Joe Madison, a civil rights activist who found his voice as an influential talk radio host known as the Black Eagle and whose decades on the air often pushed listeners to action with his tagline: “What are you going to do about it?,” died Jan. 31 at his home in Washington. He was 74.
Mr. Madison had prostate cancer, said his daughter, Monesha Lever.
During an era when mainstream talk radio became increasingly dominated by conservative views, Mr. Madison pushed hard in the other direction since the 1980s. He worked the microphones at Black-oriented stations including Washington’s WOL — and later exclusively on satellite radio — with a passion he said was instilled as a young NAACP leader in Detroit.
“I’m in the media, but I’m not a journalist,” he once said. “I’m an advocate and activist who has a talk show.”
His audiences gravitated to his uncompromising style, relished his biting retorts and cheered on his personal crusades such as hunger strikes to protest Republican-led attempts to block federal voting rights legislation. When the bills died in the Senate, he called off the fast in late January 2022. His weight had dropped from 194 pounds to below 165. He also learned his cancer, once in remission, had returned and spread.
He often called his work “staying on the battlefield.” His radio studio, he said, was his way of honoring the lunch counter protests in the South during the civil rights movement or the bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., that Rosa Parks refused to give up for a White passenger in 1955. This was a powerful niche Mr. Madison carved out, said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, which covers talk radio and similar formats.
Mr. Madison didn’t have the classic baritone or silky cadence of classic radio voices. He called his voice earthy. What he did manage, said Harrison, was fusing activism and talk radio in ways that few have achieved with a mainly Black audience. “He transcended the format of talk radio,” Harrison said. “He rose to the level in which he could rightly be called a thought leader.”
Many of Mr. Madison’s causes were part of the wider spotlight: raising alarms about gentrification in traditional minority neighborhoods; probing police shootings involving Black suspects; and opposing Sudan’s battles against separatists in what became the new nation of South Sudan in 2011.
In 2001, Mr. Madison was among those arrested after handcuffing themselves to the front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington. On the Washington political scene, he lent powerful support to Marion Barry as the former mayor made a political comeback after serving six months in federal prison in the early 1990s on a drug conviction.
After he moved to a slot on the Urban View program on satellite broadcaster SiriusXM in 2008 — under a syndication deal with Washington’s WOL — Mr. Madison had an international stage. He used his bigger reach to full effect. Former president Barack Obama told Mr. Madison’s listeners in December 2020 that he would take a coronavirus vaccine, challenging those skeptical of vaccines in the Black community.
During a 2018 interview with Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former reality TV show contestant and White House adviser to then-President Donald Trump, she was asked by Mr. Madison if Trump “ever hit on you.”
“Uh, Donald Trump hits on all women,” she replied.
“Yeah, well, you are a woman,” he said. “Has Donald Trump ever hit on you?”
“Yes,” she acknowledged, “I’m included in that number of women who Donald Trump has said inappropriate things, has looked at inappropriately.”
Another time in 2016, a caller who identified himself as “Mike from Michigan” used racial slurs against Mr. Madison in defense of Trump. Mr. Madison methodically eviscerated “Mike” and turned the caller’s comments into an impromptu promo on his show to lambaste Trump supporters.
Mr. Madison could also drift at times into the shadow worlds of conspiracies. For years, he pushed discredited assertions that the CIA helped introduce crack cocaine in Black communities in the 1980s as part of efforts to secretly fund Nicaraguan rebels. Mr. Madison remained committed to the theory even as evidence piled up against it, including the San Jose Mercury News saying that stories cited as first raising the alleged CIA links did not make such direct allegations.
Nonetheless, Mr. Madison said the allegations, true or not, raised important questions about issues of hopelessness and poverty in Black communities that deserve greater attention from political leaders.
“I always have seen myself as a person who recognizes that one person can make a difference,” he told The Washington Post in 2013. “I always tell my audience: ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
Joseph Edward Madison was born in Dayton, Ohio, on June 16, 1949. His mother was a community activist. He and his younger sister were raised by his grandparents after his parents “abandoned” them when he was around 2 years old, he wrote in his 2021 memoir, “Radio Active.”
The PBS show “Finding Your Roots” used DNA analysis in 2020 and discovered that the man he believed was his father was not biologically related to him, leading Mr. Madison to learn he had four half-siblings. The DNA tests also revealed that one of Mr. Madison’s great-great-grandfathers was a White man from South Carolina who fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War.
Mr. Madison was a standout running back on the football team at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also was a disc jockey on the campus radio station. He graduated in 1971 and was the first person in his family to receive a college degree, he wrote.
He became the leader of Detroit’s NAACP chapter at 24 and later did his first radio gig on the city’s WCHB discussing NAACP affairs. He moved to Detroit’s WXYZ in 1980 and then onto WWDM in Philadelphia before landing in the early 1990s at Washington’s WRC, which changed its format from talk to financial news in 1998.
That led Mr. Madison to move across town to WOL, where he hosted the afternoon drive show and served as program director. In addition to the Black Eagle — a name he adopted at WRC when a consultant started calling another host, retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, “Captain Kirk” — Mr. Madison took another self-appointed title at WOL, the Judge. When a caller strayed off topic or delved into opinions, the Judge might just cut the line.
“If a caller calls in with misinformation and deliberately says something, people won’t remember the caller, but they will remember they heard it on the Madison show,” he told The Post in 2013 after he left WOL and was exclusively on SiriusXM.
His program became a frequent stop for political leaders seeking to reach a primarily Black audience, including Vice President Harris, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Mr. Madison was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2019 and was broadcast on SiriusXM in 2015 for 52 consecutive hours to raise money for Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened the following year.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, the former Sharon Moore; three daughters, Monesha Madison Lever, Shawna Collins and Michelle Borleske; a son, Jason Madison; four half-siblings; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Mr. Madison once described the essence of activism as a mutual support system — the more you talk and encourage others, the more they encourage you.
“It’s like throwing a rock in a still lake,” he told The Post. “The ripples get wider as it goes out.”