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Byron Allen on the future of Black-owned media

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Lately, it seems like a lot of Black celebrities are getting involved in media ownership - actress and TV producer Issa Rae...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ISSA RAE: Hey, I'm Issa Rae, and you may know me from my web series "The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl" or my TV show, "Insecure." And I am the CEO of Hoorae.

DEGGANS: ...Charlamagne tha God, host of "The Breakfast Club"...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: What if there was a network where a lot of my favorite Black voices could be heard? That would be something, right? Not just one show that moves culture, but a network. Well, I am proud to announce the Black Effect podcast network. Drop one of Clue's (ph) bombs for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMB EXPLODING)

DEGGANS: ...Rapper and record company executive Diddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIDDY: Today is a very, very big day. I'm here to announce my new cable network, Revolt. I'd first like to say thank you to Comcast and NBC for recognizing the importance of minority ownership in cable television.

CHERYL THOMPSON-MORTON: I think it speaks to something that people who have been studying the space of Black media have understood for a while, but ownership matters.

DEGGANS: Cheryl Thompson-Morton is the director of the Black Media Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York.

THOMPSON-MORTON: There's one thing to have an outlet that is focused on the community, but it's another thing to have the decisions all the way at the top be informed by people from the community.

DEGGANS: She says to understand the importance of Black ownership of media now, we need only look at how Black newspapers and radio stations many years ago humanized and contextualized Black life and Black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON-MORTON: In looking at Black American life, the Black press has been the second most important institution in Black life historically after, of course, Black religious institutions. And that is because Black press held power to account. Black press was where we also got to see that our communities were born and died and, you know, had normal life events just like any other community that were often left off the pages of mainstream or white-dominated outlets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON-MORTON: And so my team recently aimed to do a study that looked to see, what is the role that Black media plays in today's society? And we saw that even in this period, that Black media really talked about topics of importance to Black communities more often, that they humanized subjects more often and that they connected current news events to the historical fight for justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: While there's buzz about recent media moves by Black celebrities, the vast majority of radio and television broadcast stations - 93% - are still owned by white people. That's according to a recent FCC report on diversity in media ownership based on data from 2021. Even BET, formerly known as Black Entertainment Television, one of the first major cable networks founded and operated by Black people, has not been owned by Black people for over 20 years.

But earlier this year, when owner Paramount Global hinted the company might sell BET, several well-known African American entrepreneurs expressed interest in buying it. That roster includes Diddy, Tyler Perry, and comic-turned-media-mogul Byron Allen. Allen has acquired a variety of broadcast and online outlets for the past few years. Some of them, like the Black News Channel, are targeted towards Black people, but others, like The Weather Channel, are not.

BYRON ALLEN: In building my company, it was real simple. I'm building one of the world's largest media companies, if not the world's largest media company, and I happen to be Black.

DEGGANS: Byron Allen is the founder and CEO of Allen Media Group. He says his company represents 90% of Black-owned media. He's been very vocal about the importance of Black owners in media, but one obstacle he's identified is a lack of business from some big advertisers. He says it's a problem he's been fighting for years.

ALLEN: So what I said to white corporate America, who conveniently excluded Black-owned media, I said we represent approximately 14% of the population. We should be 15% of your ad budget. The extra one or two points is for the 150 years you did not do business with us.

DEGGANS: And trying to get advertising dollars for Black-owned media spaces isn't just a battle Allen fights at corporate negotiating tables. When I talked to Allen, he told me about his ongoing fight with McDonald's to hold them to account for their promises about advertising with Black-owned media.

ALLEN: So, listen, you know, let's talk about McDonald's. McDonald's takes in about a hundred billion a year out of 39,000 stores, and a lot of it is out of the Black community. McDonald's is spending approximately, we believe, a billion dollars a year in advertising - a billion. And Black-owned media, when I filed the lawsuit, was getting less than $5 million when we believe they're pulling about 40 billion in sales out of the Black community. So I filed a $10 billion lawsuit against them using the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Section 1881.

And in the Civil Rights Act, it is stated - which was put on the books - as the first Civil Rights Act in this country to protect Black people in this country. We would have economic inclusion in contracting, commercial and government. And I used this lawsuit, and it has not been dismissed. That's a big deal. That's huge. That's historic. And I believe that it was - it's not only historic, it was absolutely necessary because it gives us transparency.

DEGGANS: So now, to be fair, I do want to mention that when your latest lawsuit was filed, McDonald's released a statement and they said in part, quote, "Byron Allen files baseless lawsuits as part of a public smear campaign against our company to try to line his pockets. We will not be coerced by these tactics and will defend ourselves vigorously."

So I just want to ask you, what's your response to McDonald's and other critics who might say you're just trying to pressure this company with bad publicity into buying more advertising from your platforms?

ALLEN: Great question, and thank you for asking me that question. Their opinion of me doesn't matter. I don't expect you to have a good opinion of me because I'm holding you accountable. The reason they put that statement out was because of the second lawsuit. And in the second lawsuit, we used the California Civil Code of 1711 that basically says if you make a pledge, you have to live up to it. Now, there's a great article in The Washington Post where they talk about, in the Black Lives Matter movement, that white corporate America pledged over $50 billion to Black America and has lived up to less than 1 billion of it. So in the second lawsuit, all I said was you pledged to spend 2% of your budget - your ad budget with Black-owned media, and you have not lived up to it.

DEGGANS: So I also want to ask you - you went on Bloomberg, and you talked about the possibility that you might buy Tegna, which is a company that manages 64 TV stations across the country. What's the strategy in your interest in this company? How likely is it that you might make a play to buy it, and how would Tegna sort of add to the media company and the platforms that you already own?

ALLEN: Tegna is a phenomenal company. It's the largest portfolio of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates around the country. They do extremely well in local news, and local news is very important to me. This is an asset that we're very interested in. We're in that space. It is a phenomenal category for us to be in. We love and appreciate local news. It matters, and we are very focused on being No. 1 in the news space.

DEGGANS: Now, what's interesting to me - you own lots of non-, you know, Black-focused media platforms. How do you make sure that the companies that you own are fair and free from racism and prejudice? And in particular, if you're going to buy a bunch of Tegna stations, will you be able to ensure that their local news coverage, for example, is free from these problems?

ALLEN: Absolutely. I mean, that goes without saying. Most people who deal with me know who I am. I'm very clear. I'm very loud. I'm very proud. And they know that I take action, and I take immediate action when I see something that I believe is not right. There was a young kid - young Black kid - who was murdered. He was playing his music in the parking lot, and a white guy had checked into a hotel. And he didn't like hearing that music in the parking lot up in his hotel room, and he went down, and he shot and killed the young Black kid.

Now, I happen to own a television station in that market, and I called up the person at the time who was running my stations and I said, I want you to make sure that our news department goes and do a story about that young Black kid and his family and humanize him because media has a way of demonizing Black people, especially Black men. He didn't have a gun. He's dead. I want you to show America who he is. And the guy who worked for me at the time said to me, you know, it was an awkward moment for him because he had been in the business many, many years, and he had worked for a number of wealthy white families who owned very large news operations. And none of them had ever called him to get involved with a local story, more or less suggesting I was interfering because there's that wall of news, and you don't call up, and you don't interfere.

And I had to explain to him in that moment - over your 40 years in this business, you've worked for very rich white men who never had to care or be concerned about the narrative because they were rich white men. Today, you work for a rich Black man, and I have to be concerned about the narrative. And that's what happens when you have diversity and ownership, and that matters. Now, I've never shared that story publicly.

DEGGANS: Well we appreciate you sharing it with us. Just one last question that I want to end with. And, you know, again, it's the question I have to ask to be fair, because there will be critics out there who will say, you know, Byron Allen often speaks up when he wants to buy something or when he's interested in something - he'll talk about being interested in BET, he'll talk about being interested in Tegna - and that that publicity helps him achieve what he wants. But is there substance behind it? So I'm just going to ask you, what would you say to critics who would say, you know, you can talk about wanting to do these things, but you know, how do we know that you're going to achieve the things that you say you're interested in doing?

ALLEN: Well, to be honest with you, I don't know. It's a competitive process, right? So it was a competitive process to buy The Weather Channel. I bought it five years ago. I beat out some pretty smart folks, and we bought The Weather Channel and we've increased the top line revenue in the EBITDA. I was in a competitive process to buy, you know, a billion dollars' worth of Big Four network affiliates. I've been in a competitive process to become the largest provider of first-run television shows to television stations. It's a competitive process.

There are folks who want to buy Tegna. They may get it over me. There are folks who want to buy BET, VH1. They may get it over me, and that's OK. There's no shortage of deals, but the deal has to be right. The deal has to make sense. And what we strike on, we strike on what makes money and make sense. And just because we don't get it today doesn't mean we won't own it tomorrow, but I will guarantee you we will always be the biggest and the best.

DEGGANS: Byron Allen, head of the Allen Media Group, thank you very much, sir.

ALLEN: Thank you, my friend. Continue success. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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