photo courtesy of Neill Foote, Reach Media Inc.

How a Man Became a Brand

Radio deejay Tom Joyner’s dad told him not to become a Commodore. The founder of Dallas-based Reach Media now has his name on a radio show, a TV show, a concert series, and more.

Tom Joyner may be the leading brand name in African-American entertainment. His name adorns a radio show, a TV show, a live concert series, and a nonprofit foundation—the third-highest-grossing foundation run by an African-American.  (Oprah Winfrey’s is no. 1, Eileen Harris Norton’s is no. 2.) But not everyone knows that.

Take the guy who Joyner ran into not long ago in an airport, a place that’s familiar ground for Joyner, who, as a deejay in the mid-’80s logged 7 million frequent flier miles while flying between his morning show in Dallas and his afternoon show in Chicago. Every day. For seven years. The gigs earned him the nickname the Fly Jock and more than just a little national attention.

Nowadays, Joyner’s show is syndicated and based in Dallas. But the guy in the airport didn’t know that. See, through some radio trickery, like recording local time and temperature plugs during commercials—“It’s 8:33 and 62 degrees in the nation’s capital”—Joyner manages to make it sound very much like the show is being broadcast from any one of the 115 markets where he’s now heard, anywhere from Baltimore to, say, Natchez, Mississippi.

Joyner’s a professional chatterbox; so let’s let him tell the story from here.

“I was in the airport and this guy comes up to me and he’s all excited,” Joyner recalls. “He says, ‘Tom Joyner. Man, how you doing? Man, I remember you, you was rolling. You was in Dallas and Chicago. On the same day. Man, you was kicking. You was the poo. You was the Fly Jock man, riding on airplanes and in limousines. Now you’re in Natchez, Mississippi. Man, are you all right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m all right. You don’t have to do a benefit for me or anything yet.’ Then he gave me a nice, tight hug. He thought the Fly Jock was down.”

The Fly Jock is most certainly not down. Indeed, he is more the poo than ever. Today, thanks to clever and aggressive business decisions on the part of the 56-year-old deejay, Tom Joyner is as much a brand as he is a man. His Dallas-based (“People forget I’m still in Dallas,” Joyner says), multimedia, 80-person outfit, Reach Media is one of the leading entertainment companies targeting African-Americans, handling all of the aforementioned endeavors and one not mentioned: BlackAmericaWeb.com, a news and commentary site focused on items of interest to African-Americans and a portal to all things Tom Joyner.

Because of all those outlets and their targeted focus only on African-Americans, Fortune calls Joyner one of the most powerful media personalities that you’ve never heard of. David Kantor, CEO of Reach Media, calls him something else—arguably the “most influential African-American in the country.”

Tom Joyner is a deejay who has become a brand-name success. But there are syndicated deejays in markets across the country who can’t celebrate the same. What does Joyner have that those deejays don’t? More importantly, what has Joyner done that they haven’t? What does he know that you should? Six things.

THINGS NO. 1, 2, AND 3:
PEANUT BUTTER IS DELICIOUS. YOU CAN BE ANYTHING YOU WANT EXCEPT A COMMODORE. AND, SPANKING HURTS.

Some people are born into greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and some achieve greatness in pursuit of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For Tom Joyner, it was the last of those that launched his lucrative radio career.

Joyner was born in 1949 and grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, which, in the middle of the last century, was a rural town of 10,000. Because nearly all of the residents were African-American, the segregation of the day didn’t keep them from holding many of the community’s most important jobs. “All the bankers were black, the doctors were black, the lawyers were black,” says Oscar Joyner, Tom’s youngest son and the president of Reach Media. “Because of that, people who grew up in Tuskegee didn’t see any reason why they couldn’t be successful. They were surprised to learn that not every hospital in the country had black doctors.”

But even though Tuskegee was filled with positive role models for Joyner and his friends—among them some guy named Lionel Richie—whites still owned nearly all the businesses in town, including the local radio station. That led to conflicts, like the series of weekly protests that erupted when town residents grew angry that the station didn’t play any R&B music from African-American artists.

