleges and universities to register people to vote. Just this month at the Urban One Honors Awards, he announced a partnership with the alumni associations of Tuskegee University, Wilberforce University and Benedict College to award 15 students with $1,000 scholarships if they register 1,000 of their peers to vote. The first winners were announced last week on the show, according to Kim Nelson-Ingram, executive producer of the show’s parent company, Reach Media.

So much for retirement.

The only true retirement for anyone who has made a career out of helping others is death.

The microphone is optional.

Friday is the last in-studio broadcast of the Tom Joyner Morning Show. I encourage everyone this week when they have time, to make a donation to the Tom Joyner Foundation.

This may be the last time we have an opportunity to thank him, until he starts a podcast.

Roy Wood Jr. is a correspondent for ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.’