Exclusive interview with broadcaster and activist known as “The Black Eagle”
By Mike Goodman
On Nov. 8, Southwest resident Joe Madison will be inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame at a ceremony in New York City. The honor comes in recognition of a distinguished career in which Madison has been a trailblazer, broken records, and made history, and his show, “The Black Eagle,” continues on SiriusXM radio, channel 126, at 6 a.m. every weekday. “The Southwester” sat down with Madison and his wife and Executive Producer, Sharon Madison, to ask him about their community, their radio show, and what this honor means to them.
How long have you lived in Southwest?
We just completed our third year here in Southwest. We actually purchased our condo before it was built – before it was finished – because we saw all the development here. This is where we really wanted to settle… But I’ve been familiar with Southwest for years – even before I was with SiriusXM, I was the Political Director for SEIU. We lived in Detroit, and we commuted from Detroit to Washington. I really like the diversity in Southwest – it is one of the most diverse communities we’ve lived in, in terms of culture, economics, race, age. That’s what I really enjoy – I’ve never lived in a community as diverse as this. I mean in Southeast it was predominantly African-American and with new development. And we lived in Gaithersburg, and there wasn’t that much diversity, and everyone was pretty much at the same economic level. And we lived in Chinatown, but I don’t need to tell you about Chinatown!… But then when we saw the new development here, we said ‘this is it.’
You’re someone who specializes in thinking about societal change and communicating about that. What has struck you about changes in DC?
Well, it’s a whole different city from when I first moved here. Gentrification has clearly taken over. But, you know, change is inevitable. Some people have certain negative feelings about gentrification. But when it comes to Southwest, I refer to it as a metamorphosis. You know, rather than using the term gentrification. And you hope that the change is positive and inclusive, so that you give people an opportunity to stay here too… I just hope that this new housing that they’re talking about is more horizontal than it is vertical. The great thing about Southwest is really it’s developed horizontally. When you have high-rises, you lose connection. I studied urban studies when I was in school. And used to study high-rise, low-income housing. And you don’t know who’s above you, who’s below you, and sometimes you don’t even know who’s next door to you. And I just hope that it’s horizontal, and I think that helps to maintain a sense of community, and that’s the sense I get with Southwest.
There’s been, obviously major change. I used to come here when it was the Channel Inn. And we used to refer to the Channel Inn, and I say this with affection, we used to refer to it as Jurassic Park, because that’s where all the old-timers went. And one thing I really miss – you don’t know anything about rum buns do you? Hogate’s. There was a restaurant here named Hogate’s – very popular – and they sold these beautiful buns, drenched in rum, and they called them rum buns. And people from all over DC would come to Southwest for rum buns. That’s the thing I miss. And that’s really a metaphor, with all the changes, but I think the Mayor is right in trying to put as much affordable housing as possible in the city.
It’s a big honor to be inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. How does that make you feel?
Oh it’s a major honor. In my category – spoken word – there are probably over 3,000 broadcasters in talk radio. And you can add now, podcasters. What I’m going to tell people is that I’m really standing on the shoulders of a lot of folks. People like Donnie Simpson, Petey Greene, Martha Jean “The Queen,” Butterball Jr. These are – particularly African-American broadcasters – that have been marginalized and often ignored. And I really stand on their shoulders. Mary Mason in Philadelphia. Bob Law in New York. And they need to be in the Hall of Fame, too. I think I’m correct here, as I was told, that there are only 11 African-Americans in the Radio Hall of Fame. So when you think about those individuals who should be recognized and included in the corridors of the Hall of Fame, you then also have to take into consideration Lowell Thomas, Bob Hope. You know these are major radio personalities. Some people have probably forgotten. There’s also Howard Stern, and more contemporary people. It’s a big deal.
Aside from this honor, what are some of the things that you are most proud of related to the radio show?
In the Guinness Book of World Records, we did 52 hours straight, and broke the spoken word record, and raised over $200,000 for the Smithsonian African-American Museum. We did the first radio broadcast in Cuba, since the Cuban Missile Crisis… It was around 2010, and we – when I say we, you have to remember that Sherry was with me the entire way.
