The Black Eagle Soars on Talk Radio: Joe Madison Talks Civil Rights, Politics and Culture with Guests from Community Leaders to Presidents
by Christy DeBoe Hicks
Known as “The Black Eagle,” Joe Madison is a legendary voice in radio and a dedicated human and civil rights activist. The host of The Joe Madison Show on SiriusXM Urban View, he has been named by Talkers magazine (known as the “Bible of Talk Radio”) as one of the 100 Most Important Talk Radio Hosts nine times, often in the top 10. Madison has been presented with numerous national and regional awards and honors, including an NAACP Image Award in 1996. In 2000, he received both a Southern Christian Leadership Award for Journalism and a Washington, D.C., Association of Black Journalists Award for Community Service. Madison has interviewed world leaders, including President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, among other notable guests.
Madison uses his platform to talk about political and social issues with newsmakers, advocates, policy experts, and leaders in various fields and bring his large and diverse audience into the discussion to focus attention and inspire action on known and unknown injustices throughout this country and around the world.
“I always ask the question, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Because everybody can do something,” Madison notes. When it comes to working to solve problems rather than just talking about them, Madison leads by example. By completing a 52-hour live broadcast, he broke a Guinness World Record and raised more than $200,000 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He then hosted an exclusive live broadcast about the museum’s opening, which was attended by both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush.
Madison made history in 2015 when he broadcast live from Cuba, becoming the first American to do so in more than 50 years. That same year, after a successful campaign led by Madison, the late Dick Gregory was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Madison traveled to Haiti to offer assistance after the 2010 earthquake and assisted relief workers in the Gulf States after Hurricane Katrina. To raise awareness about the genocide in Sudan, he led peaceful demonstrations in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was arrested. He also traveled to a war zone in Southern Sudan, where he delivered survival kits and helped free 7,000 enslaved people. And in all he does, he brings it back to the studio and talks about it with his listeners, asking repeatedly, “What are you going to do about it?”
Madison feels a particular responsibility toward his audience: “I think it’s my obligation to listen to my listeners, to educate them, and to activate them. That’s what I think is the uniqueness of my show, and that’s why we refer to it as ‘radioactive.’”
While the topics on his show can be controversial and conversations can get heated, they have rarely devolved into anything more than disrespectful name-calling by some listeners. However, a few weeks ago, Madison’s life was threatened by someone who called into the show. The FBI was able to track down the caller and said he was a serial “telephonic terrorist” that the agency has had on its watch list. “To be quite candid, I’ve always been very protective of my family, but now I feel that I need to protect their privacy even more,” said Madison.
The Swear/Cuss Jar
When the conversation gets heated on The Joe Madison Show, he says, Sometimes you have to be profane to be profound.” At SiriusXM, there are no filters or censors when it comes to profanity, which he says gives him the freedom to be himself. “Let’s just be honest, some of these people deserve to be cursed out,” he says. But, while he feels swearing is needed from time to time, he didn’t want it to be his modus operandi. So, he put a swear jar on his desk and every time he swears, he puts a dollar in the jar. At the end of the month, he donates the money in the jar to a nonprofit group such as the Red Cross (where he is a longtime board member) or Feeding America. When he interviewed George Wallace, the comedian said in his typically humorous way, “Look Joe, you got to change the name. It’s a ‘cuss jar,’ because Black folks don’t swear. Black people cuss.” That day, the swear jar became the cuss jar.
The cuss jar still sits atop Madison’s desk in his studio. He says that a while back, he suggested to his crew, producers, and tech people that he get rid of it. “I even brought it up on my broadcast, and the overwhelming response was that they didn’t want me to do it. I guess some people are living through my expressions,” he concludes. For example, he says that he gave a speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta about three years ago. “After the program, people were lining up to take selfies, and I had people handing me money for the cuss jar,” he recalls. “This is the truth. I left that auditorium with $400 for the cuss jar.” He added with a chuckle, “A lot of that money came from ministers, who would whisper in my ear, while palming me a 20-dollar bill that they couldn’t publicly swear, but that I could do it for them. So, I became their surrogate.”
Civil Rights Career
While Joe Madison is renowned around the world for his storied career as a legendary talk-show host, that work came after a long stretch working in civil rights. Shortly after he graduated from college, he left Dayton, Ohio, and went to work for Seymour & Lundy. This public relations firm was started by two African American men, Gerald Lundy and Frank Seymour, after the Detroit riots that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. They primarily worked with such corporate clients as the Bank of Detroit and other businesses that hired them to improve communications with the African American community after the riots that had happened several years before.
