Tom Joyner on Poverty and Black Leadership

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Syndicated radio host Tom Joyner talks about his relief fund to help families and churches provide shelter for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Joyner also talks about American poverty and his views on black leadership.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Rita, the Gulf Coast's latest hurricane, has strengthened into a Category 5 storm and is projected to sweep across the Texas coastline by the weekend. Rita is not expected to hit New Orleans directly, but Louisiana has declared a state of emergency for the second time in so many weeks. Among those responding to the crisis in the Gulf Coast are black radio deejays across the country. The best known of them, nationally syndicated radio personality Tom Joyner, is doing his part to help those trying to still recover from the first major hurricane. Joyner set up's Relief Fund, which donates money to families, friends and churches housing hurricane survivors.

Mr. TOM JOYNER ( We focused our attention on the people who have made their homes a shelter for the victims. We ask the churches to get in touch with us and identify these families who have all these new mouths to feed in their homes, and we are sending prepaid credit cards as quickly as we can to these families. So far we have raised over a million and a half dollars, and most of this, 80 percent of that, has come from individuals. We don't have big corporate donations. Most of it is, you know, a hundred dollars, $75, 10, 15, $20. I don't know how many transactions we've gotten, but we're going to have one heck of a time doing the tax receipts at the end of the year. I know that. It's a big--and I didn't realize how big of an undertaking this has become for us 'cause we're not in the fund-raising and fund-disbursement business, you know? We're in the media business, and we've had to add eight new people just to keep up with this and we're still behind. The checks just keep coming in by the mailbox full, the mail crate full. It's--and as fast as we get it in and it clears the bank, we're taking that money and putting it into credit cards and sending it out to the families.

GORDON: Hey, Tom, I'm curious; when you looked at this initially...

Mr. JOYNER: Yeah.

GORDON: ...were you as confounded as most of us at how ill-prepared the government was?

Mr. JOYNER: Of course. The pictures don't lie. Everyone saw it. I'm not as surprised as I was that most of America didn't realize that there were these conditions in the Gulf Coast and especially in New Orleans for the African-Americans and their impoverished state.

GORDON: Many people are suggesting now that--and the media is erroneously, I might add, writing that Katrina blew the lid off of poverty. As you said, poverty was always there, and it doesn't have to be in the Gulf Coast. We can go to Detroit and Cleveland and south-central Los Angeles and find the same kind of poverty, to a great degree, but how much do you believe now it's a wake-up call for all of us in the black community, in the media, black leadership, to make sure that we address this problem louder than we have?

Mr. JOYNER: I'm concerned about what's going to happen when the cameras are off. What are you going to build this back to, and will these people have jobs when they go back, if they go back? They didn't have jobs when they was there. You know, is this going to be a wake-up call that's going to make a positive change for these people who have been--they've been displaced, man, and, quite frankly, I don't know what they have to go back to. It's a terrible situation and it depresses the heck out of me.

GORDON: Let me ask you something personally. You have to a great degree, because of your position and the clout your microphone has given you, become one of the pre-eminent leaders in black America. Is that a role that you cherish now? Is it a role that you sought or did it just come?

Mr. JOYNER: I don't think of it as a leadership role. I provide a platform for people who are in the leadership role. I'm out there trying to reach black people and inform black people of what's going on, to try to motivate black people to do better in their community, and I'm using the media as a platform for that. I take that role very, very seriously, and every day that we go on the air, I think about what we're doing and who we're affecting.

GORDON: How much of the way you were raised speaks to what you do? You could easily, Tom, just do a radio program, you know, take the money and go home early, put your feet up.

Mr. JOYNER: Advocacy is how I got into radio, and black radio was about advocacy when I got into it. That's what black radio has always been about. During the civil rights movement, it was black radio that told the followers of Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders when and where to march. And my first job in radio was as a result of a protest. My 90-percent-black hometown of Tuskegee had a radio station that played all-white music. And we were out there protesting that, you know, we didn't have a radio station that played any Motown or any Aretha, and that's how I got into radio. I got into radio protesting.

GORDON: Tom, I remember a conversation I had with you right before you launched the program in, I guess, '94...

Mr. JOYNER: Yeah.

