I'm Just a DJ But...It Makes Sense to Me


By Tom Joyner

Other Mary Flowers Boyce

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Hall of Fame disc jockey Tom Joyner uses his signature brand of humor to discuss everything from business to careers to relationships as he shares the insights and lessons he’s learned along the way.Now the host of a radio show that is the most popular media outlet ever among African Americans, Joyner started his career at a small AM radio station in his home state of Alabama, working his way across the midwest, and eventually landing in Chicago.

In 1985, he made headlines as “The Hardest Working Man in Radio” when he worked a morning show in Dallas in addition to his afternoon show in Chicago. His daily commute earned him the nickname “The Fly Jock.” In 1994, he convinced ABC Radio to syndicate his program, and The Tom Joyner Show?a mix of comedy music, and guests who range from Stevie Wonder to Tipper Gore?was born.



I have a lot of people to thank and I'm lifting my rule of not doing "shout-outs" for this occasion.

Thanks to my sons, Oscar and Thomas, for giving me so much to be proud of.

Thanks to my wife, Donna, for bringing love and joy into my life and loving me enough to hide the snacks.

Thanks to my daddy, H. L. Joyner, for tough love back in the day and sweet love later (much later), and to my mom, Buddy, for showing me nothing but love from the very beginning.

Thanks to my big and much older brother, Albert Joyner, a man who works as hard as I do, my sister-in-law, Danita, and to my nieces and nephew, Allison, Danielle, and Bubba, for keeping me "happenin'."

Thanks to David Kantor, the man who showed me how to make big money in radio by giving me my first shot at a nationally syndicated morning radio show and is the only boss that I could call a friend.

Thanks to all my staff at Reach Media, especially Julia Atherton for her marketing expertise.

Thanks to my coauthor, Mary Flowers Boyce, and editors Irene Prokop and Frances Jalet-Miller.

Special thanks to Denise Stinson of Walk Worthy Press for hooking me up with Warner Books and making this whole project happen.

Thanks to DeWayne Wickham for hooking me up with Denise Stinson.

Thanks to John H. Johnson for teaching me so much about life, business, and to never forget who my audience is.

Thank you to Historically Black Colleges and Universities that continue to educate and nurture African American kids, and finally thanks to the entire town of Tuskegee, Alabama, for teaching me that no dream is out of reach.

Chapter one

Get Up Offa That Dream!

The most successful people envision themselves doing more and becoming more.

I'M JUST a deejay but I've always been a big dreamer. Some of my dreams have come true, some haven't; but I believe dreaming big has helped me reach my goals. When I was a little boy growing up in Tuskegee, Alabama, I loved to watch a popular television show called The Millionaire. The show's main character was this guy who worked for a multimillionaire and his job each week was to give away to some unsuspecting person a check for $1 million. I never missed an episode, but I would get frustrated because I always thought I could do a better job at distributing that money! For some reason, the recipients of the $1 million would find a way to mess the money up. I would go to bed thinking if I had that $1 million, I would know what to do with it. I was positive that I wouldn't blow it. I'd drift off to sleep with a smile on my face as I dreamed about how I would spend it. I've been dreaming ever since.

The most successful people envision themselves doing more and becoming more, so don't ever let anyone tell you that dreaming (envisioning) is a waste of time. Dreaming allows you to think outside of the box. You have to be able to imagine what things could be like beyond the situation you are currently in. Until you do, you will be more likely to settle for the status quo. There are people who are perfectly fine going along day to day taking whatever life hands them—I'm not one of them.

The town I was raised in was full of big dreamers. In fact, most of the people who came to Tuskegee came there in the first place following a dream to improve their lives. Men like my daddy came there with hopes and dreams of becoming Tuskegee Airmen, which was the first group of black men to fly airplanes for the U.S. military. He didn't make it but he gave it a good try, and he'd tell you all about it if you asked him. But you'd better pull up a chair and get yourself a glass of sweet tea. It's a long story!

Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, had to have been a big dreamer. Here's a man who was born into slavery. When he became president of Tuskegee Institute in 1881, the school barely existed, but thanks to his fund-raising efforts it became one of the leading facilities for educating blacks in the country. When you hear a story like that you just want to walk up to some lazy, whining, black folks and slap them right across the head.

Rosa Parks, who was born in Tuskegee, must have had a dream to be treated with respect by white folks. What some people may not realize is the day she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man wasn't the first time she had been treated poorly by white folks. As a child she was threatened and yelled at by parents of white children for trying to protect herself and her little brother from bullies. That was back around 1920. So, by the time 1955 rolled around I'm thinking Ms. Parks was ready to take on the white bus driver and anybody else. That action led to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement was born.