We also went to Southern Sudan, and freed over 7,000 slaves that were taken during the Civil War between Sudan and Southern Sudan, and were very much a part of Southern Sudan becoming the newest country. We raised money across the country to buy slaves who were taken during the Civil War in Southern Sudan…that was 1996 or 1998, around then. We were asked by a religious organization out of Zurich to go to then-Southern Sudan – we did our show, and communicated what was going on, and began to raise money. I remember a goat actually cost more than a woman.
We also took our show on the road during Katrina, and brought attention to what was happening there. We trekked from Mobile, Alabama all the way to Houston to show what was happening. Oh, and we took our show to Haiti after the earthquake. So those are the things that stand out.
What inspired you to get into social justice, social activism, early on? Was there a particular person or moment in time?
I think my answer would be, it’s just [in] my DNA. I’m part of that Emmett Till generation. I’m part of that Little Rock Nine generation. I’m part of that 60s, 70s civil rights generation, and my activism probably started in college. You know, people that I have met – the Julian Bonds. Dick Gregory and I spent a lot of time together in jail. We protested a lot together. A lot of people who lived in Southwest. You know that’s what I said – I was exposed to Southwest long before I moved here. Dorothy Height lived in Southwest. Roger Wilkins, who was at the Justice Department; Members of the Congressional Black Caucus – we would have meetings, and these are vocal people, a part of my circle. And I worked for [the] NAACP as their political director for 10 years, and was on their board for over 14 years. Benjamin Hooks was a mentor. It’s just in my DNA.
So do you think radio can change society?
It does. Not can, it does. It clearly does. When countries go through transformation, usually the first thing they take over is the radio stations. During the 30s – Hitler – German radio was very effective, more than his movies, now television wasn’t invented, but everyone had a radio – it reached far more people than that. Absolutely, no ifs, ands, buts. Which is why you now see people going into the podcast business. Because everybody can have a podcast. Spoken word is extremely powerful. Yes, radio is extremely powerful.
So what’s next for you?
I’m just getting warmed up. But right now we’re focused on pushing public policy and voting. I just created a company that we call clothing with a conscience. We just created a t-shirt – on the front is one of my iconic sayings – what are you going to do about it? When anybody calls the show, I always ask the question after all the talk – what are you going to do about it? Not what is society going to do about it. What are you going to do? Because everybody can do something. So I put that on the front of the t-shirt, and on the back it says “Vote 2020.” We just started last week – on Oct. 9 – and we’ve sold over 1,000 t-shirts. So we’re just starting. The company is called “Make U.S. Better 2020,” and we refer to it as clothing with a social conscience.
But you know, our show is hot. I mean just today, Kamala Harris called. Last week, Elizabeth Warren came on. We had President Obama when he was President of the United States, his people called and said, “Would you like to interview the President of the United States?” And, of course, so I asked when he would like to call in? And they said, “No, you should come to the Oval Office and interview him.” I said, well this is radio – this is not TV, this is radio. “Yeah we know,” they said. So we were invited to the Oval Office and interviewed Barack Obama. They said we had 10 minutes, and it turned out to be a half an hour interview. I think it reflects the respect he had for the audience of the show.
How many listeners do you have on average?
It is one of the best kept secrets at Sirius. And I will tell you, we have been told, that at any given time it could be 6 to 9 million. And that is purely unofficial, but that’s what we have been told by management.
Any other thoughts that the Southwest community should be sure to hear?
It’s a great community. I will tell you this – this is a community where I decompress. It’s where I live. You will find me sitting on a bench along the Anacostia Trail, smoking my pipe, taking phone calls, prepping for the show the next morning, cause 3:30 comes awfully early, and people watching and dog watching. It’s where I chill out – Southwest is my place to chill out…
We really enjoy it here. When we really want to impress people, we go to Del Mar. And when we have family and friends, it’s Kith and Kin. And family-wise, Hank’s. Yes, where we usually hang out is Hank’s, but you know what? I still miss those rum buns.