GORDON: a syndicated show, and you said to me, `You know, I don't know if this thing's going to work, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway.'

Mr. JOYNER: Yeah.

GORDON: As you look back over a decade later, what are you when you look at the show's popularity now?

Mr. JOYNER: Man, we started out with 29 stations, and that was pretty phenomenal then. Now we're at something like 115 stations. We've reached maybe eight million, mostly African-Americans. We've formed our own company. We've taken our own destiny in our hands by owning, distributing and marketing our show. Television show's on cable with TV1 and now a new syndicated television show that starts in two weeks, and, I mean, all of these things are a byproduct of when we talked in '94, '95, when we started the show, and it just keeps growing. And I don't spend a lot of time, you know, celebrating successes or looking back at accomplishments. I'm too focused on what's ahead and what's in the future.

GORDON: Hey, Tom, let me ask you: Tell us a little bit about the syndicated show that will be coming up on television stations across the country. A weekly program, right?

Mr. JOYNER: Yeah, a weekly program on weekends. It starts the weekend of October 1st and 2nd. We clear about 80 percent of America. It's an hour long. It's a variety show. It's a lot of performances, a lot of comedy, a lot of sketches. It's not "The Sky Show" and the name of the new show is "The Tom Joyner Show." Figure that out.

GORDON: For people that don't know, "The Sky Show" is when you take the radio program live to different cities and people...

Mr. JOYNER: Well, that's the most fun of all.

GORDON: ...literally line up at 2 and 3 in the morning and you will have thousands of folks just to share in the fun that they hear on the radio. Yeah.

Mr. JOYNER: For an old-school party. When the doors open at 6, they are locked and everybody's packed. And we have a party from 6 to 10 in the morning non-stop. And it's--you've been to them. It's wild.

GORDON: Tom, what about the book, "I'm Just A Deejay But It Makes Sense to Me"? What made you want to write the book?

Mr. JOYNER: Actually, a good offer. If anyone writes--but I'd had offers before, and I'd started the book and you know the story. You know, it was under the bed and was in a Kinko's box, and finally I hooked up with Warner Books and so many things have happened. We've grown so much. And I didn't know how to end it, you know, because every day something incredible happens that ought to be in the book. So I finally decided that was not the way to approach the book, and instead of doing a book about me, I'd do a book about what I've done and what I've observed and make it funny.

GORDON: Tom, before I let you go, I want to ask you about black leadership in this country.

Mr. JOYNER: Yeah.

GORDON: You, as you say, have provided a platform to many who don't always get to espouse their views...

Mr. JOYNER: Yeah.

GORDON: ...but you have on occasion also been critical when you didn't think that direction was going in the right way. When you look at black leadership today, on a whole, what do you see? What do you like? What don't you like?

Mr. JOYNER: There's only been one occasion when I have criticized a black leader on my show. I don't do that, and I regret the one time I did. And I put that in the book. You know, if there's something about our leadership that I don't like, I'll take it up with them. I won't discuss it on my show or your show or in a book. I'll take it up with them because I don't believe that's what we should do. There's enough people out there bringing us down, even within our race and outside of it, that I don't think that it's necessary for me or anyone else of our color to do that.

GORDON: Finally, Tom, let me say this to you again. I've known you for a long time, and as I said, there are so many people who sit in your position who could just walk away and go home and, like I said, put your feet up. And you have never done that.

Mr. JOYNER: No, I can't live my life like that. I think that we're supposed to help. You know, you help yourself and then you're supposed to help others. I just think that that's what God put us here for, you know? And so, yeah, I could do that and not look back, but I can't live my life like that. I'll be doing this to the grave, probably from the grave. I'll figure it out. I'm from Tuskegee.

GORDON: That's good to know that you'll be with us, you know, on the forefront, man, and I appreciate your time today and, again, more importantly, I appreciate all the work you've done, man.

Mr. JOYNER: Yeah, Ed, I appreciate all the work you've done, too.

GORDON: Thanks, man.

Mr. JOYNER: All right, Ed Gordon.

GORDON: Tom Joyner is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program "The Tom Joyner Morning Show." He's set up a fund to help families housing survivors of Hurricane Katrina called Relief Fund.

This is NPR News.

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