Ten weeks ago, popular radio personality Tom Joyner and BET host Tavis Smiley began a national campaign against CompUSA, charging that the computer seller failed to sufficiently advertise to black consumers.
Yesterday the pair won a victory, albeit a messy one.
James Halpin, CompUSA's chief executive, appeared on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," offering discounts to black customers and promising to hire a black-owned advertising agency.
The accord was the result of a two-hour meeting Saturday in Dallas--headquarters for both CompUSA and Joyner's show--of Halpin, Joyner, Smiley and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who was asked to attend as a mediator.
Over the past year, Joyner, whose show is syndicated by ABC Radio Networks and heard by 7 million listeners a day, and Smiley, who does regular commentary on Joyner's show, have hammered away at corporations that, they say, have not adequately marketed to African Americans. Recently the Federal Communications Commission issued a report showing that black and Hispanic radio stations routinely receive fewer advertising dollars than stations that are white-owned or that appeal to white listeners.
Joyner, heard locally on black adult-contemporary radio station WHUR-FM (96.3), and Smiley, who hosts "BET Tonight" on cable's Black Entertainment Television, swung into action. They interviewed advertisers and created a list of companies to target. CompUSA, the largest U.S. computer retailer, "kept popping up," said Smiley in an interview yesterday.
Then the war was on.
Joyner and Smiley began the campaign by telling the show's predominantly black audience that they should mail in their CompUSA receipts as evidence that black consumers shop at CompUSA and so deserve to have advertising dollars directed at them. Smiley said that five boxes large enough to hold big TVs were filled with receipts and shipped to CompUSA.
CompUSA stayed silent.
Early in the campaign, while Smiley was on vacation, a letter was faxed to Joyner on CompUSA letterhead, bearing the signature of an employee purported to be a company executive. The letter was inflammatory and "racist," Smiley said.
Joyner read the letter on the air without verifying it. Still nothing from the company.
After Smiley returned from vacation, he and Joyner were informed by CompUSA's advertising agency that the letter was a hoax and that they had been duped. Through ABC, CompUSA asked for and received an on-air apology from Joyner and Smiley, Halpin said yesterday.
Also during the campaign, Joyner and Smiley asserted that CompUSA had only white board members, a mistake they later corrected on the air.
Matters speeded toward a conclusion last Wednesday after another Smiley commentary against CompUSA.
Smiley and Joyner say Smiley got a call Wednesday night from Joyner, who said ABC was threatening to pull the plug on the next day's show if the pair continued to address the CompUSA issue. Joyner said ABC told him CompUSA had threatened a lawsuit. Smiley said ABC also called Joyner's engineer to ask if there was a Tom Joyner greatest-hits tape available if Thursday's show needed to be pulled.
"We asked Tom not to talk about CompUSA for one day so that we could assess what was said on the air and review the situation with Tom," said ABC spokesperson Michelle Bleiberg yesterday. "Our only concern was that what was being said on air was factual."
Smiley upped the ante.
"This was high noon, baby," Smiley said yesterday. "This was the moment of truth."
Instead of railing against CompUSA, Smiley turned on ABC, telling listeners that the network had threatened to shut down the show for, as he saw it, exercising his right to free speech. ABC would not comment on whether it told Joyner that CompUSA threatened a suit, which Halpin denied yesterday.
After Smiley's commentary, the phone lines went crazy. ABC in Dallas received hundreds of angry phone calls and e-mails, blasting the network and CompUSA for, the callers said, being the potential cause for the removal of their favorite host from the air.
CompUSA contacted Joyner, and a Saturday meeting was set in Dallas. After two hours in the law offices of Mayor Kirk, an agreement was hammered out to bring Halpin on Joyner's show. Yesterday morning at 8:15, Halpin was introduced and bantered in a friendly fashion with Joyner and Smiley, saying they had called him names he'd never heard, such as "ebonically challenged."
"Don't take it personally," Joyner said. "Most people of your persuasion are."
Halpin said he believed CompUSA had not advertised enough in black-oriented media--such as radio stations like WHUR--and blamed the oversight on CompUSA's financial troubles.
"We had a tough year last year," Halpin said. "I spent a lot of time with bankers. Quite frankly, did I look at what our advertising was? No."
Halpin said the issue is "not about black and white, but green," meaning money. "I like the color green. I need some color green."
Anyone who sent a receipt to CompUSA will get a 10 percent discount on his or her next purchase, Halpin said yesterday. He did not say how the consumers would be contacted. But Halpin is scheduled to reappear on the Joyner show in three months to update the audience on his company's progress, Smiley said yesterday.
Joyner and Smiley were asked whether the campaign's errors and misinformation hurt their credibility with listeners.
"We made mistakes; we owned up to them," Joyner said. "And mistakes didn't override what the real issue was," meaning the paucity of advertising dollars targeted at minorities.
"These mistakes were made because CompUSA refused to talk," Joyner added. "Had they sat down with us, none of these things would have happened."
"I am not one who believes that the ends always justify the means, but in this case I think the verdict is in," Smiley said. "There is no hung jury. It is quite clear and quite obvious that we were on the right all along. It is possible to be on the side of right and to make an error in the process."
Halpin was amicable in an interview yesterday.
"The errors they made were honest errors as opposed to malicious errors," he said. "I should have met with them earlier; we could have saved six weeks." Asked why he didn't contact the Joyner show immediately, Halpin said he and his company were trying to figure out what to do.
At the end of the 15-minute segment with Halpin yesterday, Joyner announced that he, Smiley and Halpin were shaking hands.
"CompUSA is a good company now," Joyner said.
CAPTION: Host Tom Joyner pressured CompUSA to advertise in black-oriented media.