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Black Radio/Black Resistance: The best kept secret in America

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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).

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 8 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 the questions “Who was this audience, besides being huge and largely black? And why should we care about this minority radio show anyway?”

“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. 

According to di Leonardo, 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. In addition, this older demographic garners little attention in a youth-obsessed nation. And radio, despite its ongoing importance, is now often seen as passé in comparison to the online world. Finally, progressive “blue media” enthusiasts have overlooked this key minority counterpublic voice.

Nevertheless, the show’s influence has been wide ranging. Since 1998, it has raised more than $65 million through the 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. Furthermore, they have publicized police violence against unarmed black Americans and actively engaged in support for their families.

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. Politicians and activists appeared on the show with regularity, including Presidents Clinton and Obama when in office.

In those early years, “it was with wonder and great happiness that I would turn on the radio early on weekday mornings and hear something very different from what I was reading” in mainstream media, di Leonardo wrote.

“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.” 

Immediately following Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win, commentators rushed to explain the results by focusing on white voters claiming that the economic recovery from the 2008 Great Recession had ‘left them behind,’” wrote di Leonardo in a recent blog post. “Others argued strongly that Trump’s explicit racism and xenophobia had drawn in whites anxious about losing their racial and imperial privilege.” But those arguments received little attention, she said.

“But an overlooked American media giant,” she wrote, “had never been fooled by the economic insecurity claim, and called out Trump’s racism, xenophobia and misogyny day after day, both during the campaign and after the election.”

In 2017, Joyner announced that the show would shut down at the end of 2019. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2018, the 69-year-old Joyner acknowledged that his ratings had suffered. di Leonardo points out that all music radio is declining due to the explosion of online music streaming, just as online sources have decimated print news.

For a quarter-century, TJMS was the voice of and key organizer of the majority progressive black adult counterpublic. 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.” 

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