Growth of Black Media Uneven


Like any entrepreneur, Darren Peters, publisher of PowerPlay magazine, walks a fine financial line between success and failure.

With startup magazines having about as much chance to succeed as fail, Peters has guided the black-oriented bimonthly magazine through its first 11 rocky months. Its profits get rolled back into improving the magazine.

"Initially, we were fortunate that we had a number of advertisers who believed in us and gave a long-term commitment," said Peters, a former Clinton administration and U.S. Department of Energy staff member. "Now, we're seeing a lot of progress."

PowerPlay doesn't have swanky offices — in fact, there are no offices other than the den of Peters' west Little Rock home, and Peters likes to say "my cell phone is my office." Staff members mostly donate their time.

There has even been recent interest by investors looking to get a piece of the action, Peters said.

Heritage Health, a black-oriented health magazine published by Pam Brown Courtney, was launched in March 2002.

Advantage Communications Inc., a full-service Little Rock advertising agency launched in 2000 by Michael Steele, is another example of a black-owned media company. It's grown to 14 employees, making it one of the South's largest black-owned agencies, Steele said, and it is a strategic partner for reaching minority communities for Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, the state's largest agency.

"We thought there was a tremendous opportunity," said Steele, a former Coca-Cola international marketing director. "It's not just about how many African-Americans and Hispanics are living in Arkansas, but about (reaching) the No. 2 (audience) segment in the state."

While Advantage specializes in minority advertising, that's only about half of its business.

Despite the recent proliferation, the story of black-owned media in Arkansas is one of gain and loss, mixed with a small amount of stagnation.

There are a handful of black-owned and -oriented newspapers in the state, the two magazines and a handful of competitive commercial radio stations. There are no black- or minority-owned commercial TV stations in Arkansas.

"We need more black media ownership; there is always a black perspective on everything," said Napoleon Black, publisher and co-owner of The Lincoln Echo, a black-oriented monthly newspaper based in Fort Smith. "That's a perspective that needs to be brought out. A lot of things affect black folks that aren't even covered in major newspapers."

Print Publications

The newest entries in the black-oriented publishing market have been the high-profile, slick-paper magazines.

PowerPlay launched in May 2003 to cover "social, political, economic and lifestyle issues" in Arkansas' black community, Peters said.

Distribution was targeted for nearly a dozen counties where the black population was at least 10,000. Since then, distribution has been broadened to counties with smaller black populations.

While the bimonthly magazine still has a circulation of 5,000, readership has increased and subscriptions have jumped to 250, with about 20 percent of those from out of state. It's available at retail shops and health care offices, and Peters is working on distribution with area bookstores. There also have been distribution requests from northwest Arkansas, where the small black population is often overlooked.

"We're doing maybe a little better than break even," Peters said.

Initially, most advertisers were black-owned businesses or businesses providing specific products for the black community. But more interest is coming from mainstream advertisers, and the advertising mix is now split about half between white- and black-owned or -oriented businesses, Peters said.

"Whether it's black or white, minority or majority," Peters said, "we know we're serving an African-American community that is so diverse that there are products and services that will appeal to at least one segment of readers.

"We're not a monolithic group."

Peters has used contacts made in the Clinton Administration for advice and has obtained tips from national magazines about not rushing the magazine and doing things the right way. Volunteers include Warwick Sabin of the Clinton Presidential Library Foundation, a former communications director for U.S. Rep. Marion Berry; Lamar Davis, who also works with the Clinton Library foundation; and Vivian Flowers, director of the state's legislative black caucus.

Since Peters is using his own money for the startup, he's struggled with keeping the magazine's team together. But he rejected a recent investment offer because of control issues and fears volunteer staff wouldn't get rewarded.

"We can definitely use the funding, but we're in a good rhythm and it's not a priority right now," Peters said. "At some point we've got to focus on rewarding the people who helped me and the magazine through this process."

Editor Sericia Rouse has been trying to keep the magazine lively. Some controversial issues it has tackled have included a critical look at the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, where Michael Steele's brother, state Sen. Tracy Steele is executive director, and a take on black married couples that dispelled stereotypes of fragmented black families.

"To be successful you have to be an interesting read," Peters said. "We want to treat the product like a candidate; we've got to make people feel comfortable with what it is."

The Minority Dollar

Black-owned newspaper growth hasn't been nearly as explosive as the surge in Spanish-language newspapers that serve the state's burgeoning Hispanic population. Such weekly, semi-weekly and monthly newspapers have popped up around the central and northern parts of the state in answer to immigration trends.

Black media owners see the growth in the Hispanic newspaper niche market as built on language as well as cultural differences with mainstream Arkansas. Black-owned newspapers have stuck around — there appear to be no new papers — but have had their share of struggles and limited growth.

Part of that is related to identity and advertising.

"The power of the dollar is growing in the Hispanic community," said Wesley Brown, a member of the board of the Arkansas Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and business editor at Stephens Media Group's Arkansas News Bureau. "The power of the dollar in the black community is stagnant."

Advantage's Steele said advertisers don't like long-term commitments to startup publications and often wait as long as a year before committing ad dollars.

Still, he said, "there is no better place" to advertise than minority media, "especially in difficult economic times."

