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Madison: WOL’s ‘talk show activist’
(Published December 17, 2001)
By MYRLANDE DAVERMANN
Joe Madison, left, pauses to speak to protestor Akuei Malwal last summer at an anti-slavery demonstration in front of the Sudanese embassy.
Listeners who tune their radios to "Mornings With Madison and Company" during their morning commute might be expecting their daily dose of morning babble.
What they often find instead might be better thought of as a reality pill with a dose of political kick.
"I don’t like to be referred to as a ‘talk show host,’ says Joe Madison, the "Madison" of the show’s name. "Martin Luther King III, son of Martin Luther King Jr., once said to me, ‘You’re a radio show activist.’ I am an activist first, who happens to have a radio talk show."
As a "radio show activist," Madison of WOL-AM 1450, addresses the issues, confronts challenges and takes his WOL-AM 1450 show a step further by frequently posing the question to his listening audience: "What are you going to do about it?"
Madison does plenty.
"When other talk show hosts leave their padded walls of stations, they go home," he says.
"I jump on a plane and participate in the liberation of the people enslaved in Sudan. I get on a plane and go to New York to participate in demonstrations on police brutality. I get on a plane and do voter registration in Alabama.
"I do that simultaneously to my radio career. I can bring first-hand experiences and share them with listeners."
Madison has participated in countless marches and demonstrations to oppose apartheid in South Africa, even going to such lengths as being jailed and participating in hunger strikes for the cause as well as most recently being chained to the Sudanese embassy.
Madison’s role as activist had always been a part of his young adult life after growing up in Dayton, Ohio. Throughout his years at Washington University in St. Louis, he was actively involved in the civil rights movement. After obtaining a degree in sociology and urban planning, Madison’s political, social and radio career took off. He became a crucial part of the NAACP, holding three key positions.
At the age of 24, Madison was selected to be executive director of the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ebony magazine had already named him as one of its "50 Leaders of the Future." In the 1980s, then-national NAACP director Benjamin Hooks asked Madison to become the organization’s political director. Having a deep-rooted affiliation to the organization and its cause, Madison joined the board of directors as its youngest elected member and remained on the board for 14 years.
Madison’s history with the NAACP did not end there. He was responsible for chairing the NAACP Image Awards and organized an effort – dubbed the "Overground Railroad" – that registered about half a million new voters.
"The Overground Railroad traced the routes of escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad and did voter registration simultaneous to Jesse Jackson’s campaign for president," Madison recalls of the effort.
In the meantime, Madison says his radio career "was simultaneously climbing." Madison, married and starting a family at the time, was asked to host a talk radio show on WXYZ, an ABC affiliate in Detroit. In the mid 1970s he would travel on his activist rounds and return to Detroit on weekends to do the show, a schedule he maintained for 10 years.
While he was in Detroit on the weekends, Madison was in Philadelphia on weekdays at a full-time job with WWDB, "which lasted less than 90 days," Madison says wryly. He said he knew that his stay there was short-lived "because the station manager did not want me talking about black issues. If I wasn’t qualified, who was going to talk about those issues?"
Madison moved on after that brief stint at WWDB to Washington, where he became known as "The Black Eagle" while working at AM radio’s WRC.
"It has a black history reference and a historical reference," Madison says, in explaining how he came up with the title.
Madison co-hosted a show with Col. Oliver North at WRC and in the military, according to Madison, colonel means "a full bird in the military."
"I decided I wanted a handle," Madison said, so he went on a quest for a name that was a true representation of his character. "I thought to myself, ‘I am an African-American, I am black and I am in the nation’s capital.’"
He said that he decided the bald eagle, a symbol of the United States, sent a strong message and was further intrigued by the notion that "balde," an Old English term, meant "white." He said he then decided to research "black eagles" to find out if they existed.
What he found was at least three references to the black eagle. One was that Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, the first licensed black pilot who trained with the Ethiopian air force, was known as The Black Eagle. "When Madame C.J. Walker [one of the first black millionaires] died, [Julian] parachuted over New York and presented her with a wreath of flowers," Madison said. The New York Herald said Julian was "floating from the sky like a black eagle."
A friend from Tanzania also sent Madison an oil painting of a black eagle. Then, Madison said, he saw a television special about the black eagle in Africa being one of the largest eagles in the world.
When Madison claimed "The Black Eagle" as his title, he gained some opposition.
"People reacted rather viscerally. They said you can’t do that. There is no such thing as a black eagle," he said.
Then, Madison says, he "spoke to my good friend Dick Gregory, who validated the use of it." The title stuck.
After working at WRC for eight years, Madison switched to WOL where he says "my avocation and occupation came together." He speaks with high regard about working for Cathy Hughes, who built the Radio One network after starting with WOL.
"It’s a natural fit to be here at WOL," Madison said. "For the last 10 years WOL has been the voice of the black community. Here we are expected to provide excellence as broadcasters and are expected to find a cause and get involved in local and national issues."
Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, the only local politician who returned a call soliciting comments about Madison for this article, said Madison "plays an important role in disseminating those issues and is very good at what he does."
"He’s incisive, controversial and he covers local issues. Many people forget that there is a local Washington as opposed to the national Washington," Evans said.
And now with the emergence of XM Satellite Radio, Madison can tap into people’s cars from coast to coast. His show is broadcast to all 48 continental states on the new satellite radio network, which is based in the District.
"We have the first all-black talk network in this country," Madison said. "We can now connect with people about all issues that are important to everyone, but from an African-American perspective."
Madison said his show "caters to an older audience, an older thinking crowd," targeting listeners 35 and older.
"As the audience gets older and enlightened, all of a sudden news and information becomes important to them," he said.
The phrase, "Information is power" is echoed throughout Madison’s and other WOL shows, serving as a constant reminder that being informed keeps one in tune with the community and the world – two of the points Madison strives to make during his show.
"I recondition the way people think," he said.
"For too long, we [the black community] have been undervalued, underestimated and marginalized. We have got to value ourselves and our community, hold it in high esteem, and we have got to take our place on center stage…. We need to stop underestimating who we are. We can go out and compete with the best….The more influential we are, the more powerful we are, the more we can do."
Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator