An Entrepreneurial Flashback – Black Media’s Golden Age

John H. Johnson

An Entrepreneurial Flashback – Black Media’s Golden Age

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As we wind down Small Business Month and acknowledge the accomplishments of the 21st Century’s entrepreneurial class, I’m reminded of era that has gone under-reported, but was likely one of the richest periods of Black business success that we ought to chronicle — one that I witnessed firsthand.

From the early 1970’s through the late 1990’s, Black media companies and advertising agencies were experiencing boom-times, a golden age of prosperity. Of course, there is a rich and storied history of Black newspapers going back to the 1800’s and continuing with digital versions today. In fact, I got my start in the media business with Black Media Inc. (a cooperative of Black-owned and operated newspapers throughout the country). However, it was the founding of Negro Digest in 1942, by John H. Johnson, who later published Ebony and Jet Magazines (which I also worked with), that laid the groundwork for this Golden Age.

Principally, few national brands and their ad agencies saw the value of the Negro consumer and its buying power. In 1954, Johnson Publishing produced “The Secret of Selling the Negro” to demonstrate the most appropriate ways to reach and address this burgeoning market. By 1969, D. Parke Gibson, a Black Public Relations pioneer who had also worked for Johnson, wrote the book, The $30 Billion Dollar Negro making the case again for considering this market of opportunity. Black consumer spending is now valued at $1.7 trillion and estimated to top $2 trillion by 2026, according to a 2024 Nielsen report.

During the Civil Rights era, with Ebony (started in 1945) and Jet (1951), Johnson’s publishing empire dwarfed other magazine’s attempts to capitalize on Negro spending. Then came 1970, at the height of Black Power, the launch of Essence Magazine (ChocolateBox interview with co-founder Jonathan Blount) and Black Enterprise by Earl Graves Sr.

Corresponding with an articulated push for representative advertising in these glossy national publications, ever-present local newspapers and Black-oriented radio and television programming, Black-owned advertising agencies were also being founded to service the growing demand for tasteful and relevant ad copy.

New York agencies, like UniWorld, founded by Byron Lewis in 1969, Mingo Jones, founded by Frank Mingo and Caroline Jones in 1977, Lockhart & Pettus also in ’77 or in Chicago, Vince Cullers Advertising in 1956, Proctor & Gardner, founded by the pioneering Barbara Proctor in 1970 and Burrell Advertising in 1971, by Tom Burrell. Later came Muse Cordero Chen in 1987 in Los Angeles – the first multicultural agency and GlobalHue, founded by Don Coleman in Detroit in 1988, which grew to become the largest multicultural agency in America.

In broadcasting, Black Entertainment Television (BET) founded in 1980 by Robert L. Johnson and the National Black Network (NBN), co-founded by Eugene Jackson, Sydney Small and Robert Pauley (a former White radio executive, who originally conceived of the radio network but left prior to its launch in 1972). A predecessor to Byron Allen, owner of the Weather Channel, etc. was Ragan Henry of Philadelphia, who bought his first network affiliated TV station in 1979 and owned 60 radio stations by 1990.

While this activity was taking place, starting in earnest in the 1970’s, Corporate America was hiring executives to capitalize on this trend – albeit in miniscule numbers and rarely destined for the C-Suite – in part to interact with these media companies.

Nevertheless, these Black-owned and operated small businesses were consistently hiring not just Black folks but women, Asian, Hispanic, White, disabled and LGBTQ persons (well before that term was common). In other words, before Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (currently under assault) was a thing, these companies run by visionary Black entrepreneurs, offered opportunities to hundreds of people in industries and roles usually unattainable, especially for Blacks. My experience, which was not uncommon, was that the doors to “general-market” (a euphemism for White, like “urban” is for Black) media companies remained closed or slightly ajar, as was the case for many (though not all) of my colleagues. Those who were fortunate to work with general-market firms, often paid a Black-tax of limited opportunities for advancement and ready excuses for dismissal — last hired, first fired.

Frankly, while one would argue that we have experienced progress with the media and advertising industries, we regrettably still see a lingering reticence that is to the industry’s detriment.

McKinsey reports that – Today, Black Americans make up 13.4 percent of the US population, and that percentage will increase over the next few decades. Just as the racial wealth gap is constraining the US economy, the film and TV industry will continue to leave money on the table if it fails to advance racial equity. By addressing the persistent racial inequities, the industry could reap an additional $10 billion in annual revenues—about 7 percent more than the assessed baseline of $148 billion.

Further, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (also known as the 4A’s), noticed that ad industry leadership became less diverse on the heels of the summer 2020 racial reckoning. Beyond a dearth of ethnic representation in the advertising world, this industry continues to profit off of Black culture and images while excluding the same people from the C-suite.

That profiteering off Black Americans is reflected in the news media as well (have you turned on the local news lately?). Historically, Blacks have been more likely to be studied as subjects of the news, rather than shapers of the news.

The majority of Black Americans surveyed in early 2023 told the Pew Research Center that they felt portrayals of Black people are more negative than news about other racial and ethnic groups.

  • Almost two-thirds of Black adults (63%) say news about Black people is often more negative than news about other racial and ethnic groups; 28% say it is about equal and 7% say it is often more positive.
  • 57% say the news only covers certain segments of Black communities, compared with just 9% who say it covers a wide variety of Black people.

In 1967, the Kerner Commission – undertaken by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to investigate the causes behind urban riots – took a harsh view on the news media’s stance toward Black Americans. The commission’s report cited sensationalist and divisive coverage as well as inaccurate and unfair representations of Black communities, concluding that “the journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring and promoting” Black people, and “the press has too long basked in a White world looking out of it, if at all, with White men’s eyes and White perspective.” More than half a century later, there is a continued reckoning with many of the themes raised in the report.

The likes of that Golden Age will never be seen again – Black media and advertising entrepreneurs, who operated small, but enormously successful and impactful businesses – businesses that served as apprenticeship for some, a home for those who left the general-market for others, or a career for many.

I was fortunate to have worked for and with most of the people and companies referenced here. In large part, it was those experiences that shaped me professionally and ignited the idea for City Startup Labs.

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