Arkansas Tribune, a black-oriented newspaper in Little Rock, shifted from weekly to monthly publication since its acquisition 18 months ago by Creative Media Group LLC of Little Rock, a black-owned venture.

It runs 12-16 pages, has a circulation of 10,000 and readership of 15,000-20,000 and is distributed primarily in Pulaski and Jefferson counties, with a growing presence in Camden, Arkadelphia and El Dorado, said publisher Stacy Williams.

The staff of four, bolstered by freelance writers, addresses local and national issues. The 8-year-old newspaper has a good shot at profitability this year, Williams said.

Newspapers serving black communities are hampered in Arkansas because they lack readership with desirable income levels, Williams said.

"We're nurturing readership, as opposed to large cities like Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles or Atlanta where there are a number of African-American publications," Williams said. "They're responding to a flourishing black middle class .... (We) don't have that in the Delta, south Arkansas and maybe even in central Arkansas."

The Lincoln Echo, meanwhile, started as a small operation to keep alumni of Fort Smith's Lincoln High School — the area's black high school until 1967 — in touch with each other.

It was on its last legs before being acquired — rescued, really — in 2001 by a different group of alumni led by Cecil Greene, Charles Chiles and Napoleon Black. The ownership group includes a retired commercial fisherman and an iron worker.

It now distributes in 30 states and the District of Columbia, with circulation of about 18,000 (12,000 in Arkansas). Subscriptions have grown to about 1,500 from 87 just three years ago, Black said. The monthly runs 14-18 pages, and correspondents write about alumni, Fort Smith news and other state and national issues.

"We don't do any crime stories or negative stories like that," said Black, a retired AT&T national sales manager living in St. Louis. "There is enough of that in the world already."

About 75 percent of advertising is from white-owned businesses. While the partners want investors, they're too worried about giving up control to make the leap, Black said.

Black said the publication's profit was "microscopic," although, "We think this will be a breakout year."

He said national studies showing lower wages and savings for black Americans are balanced by other studies showing a willingness to spend more, and that could be attractive to advertisers.

Broadcast

Arkansas isn't alone in lacking many black- and minority-owned media companies.

The most recent National Telecommunications & Information Administration report in 2001 said that just 4 percent of more than of 10,500 commercial radio stations were minority owned. Of 1,288 commercial TV stations, fewer than 2 percent were minority-owned. The NTIA is in the midst of another survey with results expected by the end of the year, and industry experts expect it to find even fewer minority owned outlets.

In July 2003, Little Rock lost a commercially competitive black-owned radio station — formerly KYFX-FM, 99.5, also known as Foxy 99 — to ABC Inc. It was in the country's No. 85 market based on Arbitron Inc. ratings.

Foxy 99, previously owned by Loretta Lever House's Nameloc Inc., was converted to KDIS-FM and the format changed from black-oriented programming to Disney's family and children programming.

The transaction came under federal court order following 16 months of wrangling between House and ABC. House contends the matter is unsettled pending her appeals to federal courts and the Federal Communications Commission.

Black-owned stations left in Little Rock are gospel and religious stations, which barely register in Arbitron's ratings reports.

"(Black broadcast ownership) has declined in general, not just in Arkansas but around the country," House said, noting that an FCC Federal Diversity Advisory Panel is studying the decline.

Pine Bluff, far outside the top-100 markets in the country, has fared better. Black-owned MRS Ventures Inc. of Tyler, Texas, in 2003 acquired four stations from Delta Radio Inc. and Seark Radio Inc. for about $1.5 million.

The stations' black owner, Jerry D. Russell, may not be local, but the local managers are also black.

Black Arkansans L.T. Simes II and Raymond Simes own West Helena stations KAKJ-FM, 105.3, and KCLT-FM, 104.9.

MRS, which owns 14 stations, tries to acquire underperforming properties it can turn around, said regional vice president Floyd Donald. Part of its successful strategy, he said, is to provide affordable advertising options for small businesses in its markets, which also include east Texas and the Greenville, Miss., area. More acquisitions are in the works.

"There are more small businesses than large businesses," Donald said. "The small guy is important too."

The Pine Bluff stations reflect a philosophy of broadcast owners who happen to be black and who respond to market demographics, Donald said. As a result, Pine Bluff features a black-owned and -managed station that plays country music.

"We don't look at it as black management, just as management like any business," Donald said. "If you get into black management, it's a recipe for disaster. Good, sound business practices are good, sound business practices.

"Demographics have to drive (radio) decisions; we've got to find formats to reach (the audience)."

With a roughly 17 percent black population, the state needs more black-owned media, Donald said.

"(But) not a lot of people in the Arkansas African-American community can raise the funds needed for ownership," Donald said.

Advertising

Advantage's Steele said radio advertising is one of the best ways to reach a black community because black listenership is typically concentrated in a very few stations. For TV buys, Advantage targets demographically desirable shows rather than overall ratings winners to reach minorities.

Instead of buying time on highly rated "Friends" for instance, Advantage buys time on lower-rated but demographically smart programming such as Spanish language "Sabado Gigante" or "Girlfriends."

"We recommend buying programming most general marketing agencies would miss," Steele said. "...We buy more ethnic media than anybody."