One of my biggest dreams was to become a success in the music industry. During my freshman year at Tuskegee Institute, a group of students including Lionel Richie formed a group that would compete in the freshman talent show. The singers were called the DuPonts and the band that backed us was the Commodores. After the talent show we began getting regular gigs around town. I was the show closer. At first I would fall on my knees and sing. Then I tried to step my act up a little bit, and, instead of just falling on my knees, I'd jump up and fall on my knees. Then I would climb on top of stuff and fall on my knees. By the end I was starting at the back of the stage, taking a running leap and sliding to the front of the stage on my knees. I would let out a loud scream like James Brown, but actually I was screaming out of pain. I tore my knees up along with a lot of cheap pairs of pants. I wasn't the greatest singer but what I lacked in singing I made up in acrobatics.

At some point we got two offers, one from a local marketing guy from New York and one from a flashy New York gangster. The gangster wanted us to move to New York. The local guy from New York thought we should stay in Tuskegee and get our degrees. My family agreed that continuing my education was the best decision, so I quit the group. The DuPonts moved to New York with the gangster guy, got a record deal, put out a couple of records, but never did much of anything, and the gangster guy went to jail. The Commodores, however, remained in Tuskegee with the local guy Benny Ashburn and Benny took them to the top—without me or my bad knees! Seeing those guys become huge R&B successes made me work harder than ever to do something big just so I wouldn't be kicking myself for the rest of my life.

I wasn't an overnight success in radio, but once I made up my mind I was going to make a career of it, I aspired to go to the top. No matter what kind of job or career you have, if you aim high it can pay off big in the end. You're only helping yourself when you try to take it to the top. Even if you only get halfway there, you're better off than you would have been if you hadn't tried at all. When I was trying so hard to make it in radio, I had no idea that so many changes and opportunities would be available to me in the future. Radio syndication, TV syndication, mergers, satellite radio, and who knows what else was down the road. I just knew that if I did really well in the radio business, the next horizon would be television. No matter how well you do in radio, there will be some people out there who think you haven't really made it until you're on TV, and as good as radio has been to me, I have to admit, I thought television was the bomb!

After having a good run in several markets and doing really well at station WJPC in Chicago in the '80s, I retired from radio. John H. Johnson, the publishing mogul and owner of the AM radio station, had promised when he hired me that if I could make his poor-performing station number two in the Chicago market he would put me on television. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. I wasn't sure if I could deliver, but I wanted to be on TV so bad, I gave it all I had. I worked hard doing all kinds of promotions and stunts to get the radio station and my name out there. I brought the ratings way up and Mr. Johnson kept his end of the bargain. The station gave me a huge going-away party and a parade down Michigan Avenue, and the syndicated television show Ebony/Jet Showcase was born. I was taking that step from local fame as a radio deejay to national stardom on TV . . . sort of.

As bad as I wanted to have my own TV show, however, I really knew nothing about running a TV show. And hear me when I say, I was running it. I was the host, the producer, the director, the tape editor, and I had to sell advertising time for the show too, and it was all new to me. I think I made every mistake possible but mainly I paid way too much money for production. On shoots where it should have been just me and a cameraman, I would show up with a big truck and a gang of people. Steven Spielberg shot entire films with smaller crews. One day I showed up on the set of the TV series Fame, and my crew was bigger than the one Fame had. Not only did I not know what I was doing, my guests knew it too. Debbie Allen felt so bad for me, she said, "Sit down, child. This is ridiculous. All you need is one cameraman and one soundman!" She pointed out that I was using up most of my budget feeding lunch to all my people!

Aretha Franklin had so much sympathy for me, she cooked for me and the entire crew—fried ribs. Yes, that's what I said. That's why I love her so much to this day. As many times as she's been on the Tom Joyner Morning Show she's never said a word about how I made a fool out of myself years earlier.

Even though Ebony/Jet Showcase failed after just twenty-six episodes, I learned some invaluable lessons. The main one is this: If you fail at something, take the part that worked and turn it into something else. Admittedly there were some things wrong with Ebony/Jet Showcase but there were a lot of right things too, and those are the things I concentrated on. In most failures you can find something positive. And that's what gives you the drive to try again. During my run on Ebony/Jet I met and interviewed Sammy Davis Jr., Stevie Wonder, Flip Wilson, and Bill Cosby and I conducted one of the last interviews Michael Jackson would do for a long time. Coincidence? Maybe not. But my point is, doing that show got me accustomed to interviewing big stars and many of the elements of Ebony/Jet Showcase are used on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Another thing I learned is the only way you can get good at something is to just do it. Whether you have a dream to become a performer, a writer, or a cook, just dreaming about it, or even talking about it, will get you nowhere. You have to get out there and try it—unless of course your dream is to become a brain surgeon. Hang around people who are doing what you want to do and be willing to work cheap . . . or for nothing! Sean "P. Diddy" Combs didn't just wake up one day and realize he was one of the most successful record producers in the world. He hung around the recording industry and learned everything he could. And now he is the recording industry.