During that time, the board of directors of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP was looking for a new executive director. Some board members asked Madison if he might be interested in the job. He had been involved in civil rights activities from a young age and during college. He was excited to take the job, and he became the executive director of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP in 1973 when he was 24 years old.
“That position catapulted me into major civil rights activities,” he says. “I gained recognition not only in Detroit but also nationally, because we were in the throes of some major issues, particularly school busing,” he recalls.
Those school busing issues included a landmark Supreme Court case that began in Detroit. In 1970, the Michigan legislature approved a bill to decentralize the Detroit school system. The NAACP, alleging public officials had intentionally segregated the Detroit schools, filed a lawsuit against several public officials, including then-Governor William Milliken, to overturn the statute on behalf of Richard and Ronald Bradley. Federal District Judge Stephen Roth ruled integration was not possible within the city’s boundaries and ordered a new plan to include 53 of the 85 mostly white surrounding school districts. The metropolitan plan set off a series of tense protests. Still, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld Roth’s ruling. The city appealed the ruling.
The United States Supreme Court heard the case in 1974, shortly after Madison had started his new job with the NAACP, and Milliken v. Bradley became a landmark case dealing with the planned desegregation busing of public-school students across district lines. In a controversial 5–4 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the lower courts. It ruled that federal courts “could not impose a multidistrict, area-wide remedy upon local districts in the absence of any evidence those districts committed acts causing racial discrimination.” In particular, the Court held that the school systems were not responsible for desegregation across district lines unless it could be shown that they had each deliberately engaged in a policy of segregation. Madison had to learn the ropes of doing his new job under the glaring national spotlight and intense local scrutiny. But he not only survived, but he also thrived and had a proactive and successful tenure in that position, which he held for eight years.
In 1986, Benjamin Hooks, the Executive Director and CEO of the NAACP, asked Madison to take over as the national NAACP’s political director, filling the position of the former director, who had just retired after 30 years. Madison stayed in that position for almost ten years. He then ran for a seat on the board of directors of the NAACP. He was a member of the board for 14 years.
During his time with the NAACP, both in Detroit and Washington, D.C., Madison met and worked with many people he admired in the civil rights movement and political leadership. “I was very close to [civil rights icon] Rosa Parks, and [civil rights activist] Myrlie Evers-Williams, who is a friend to this day,” he says. Madison also formed relationships with such civil rights leaders as Julian Bond, Joseph Lowery, Vernon Jordan, Jesse Jackson, Sr., and Dorothy Height, as well as every Congressional Black Caucus member and many others. “They were, in many cases, like mentors, but at the same time, I’m working side by side with them to try and impact public policy,” he recalls. “I learned valuable lessons on leadership and gained knowledge about things, like the process of how to get laws passed and so much more.”
The Radio Years
During Madison’s tenure at the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, he was a frequent guest on WXYZ, one of Detroit’s major radio stations at that time. One of their weekend talk personalities, who, he says, held a position that was usually reserved for the sole Black talk show host at the station, was leaving. “The program director asked if I’d be interested in the position. I told him ‘sure,’ and that’s how I got started in talk radio.”
It was a busy and exciting time for Madison, “I would travel during the week, go places, give my speeches, or participate in demonstrations. But I was always back in Detroit on Sunday to do my show. I did that for more than ten years,” he says. As the host of the current affair show and the only African American at that station, he says, he could decide what he would talk about and who his guests would be. In fact, he notes that he has been the only Black person in the lineup through much of his career in talk radio.
After 10 years of doing the weekend show, Madison got an opportunity to have a full-time show at WWDB-FM in Philadelphia, on the midnight to 5:30 a.m. shift. Once again, he was replacing a legendary talk personality who was leaving, and once again, he was the only African American talk show host at the station.
Madison would soon discover that at this station, he had less freedom to pursue the topics and guests he wanted for his show — and that didn’t go well. “I wasn’t there for 90 days before they, in essence, fired me,” he says. The station owner and the program director told him that they were getting calls and letters about some of his show’s discussions. “The reason I was fired was that I was told I couldn’t talk about Black issues, and my response was, ‘The hell with that.’ The next day, I booked Ron Brown, who, at the time, was campaigning to be the chairman of the Democratic National Committee [his win made him the first African American to have that position, and he later became the first African American commerce secretary when he was named to that position by President Bill Clinton]. Then, the next hour, I interviewed Louis Farrakhan [leader of the Nation of Islam].” He continues, “My point is that it shouldn’t be that Ron Brown is okay and Farrakhan’s not. We’re not all alike.”
