Above: Harlon Joye with some of the poster boards that he uses in lieu of scrapbooks and his extensive record collection. Photos by Mark Woolsey.
Who’s the longest-running radio broadcaster in Atlanta?
Is it that morning gentlemen on WSB who weaves together news, weather traffic reports and commentary? Nope, it’s not Scott Slade. Perhaps the affable fellow named after a car who spins tunes on country WKHS? No, not Cadillac Jack. Guess again.
The Award for Longest-Standing Radio Host in a Turbulent Media Market apparently goes to — envelope please — 85-year-old Harlon Joye. He’s one of the co-founders of WRFG radio, the scrappy, nonprofit source of a wide variety of music and progressive (yes, liberal) information since 1973.
Music and commentary
Holding forth on his “Fox’s Minstrel Show” — a fixture since the station’s inception — Joye plays a wide a variety of folk, rock, blues and Americana tunes from his collection of thousands of albums and CDs, combining them into sets with political and societal themes and interspersing the music with sometimes pungent commentary.
What’s it like to be the dean of Atlanta radio types?
“Tiring,” he chuckled. “Seriously though, it’s not that big a deal.” But it IS a big deal to his audience of progressives. They may not show up with huge ratings numbers, but they ARE passionate.
A recent Sunday night following the end of the partial government shutdown found him commenting on President Trump’s remarks on the month-long wrangle, interspersing them with such musical offerings as “Sure dug myself in a hole, and I gotta get out.”
Joye is unapologetic about his socialist perch on Atlanta airwaves.
“The real thing is to look how important Fox News has become, on politics and people’s way of thinking. There’s nothing on the left like that. People had no voice and no way to get a voice.”
A Southern background
Joye is a true son of the South, minus the Stars and Bars and acceptance of the region’s historical status quo. His life story could be summed up as “keep learning and question everything.”
Raised in Orangeburg, S. C., Joye absorbed powerful lessons about racial and economic injustice and began wondering how the script could be rewritten. A stint at then-all-male and all-military Clemson University followed. “I read Thomas Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’ and started questioning religion — and that didn’t go over well,” he recalled, particularly with upperclassmen who meted out discipline.
He next headed north to the University of Michigan to study forestry, landing in student co-op housing.
“They were unlike anything else on campus. They were independent and not fraternities and sororities,” he said. “They got all the people who were weird — and political. And remember, this was during the McCarthy era.”
Reading, debating and rubbing shoulders with young Communists, socialists and other social justice rabble-rousers, he emerged as a full-fledged ‘lefty.’ Over time, he said, that put him on the radar of everybody from prominent black civil rights activists to the FBI and the Atlanta Police Department.
Finding the way to radio
In addition to politics, music was a fixation. “Every time my wife and I would travel somewhere,” he said, “we would hit used record shops.” Those predilections stood him in good stead after he relocated from New York to Atlanta in 1966.
“There was no worthwhile radio station in Atlanta at the time,” he said flatly. Joye helped pull together WRFG’s founders, served as the first station manager, and set the tone for the frequency’s progressive news and eclectic music mix. Not content to merely spin tunes, he took the lead in such projects as producing “Living Atlanta,” an award-winning series of documentaries on life in Atlanta between the two world wars.
It was perhaps foreordained: WRFG soon came under the microscope of the Subversive Control Unit of the Atlanta Police Department, which was convinced that the Little Five Points-based operation was full of “Communists, dope smokers, homosexuals, Weatherman and Black Panthers” in the words of a 1993 station-produced lookback.
An activist in the past…
Joye said the cops convinced a local TV station to scrub a partnership with WRFG that would have allowed a power increase and he claims his home was ransacked at about the same time. WRFG persevered, he added, and won in the courts against the TV station.
The veteran activist contends he landed on federal Communist and socialist watch lists for throwing in with two youth civil rights marches on Washington in the late 1950s, as well as the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. That era found Joye working alongside a veritable Who’s Who of civil rights and labor crusaders: Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson.
Hailing from New York at the time of the 1963 Washington gathering, Joye was tasked with marshaling attendance from the Lower East Side.
“We had 20 busloads of people lined up, when we were red-baited in a speech by [U.S. Sen. Kenneth] Keating and the bus service canceled on us. So we rented a train,” he recalled, chuckling. He says it’s not true that he was in charge of the port-a-potties, as his granddaughter jokingly claims.
Joye was on the National Mall for everything from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez’s pre-rally sound-checks to Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” call to action.
Interestingly, said Joye, “The speech didn’t impress us that much at the time.”
Jobs such as a stint with the radical Students for a Democratic Society DID make a substantial impression across his native Dixie. Joye found his name appearing frequently in the papers — including the hometown journal he’d thrown onto front porches as a kid.
As a result, he said, “I had a sister who didn’t speak to me for several years.”
Labor organizing took center stage in later years; the civil rights veteran worked for more than 30 years with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Atlanta Labor Council, going to bat for such groups as workers constructing the 1996 Olympics venues.
…and into the future
Retired the last couple of years, Joye continues to hold forth on the Sunday night airwaves and waxes hopeful about what he thinks is a resurgence of progressivism. Joye thinks such trends as increasing income inequality and the near-monopolization of some business sectors are forcing action, as is the growing realization of climate change. He hopes millennials will hoist the banner and carry it forward, much as he’s done for decades.
“There’s more acceptance of the concept of socialism than there’s been in the last 50 years,” he said.