I thought it was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard. And unfortunately, I said so.
By the summer of 1985, WGCI had fallen on hard times. The urban contemporary radio station was getting clobbered in the ratings by arch rival WBMX and desperately needed a way to win back listeners. So the station decided to bring back a former Chicago DJ named Tom Joyner to host its afternoon show.
One problem: Joyner was already under contract to a station in Dallas, where he was hosting mornings. And in those days—before multicity voice-tracking was commonplace—radio personalities were expected to be local. So Joyner, his agent and WGCI came up with a preposterous solution: He’d continue to do mornings in Dallas, fly to Chicago to do afternoons and then fly back home to Dallas each night.
“WGCI pins hopes on ‘commuting’ jock” read the headline of my Sun-Times column on October 14, 1985. Unable to conceal my cynicism, I wrote: “Whether Joyner lasts through all five years of his contract or collapses after the first week of his idiotic scheme really doesn’t matter. Nor does his motive—six-figure greed, ego satisfaction or, as he claims, simply the challenge of it all. The only thing that counts is that Joyner has transformed himself into a human publicity stunt.”
I soon came to regret those words, which have haunted me since.
Joyner not only survived the first week, he went on to make history as “The Fly Jock”—the nickname he acquired traveling 8,000 miles a week and, by the end, logging more than seven million frequent-flyer miles. His ratings skyrocketed, too, making him the only DJ ever to host top-rated drive-time shows in two markets simultaneously.
He finally landed for good in 1993 when he signed a multimillion-dollar deal for a nationally syndicated morning show, based in Dallas. (In his honor, American Airlines “retired” two first-class seats and installed them in his radio studio.) Joyner launched his own syndication company in 2003 and he is widely considered the most successful and influential urban radio personality in America. The Tom Joyner Morning Show airs on Chicago’s Soul 106.3 and more than 100 other stations nationwide.
To his credit, Joyner never held it against me for questioning his sincerity or his stamina (although his former boss at WGCI, Marv Dyson, still takes great pleasure in reminding me of how wrong I was). “Thanks to Marv and his vision, it’s been great,” Joyner told me just before ending his amazing, eight-year daily commute. “For him to put me on in the afternoons didn’t make any sense at the time. But it sure made a lot of sense looking back at our success.”