A Dying Breed

The quiet death of a broadcasting pioneer speaks volumes about who matters in media.

philly.com
philly.com

When one of Ragan Henry’s stations, WHEC TV in Rochester, N.Y., found out area car dealers were setting odometers back, it aired an investigative report even though one of the shady culprits was the stations largest advertiser, says Henry’s longtime friend, David Honig, executive director of the Minority Media Telecommunications Council in Washington, D.C. Henry personally subsidized the station for several months afterward, says Honig, because local car dealers boycotted WHEC in retaliation. Henry’s commitment to ethics, responsibility and accountability, is not often seen among major conglomerates and monopoly owners—especially those who run local operations from afar and have little connection to the towns and cities they serve.

(In a recent phone interview, Warren Doremus, a reporter at the station for more than four decades, said that he had “no recollection whatsoever of the report, the boycott or of Mr. Henry subsidizing the station.”)

In 1972, Henry bought his first radio station, WAOK-AM in Atlanta, “just in time for millionaire racist J.B. Stoner’s 1972 Senate campaign,” Honig said.

Apparently, Stoner wanted to buy airtime on WAOK to run an advertisement urging white voters to elect him. He reasoned in the pitch that they should do so to help keep their daughters safe from ‘oversexed negroes’,” said Honig. “Ragan checked with the FCC to see if he had to air the ad in light of its use of the N-word, and was told that yes, there were no exceptions under Section 315 of the Communications Act.”

And so the ad ran. But Henry deftly had it re-dubbed it with background music from Kim Weston’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“He figured his audience was intelligent enough to figure it out,” Honig said.

Ragan asked that there be no public ceremony marking his death—not even a funeral—and his loved ones have respected his wishes.

Still, he would likely appreciate some reflection on the larger symbolism in his passing—the undeniable fact that black media owners are, literally and figuratively, a dying breed.

And that his story is also theirs.

Kristal Brent Zook is the author of “I See Black People: The Rise and Fall of African American-Owned Television and Radio” (March 2008, Nation Books).

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