Tom Joyner says he attended these protests because, yeah, he wanted to hear some Aretha Franklin on the radio. Who wouldn’t? But mostly he marched because he was a “fat kid” and he wanted to score the free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches provided by the protest organizers.
Lucky him. Eventually, the station owner offered a compromise to the protesters: he’d set aside a Sunday afternoon and evening block of programming for Motown and other music if someone in town would volunteer to host the show. “Who wants to do it?” the owner asked the protesters one day. Joyner raised his jelly-stained hand, and a career was born.

Joyner’s parents didn’t discourage the radio gig. They both worked outside the home and pushed Tom and his brother Albert to work—paper routes, helping out at the local VA hospital, whatever. In fact, Joyner recalls his parents standing in the way of his career ambitions exactly once. Tom was considering going on the road with his college band, the DuPonts—a group helmed by that Richie kid that came to be called the Commodores. Joyner’s father, perhaps recognizing that his son could neither sing nor dance (a fact Joyner admits to today), suggested that Tom would be better off staying in school. Tom took the advice.

Probably a smart move. Joyner’s father, an accountant and a former Tuskegee airman, could be stern when he felt he needed to be. In his 2005 autobiography, I’m Just a DJ … But It Makes Sense to Me, Joyner writes that the worst spanking he ever got occurred when his father learned that young Tom hadn’t delivered all the papers on his paper route. Why? Because he just didn’t feel like it. His father left so many butt bruises that Tom had himself checked out by the family physician. When Tom told the doctor what he’d done to prompt the spanking, the doctor, feeling he’d deserved the punishment, also gave him a whack.

“I work hard not because I’m trying to live up to my name as the Hardest Working Man in Radio,” Joyner writes. “I work hard because when I was a kid there was a consequence for being lazy—and it was painful. The discipline I received paid off. I’ve never missed a day of work just because I didn’t feel like showing up, and as an employer I don’t expect my employees to shrug off their jobs either.”

THINGS NO. 4 AND 5:
BE LIKE OPRAH. AND, DON’T LISTEN TO STEVIE WONDER.

Reach Media Inc. was founded in 2003 with a small investment, most of it coming from Joyner’s syndication company, ABC Radio. Until that year, ABC had owned the rights to Joyner’s show. To keep him from going completely solo, ABC provided Reach Media with start-up capital in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the company.

One year later, Reach Media was worth, Joyner says, more than $100 million. That’s partly why publicly traded Radio One, a Lanham, Maryland, company that is the nation’s leading broadcaster to African-American audiences, came to Joyner with an offer in 2004. The offer: $56 million for a controlling interest in the company. Though Joyner thought the partnership was a perfect fit, the whole thing was still surprising to him.

“We’re sitting in a conference room with Radio One and all of our business at Reach Media is spread out in numbers—all of this paper everywhere,” says the thickset Joyner whose round frame belies the fact that he’s married to a fitness celebrity and travels the country with a personal chef and trainer in tow. Joyner is chatting after just getting off the air and returning to Reach Media’s offices in a nondescript building just north of the Dallas Galleria. As almost always, he is casually dressed. For much of the year, he wears shorts and flip-flops to work. For his TV gigs, he dons colorful and creatively cut suits that even Michael Irvin would shy away from. Joyner is not exactly GQ, but, hey, he’s just a deejay.

Anyway, back to the story.

photo courtesy of Neill Foote, Reach Media Inc.
“So, there were all these stacks and stacks of papers and numbers all over the conference table. I knew all the things our company was doing, but when it was presented with all those papers, piled so high, it was overwhelming. I was, like, ‘This is us? This is our company? How did this happen?’”
If he didn’t know the answer to “how,” Joyner certainly knew the answer to “why.” When his contract with ABC Radio was coming up for renewal, Joyner decided that he had established himself in the business enough to try and capitalize on his name, to mold himself into a brand in the same way Oprah Winfrey had transformed from talk show host to media mogul. Exactly the same way. “Oprah was really my inspiration for Reach Media,” Joyner says. “At some point, she bought the rights to her own show, and I wanted to do the same thing that she did, to control my own destiny.”

