New book examines the ‘Tom Joyner Morning Show’ as a political and cultural phenomenon
“The ‘Tom Joyner Morning Show’ is the most famous, hilarious and politically influential American radio show you never heard of — unless you’re an African-American adult,” said Micaela di Leonardo, author of the recently published “Black Radio/Black Resistance: The Life & Times of the Tom Joyner Morning Show” (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Joyner’s show comes to a close, but for the last 25 years, Joyner’s nationally-syndicated weekday drive-time show has been the key source of news, entertainment and humor for the vast bulk of the working adult Black population. He currently reaches approximately eight million listeners in more than 80 markets, plus many audience members streaming the show on their computers or listening through the free app on their cellphones.
“Yet, despite its extraordinary success in attracting dozens of major corporate sponsors, and its palpable effect on Black political opinion and voting behavior, the ‘Tom Joyner Morning Show’ (TJMS) never attracted much mainstream media or even scholarly attention,” said di Leonardo, professor of anthropology and African American studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University.
In her new book, a 14-year study of the show in its historical and political contexts, di Leonardo, a cultural anthropologist, seeks to answer many questions.
“I realized over time, as my fandom evolved into serious research, that the TJMS audience — unlike The Daily Show’s ‘advertisers’ dream’ — a young, largely white, educated, better-off demographic — comprised a nearly invisible American population: adult to middle-aged working/middle-class Black Americans,” wrote di Leonardo in her introduction. di Leonardo set out to solve this “invisibility” conundrum. These African Americans are little represented in U.S. media’s “saints or sinners syndrome” tendency to focus largely on wealthy/celebrity or impoverished/criminal Black Americans.
Nevertheless, the show’s influence has been wide ranging. Since 1998, it has raised more than $65 million through his Tom Joyner Foundation to provide scholarships to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs); and has been an advocate for voter registration and fighting voter suppression for African Americans. During the 2005-06 Hurricane Katrina disaster, show anchors and its audience raised at least $2.4 million, distributing the funds to people who had taken in Katrina refugees and to displaced New Orleans HBCU students.
The TJMS had long articulated and advocated for progressive politics and social change. It was explicitly pro-civil rights for all minorities, feminist, pro-LBGTQ, economically populist, environmentalist, and antiwar even back in the 1990s. Thus, what really hooked di Leonardo, beyond TJMS’s old-school music and biting wit, was the show’s political influence and progressive perspective.
“I document the show’s long-term extraordinarily progressive politics, and I lay out the TJMS’s deep engagement with Democratic politicians and with the electoral process, rising to its hysterical all-hands-on-deck organizing, collaborating with labor unions and the NAACP, during the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns.”
For a quarter-century, TJMS was the voice of and key organizer of the majority progressive Black adult counter public. Di Leonardo said the show’s legacy will be “the millions of informed, angry and politically active Black working/middle class adults primed to continue fighting for equality and justice for all.”