Madison says that the reason management gave for firing him was that he had created a conflict of interest by continuing to do his weekend show in Detroit. Madison rejects this excuse as ludicrous because, with a distance between the two cities of more than 440 miles, each station’s radio signals cannot reach the other city, and the shows were on completely different days and times.
After about a year, Madison was asked to come to Washington, D.C., to host a mid-morning talk show on WRC-AM. Bev Smith was there when he first arrived, but the African American syndicated talk show host left shortly after he got there. So, he says, he was, once again, the only African American talk show host at the station.
Cathy Hughes, founder and chairperson of Urban One, Inc. (formerly known as Radio One, Inc.), recruited Madison to join WOL-AM, the legendary talk radio station in D.C. WRC had been sold, and he believed they were turning the station into a sports format. So, he was on the market and Hughes asked him to be the program director and an on-air WOL personality.
Around that time, XM Satellite Radio (XM) partnered with Radio One for several channels and shows. He recalls that Radio One had four or five music channels that they contracted with XM. They also contracted the talk format, including WOL AM Talk, which is how he says he ended up in a hybrid relationship between Radio One and XM Radio.
Madison says that going from local radio to national radio was a vastly different kind of experience. “WOL was a local station, so we had local guests, and a lot of the information we discussed was driven by events in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “Now, with the satellite show, I was dealing with national and sometimes global issues, and I had to broaden my pool of guests. That changed things dramatically. Sometimes when I was broadcasting on XM, my regular WOL callers would call into the national show and want to talk about local issues and people. But someone living in San Diego doesn’t care about Miss Cherry in Southeast D.C. It was a hard situation to learn to balance.”
“I enjoyed doing my shows with no filters, though,” he continues. “With AM, because of the rules of broadcasting, you couldn’t swear at all,” he continues. “Oh my goodness — every time I would swear and my words were bleeped out, people would call Ms. Hughes and say, ‘Oh, Ms. Hughes, Joe Madison said “damn” on the radio,’ and so there was this conflict that often existed.” Eventually, the president of XM asked Madison to be full-time on the network. “That’s how I eventually ended up on [what’s now called] the SiriusXM Urban View Channel.”
Becoming the Black Eagle
Joe Madison is known to his worldwide audience as the Black Eagle. The story of how he got that nomenclature is probably not what you think. When Madison was at WRC in D.C., his show followed a program hosted by Oliver North, the political commentator, author, and retired United States Marine Corps lieutenant colonel best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the late ’80s. “One day, all the talent and the programmers were in a meeting with a talk radio consultant who was bragging about Oliver North, and how he was the [“Star Trek” character] Captain Kirk of this operation, [like Kirk’s fictional starship] the Enterprise, and he was the reason we were doing well.”
Madison challenged the consultant. “I asked him about the rest of us and our contributions and he just ignored me. I left that meeting thinking that if North was Captain Kirk, I would be the Black Eagle. I’m in the nation’s capital, the eagle is the nation’s bird, and I’m Black,” Madison recalls. “I was with [comedian and political activist] Dick Gregory, and I told him that I was going to create a handle called the Black Eagle, but I’d never heard of a black eagle.” He says Gregory teased him, retorting, “Well, I guess we’re going to start hearing about it now.”
It turns out there is a species called the black eagle. It is a large and distinctive dark eagle. It appears to be all dark from a distance, but closer inspection reveals pale barring on the primaries, secondaries, and undertail, as well as a bright yellow bill and feet. Black eagles have broad wings spans so they can soar, distinct “fingers” on the tips, and a long tail that is fan-shaped when open and slightly wedge-shaped when closed. It is a unique blackbird with surprising and advanced features that can soar; it turns out that the name was a better fit than Madison knew at first.
When he started to use this handle, he says the initial reaction was one of pure racism. People would say things like, “There is no such thing as a black eagle” or “If you’re the Black Eagle, I’m the White Dove.” Madison says, “The initial reaction from many of the white listeners was visceral, but you know what? It stuck.”
Throughout his career, Madison has interviewed some of the most notable people in politics, activism, government, nonprofits, journalism, academia, business, and entertainment. It is difficult for him to pick his best or favorite interviews, but one stands out for him.
“Well, of course, President Obama in the White House when he was in his first term,” he says. “His people called and asked me if I would be willing to interview President Obama. And he wanted the interview in the White House.” It was a special moment for Madison. He also says that taking his show to Cuba and South Sudan during the country’s Civil War was an incredible and memorable experience.