And finally, failure in TV taught me to ask for help from people who know what the heck they are doing. In my distress as a host-director-producer-editor-salesman, I called on a friend, Darlene Hayes, who was a producer on the Phil Donahue show in Chicago. She couldn't save Ebony/Jet Showcase, but seeing how much she knew made me realize how much I didn't know, and there's no shame in that. When I returned to radio I hired writers and comedians to make me better, and most of them are still with me in some capacity today, even Darlene!

Becoming the first black man to have a nationally syndicated network morning radio program was a dream of mine that I didn't even realize I'd had. My first real radio job was in Montgomery, Alabama, in the news department at WRMA-AM. A friend of mine, Tracy Larkin, also known as "the Voice," told me about it. Well, that was my first "real," real job in radio, but before that I had a Saturday show at the radio station in Tuskegee. It was the outgrowth of a protest march I'd participated in back in the days when instead of watching cartoons or Soul Train on Saturday morning, kids like me marched against segregation. In fact, children were a huge part of the civil rights movement. Our parents, most of whom worked, just couldn't afford to take the chance of being thrown in jail and losing their jobs. So, at some point, they began to send the children out to protest some of the things they deemed unfair. Not to say that the adults hadn't done their share of righting wrongs in Tuskegee. For example, even though the town was 99 percent black, only 1 percent of the businesses were owned by blacks. So, before the much better known Montgomery boycott took place, black Tuskegeeans boycotted all the stores and shops in the town until a change was made. But on this particular day it was the children who lined up in front of the town's one radio station to protest the fact that it played only white music. We're talking about being in the heyday of soul music and not being able to hear the Temptations, James Brown, or Wilson Pickett! This was totally unacceptable.

I would love to tell you that it was my love for black music and my sense of duty to my race that brought me to these marches. But in all honesty, it was the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were always served to sustain us throughout the day. I was a fat kid, and a good sandwich was just the incentive I needed to become an advocate for change. The white owner of the station decided he didn't need the grief and announced to the crowd he was willing to play black music from noon to sundown on Saturdays. He asked if anyone was interested in doing the job and the hand of mine that wasn't holding the sandwich shot up in the air. I got the job and have been in radio ever since, but I wasn't yet a live deejay.

The station was automated and I learned how to operate the equipment that played the format that I designed. Now, this wasn't the sophisticated automation that we know today. At one point, I decided I could make a little more money if I made tapes of the music shows I'd formatted and sold them to other automated stations. After researching the situation, I discovered that there were about five stations outside of our area that could have used my service. My mom, nicknamed Buddy and always my biggest supporter, helped me compose a business proposal to send to the stations. None of them were interested and I never thought about it again.

A few years ago, however, my daddy found my original letter. When I read it after forty years, I realized that what I had actually been proposing to those five stations was syndication. Buddy and I had an idea that was far ahead of its time but she never lived to see me reach that goal.

I continued with my Saturday afternoon music show until Tracy hooked me up at WRMA in Montgomery. I'd get up every morning and drive an old blue Ford forty-nine miles down the road and do my job, which consisted of "ripping and reading" the news for $90 a week. After a while I got bored with just reading the boring news on the old AP teletype machines, so I started making up my own stories.

You might say I was an early tabloid journalist. Unfortunately, management was not so fond of my style and suggested that I become, instead of a newsman, a deejay. I got addicted right away. I liked talking, I liked joking, and I liked the connection local radio had to the community. Like black newspapers, black radio had a very distinct audience that was rarely visited by "outsiders." But unlike black newspapers, radio was immediate and people could tune in and be constantly and instantly updated about news and information concerning marches, boycotts, or sit-ins. All that from comforting, familiar voices of people you felt like you knew. Top that off with the music you loved, wanted to hear, and would choose as the soundtrack of your life. Who doesn't remember what was playing on the radio on the way to the rally, or the big game, or the funeral? I'm talking about before 8-tracks and cassette players and CDs, and iPods and satellite radio. I'm talking about you inside your car with your black AM soul station. Has anything since been so pertinent and personal? Not for me.

The Tom Joyner Morning Show, though it's syndicated in more than 120 markets, is really just a "stepped-up" local radio show with a bigger audience, bigger guests, bigger promotions. Bigger dreams. We try to do on a larger scale what the AM soul stations did during the civil rights movement. Familiarity, compassion, news and information, some laughs, and music you want to hear.