Joyner had good reason to believe that he was an investment worth making. In six years with ABC Radio, he had already made the Tom Joyner Morning Show into a success and had sunk plenty of his own money into the show in the process, paying for things ABC would not—co-hosts, comedian guest stars, and even a radio soap opera called It’s Your World, whose all-African-American cast was outrageously wealthy. Besides, Joyner was still proving people wrong.
His show, you see, was groundbreaking. No African-American broadcaster had ever tried syndication at this level—95 stations—and been met with success. Many of Joyner’s colleagues at the outset were convinced he’d fail. Included among them were Cathy Hughes, the founder of Radio One, and singer Stevie Wonder, who owns a radio station in Los Angeles.

“Stevie and Cathy were very vocal in saying, ‘This will never work,’” Joyner says. “They said, ‘Black radio is too personable, it’s too community-oriented.’ They said, ‘You cannot program to a Baltimore or Washington audience from Dallas, Texas. You have to be in Baltimore or Washington. You have to be on Crenshaw in Los Angeles,’ which is where Stevie’s station is.”

The naysaying lasted for more than a year into Joyner’s deal with ABC. Finally, his strong ratings in dozens of major markets helped quiet the critics. Well, most of them. “Slowly, everyone but Stevie changed their mind,” Joyner says. “Pardon the pun, but Stevie still don’t see it.”

THING NO. 6:
YOU GOTTA BE TRUE TO YOUR AUDIENCE, EVEN IF YOU FOOL ’EM A LITTLE. 

There’s a lot of stuff that happens on the Tom Joyner Morning Show that doesn’t take place in the Dallas studio where Tom Joyner sits, wearing his shorts and flip-flops. His co-host Sybil Wilkes is in Dallas. But Tavis Smiley files his twice-weekly commentaries from Washington. And regulars Myra J., Ms. Dupree, and J. Anthony Brown are based in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, respectively. It’s an odd setup, but it works. The daily show intersperses rapid-fire exchanges between Joyner and his regular cast with call-in prize giveaways and R&B and hip-hop music. There are also times carved out for newsbreaks that are handled by subscriber stations. Each break helps give Joyner’s show that sheen of being local, even if it isn’t.

Mostly, Joyner’s show is a goof. It’s good fun mixed with good music. But it can be serious, too. After Katrina devastated the gulf coast, Joyner took to calling the storm “black folks’ tsunami,” among other things, and lambasted the Bush Administration for its handling of the crisis. And, after 9/11, Joyner sought to raise money for African-American families who were victims of the attacks, his exclusivity drawing fire from critics.

But Joyner isn’t terribly worried about what critics have to say. He does what he does—be it TV, radio, the live concert series, the web site, et al—for one group only. “We are unashamedly going after our target audience, an African-American audience,” Joyner says. “We’re not going after a multi-cultural audience. We’re not concerned about crossover. All we want is an African-American audience. If we get anything else, that’s fine. That’s icing on the cake. But the cake is an African-American audience.”

In marketing lingo, it’s called “super-serving” the audience. That’s the same strategy Radio One has ridden to become a $300 million, publicly traded operation. And it’s working for Reach Media, too, Oscar Joyner says, because African-Americans have plenty of cash to spend ($600 billion annually by some estimates) and welcome entertainment and marketing designed just for them.
“We don’t need to make Tom Joyner reach 50 million people across the country,” Oscar says in a voice that’s eerily similar to his father’s. “We’re doing good for ourselves already by just reaching 9 million African-Americans. And there’s more to do: we want to reach all 13 million.”

Expanding the reach of, well, Reach Media is part of the branding of Tom Joyner. Today one out of every four African-Americans already hears his radio show. That’s made Joyner the guy to go to when a politico wants to say something to African-Americans or when a company wants to reach an African-American consumer. Among Joyner’s advertisers are heavyweights like Procter & Gamble, Southwest Airlines, and Home Depot.

With that kind of influence in the now-established Tom Joyner brand, Reach Media’s goal is to grow beyond Tom. After all, that’s why Joyner named the company Reach Media and not Tom Joyner Media. “We want this media company to be a multimedia company,” he says. “I didn’t want to brand it as Tom Joyner because I wanted to be more than Tom Joyner. The reality is that most of Reach Media is Tom Joyner right now. Everything branded comes through the radio show and the radio show is 85-90 percent of Reach Media. But we want to go beyond that. I want Reach Media to be around a long, long time, even after Tom Joyner is not around.”

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