“We’ve been fortunate that we can pretty much get the top newsmakers on our show, including recent interviews with Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Cory Booker.” But he doesn’t take full credit for the success of his show. “It’s my audience,” he says. “I don’t say this with any false humility. The audience is important — that’s who my guests want to reach.”
Madison believes that as an African American, the most important thing he has brought to the primarily white talk spaces in which he has worked has been perspective. “All our perspectives are based on our experience,” he says. “That’s what I have brought to the platform. For example, in every station except [the Black-owned and operated] Radio One, no one had the same experiences that I’ve had, so they didn’t have the perspective that I have,” he says. I also bring my professional experience. I was in the civil rights movement. I worked for the NAACP. So I have been able to introduce my colleagues and various listeners to a segment of the community that most of them knew little to nothing about,” he added. “Even though the stations were white, my audiences have always been [racially] mixed. There are a lot of misconceptions about who and what we are. People are culturally conditioned to undervalue the Black community, and I want to change that.”
Madison is a native of Dayton, Ohio, who was primarily raised by his grandparents, Joseph and Betty Stone, though he knew his parents — at least he thought he did. Last year, he was featured on Professor Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots, and, he says, it was full of surprises.
“One of the things Professor Gates found out, which is one of the shockers in the episode, was that my father, Felix Madison, was not my biological father. I also discovered that I have two half-brothers. I grew up with one of them in the neighborhood. We went to the same elementary school and the same high school, but we didn’t know each other.” Madison had one sister, Yvonne Madison, who is deceased.
Madison says his grandparents were hard-working people. “My grandmother was a housekeeper, and my grandfather hauled trash. A lot of people don’t know this, but I would spend my summers working with him in a landfill.”
He adds, “I grew up surrounded by caring people, and plenty of role models that I could look up to and who saw something in me and would constantly encourage me to be the best. That was the one thing I always remember about growing up, ‘Be the best,’ and that’s what I strive to be, no matter what I am doing.”
In the mid-1960s, Madison attended The University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, where he was captain of his undefeated freshman football team. As a student leader, he became involved in the civil rights movement. His coach, who disapproved of Madison’s campus activism, removed him from the team.
Eventually, Mr. Madison received a welcoming call from the athletic director at Washington University, a top-rated private research university in St Louis, M.O., who offered him a spot on their football team. Madison was a sociology major, an all-conference running back on the football team, a baritone soloist in the university choir, and a disc jockey at the campus radio station. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1971, the first in his family to do so.
Madison has continued to support his alma mater, giving generous support to scholarships, athletics, and the Gephart Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. In 2019, Madison received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Washington University.
Madison and his wife, Sharon, have been married 42 years, and she is the executive producer of his radio program. They have four adult children — three daughters and one son, and three granddaughters, and one grandson.
What’s Next for Black Talk Radio
Madison is concerned that Black talk radio has diminished. “There aren’t enough voices,” he says. He believes this has a lot to do with ownership. “We need more ownership; it is key. There’s no question about that,” he says. “Mainstream America has always understood the power of communication, of media. The medium of radio is vital, especially to the Black community.” He likes podcasts because “they get a variety of voices out there, but they are not a replacement for talk radio,” he admonishes.
“Right now, I feel blessed to be able to be part of SiriusXM Urban View, the largest broadcast entity on the planet. I think our channel has a lineup of some of the smartest people in that organization. They’re all very different, and they reflect the diversity of our community. It comes back to what we are being offered on radio stations,” he says. “When you look at a lineup, remember that it is often based on who the programmers and the owners are.”
Madison says he once got some sage advice from the Queen of Soul about staying focused and succeeding. Aretha Franklin, who had become a good friend to him, was a big fan of his show. “We used to talk a lot about broadcasting, politics, and a lot of gossip. I’d always ask her advice about success. She gave me some advice that I will remember for the rest of my life and that I have incorporated in my work as a talk show host. She said: ‘One, you want to be authentic, be yourself. Two, you want to be original. There is no one like you. Then three, you want to be daring. All three are very important. Be authentic, original, and daring. Do what no one else does.’
To view the video playlist of Joe Madison, Karen Hunter, and Tanya Hart radio interviews, click here.
Christy DeBoe Hicks is a communications consultant, writer, and editor with more than 30 years of experience working with policy, nonprofit, education, and community organizations, as well as in the music, theater, and publishing fields. After a hiatus, she has returned as a regular contributor to Global Communicator.