What some people still don't realize about the Tom Joyner Morning Show is that even though it has a local feel from city to city, it is not run like a local radio show at all. It's more like Good Morning America or the Today show—a national morning network show that just happens to be on the radio. It's also the place to be if you want to reach black America. Every morning we talk to more than eight million African Americans in more than 120 markets.

Although the Tom Joyner Morning Show had its skeptics early on, I knew it was going to be a success . . . or let's say I knew it had to be a success. If you truly believe in your dream you can make it happen. In fact, making it happen was sort of the underlying theme of our show when it was first launched. In the beginning we faced lots of hurdles. Oh, it's easy to get big names like Denzel, Oprah, and President Clinton to come on our show now. In fact big ballers like Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Oprah, and former big ballers like John Kerry and Al Gore call us up when they want to get a message out to black America. But back in the day when we had to really sell who we were, it wasn't easy persuading people to get up early enough to be interviewed on the show . . . especially if they were in L.A., where there the show starts at 3 a.m.! We sometimes have to remind guests that they're going to be heard by a huge national audience and it would be a good idea if they got out of bed to do the interview, or at least sat up! As I said, we're very similar to a morning TV show, but we sometimes don't get the same kind of respect. We don't expect full wardrobe and makeup, but, please, no yawning during an interview, Queen Latifah!

I am grateful to people like Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight, Paul Mooney, and others who got on board before the show had proven to be a winner. Others needed much more convincing. "Make it happen!" I'd yell to the show's first publicist Yolanda Starks. And somehow she did.

AS I told you, I'd been dreaming about having my own nationally syndicated morning show for a while, so I came loaded with ideas. That's why dreaming is so great. You don't necessarily know how you're going to make your dreams come true, but when they do come true, you ought to be ready. I was! Nearly ten years ago during a meeting I told my staff I wanted a traveling radio show that would allow us to take huge musical acts from town to town. They were silent. Surely they were thinking to themselves "It Can't Be Done." Sometimes it's hard to get other people to see your dream. A lot of times it's simply because your dream is not their dream. There are people who came on board the Tom Joyner Morning Show early, believing that the show they signed on for would be the show they'd be working on for years to come. Those people didn't know me that well. The people who did know me well knew that the Tom Joyner Morning Show would continue to evolve and get bigger and better for as long as I was connected with it. If you're planning to be a success in business and in life, I suggest you keep your eyes and ears open for the next big thing. If you don't, there are people out there who will take what you have started, improve it, and turn it into their own.

Eventually the traveling show I had envisioned became the Southwest Airlines Sky Show. About thirty times a year our entire crew hits the road and puts on a live party in one of the cities where our show is heard. Musical guests and comedians have included Al Green, Mark Curry, Chaka Khan, A.J. Jamal, Bill Cosby, Brian McKnight, Jill Scott, Earth, Wind & Fire, Adele Givens, Patti LaBelle, New Edition, Dennis Edwards and the Temptations Review, Parliament Funkadelic, Rick James, Erykah Badu, almost every old-school act you can imagine, Cameo, the Ohio Players, the Gap Band, ConFunkshun . . . the list goes on and on.

If I'm giving the impression that the Tom Joyner Morning Show is all about partying, let me make some clarifications. We do party, but we party with a purpose. I just understand that the purpose goes down a lot smoother when a party is attached. The voter registration drives, radio advocacy campaigns, raising money for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, granting Christmas wishes, and keeping black folks abreast of news, issues, and information that is pertinent to our lives is what we always will be about.

As much as I dreamed and continued to dream, I realized I also had to get up and take the steps necessary toward making those dreams a reality. Dreaming is great, but dreaming by itself is not enough. You've got to work hard, know your craft, and know your competition. If you think you'll get far and stay on top without putting everything you've got into it, dream on!

Chapter two

"Got Me Working Day and Night"

There is no room for jealousy in business. If someone is doing a better job than you are, either find a way to improve yourself or join forces with that person.

I'VE WORKED for most of my life, but it took me a while to realize the benefits of working hard. Even though my hometown of Tuskegee was full of hardworking black men and women. Like most children, I started out trying to get away with doing as little as possible. My daddy noticed this trait in me and quickly let me know that a job half done was not acceptable. The worst beating, I mean spanking, I ever got as a child was after my dad found out I had not delivered all of the papers I was supposed to deliver on my paper route. This was back before you'd go to jail for putting bruises on your children. I ended up going to the family doctor, and when I told him why my daddy had injured me, the family doctor hit me too. That's the way things were in Tuskegee. It took a village to whip a child!


On Sale
Sep 1, 2005
Page Count
224 pages