Ragan Henry, a little-known African-American pioneer in media ownership who quietly amassed a small empire of 60 television and radio stations between the early 1970s and 1990, died late last month in Philadelphia with as little fanfare as he had lived. He was 74.
Henry's death should be an item of conversation for anyone who cares about black media. Given that African-American broadcast ownership has fallen by about 70 percent since the late 1990s, his passing is deeply symbolic.
In the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the American public forced the issue of unfairness an inequality in media ownership to the forefront of our nation's consciousness. At long last, our leaders finally began to address the problem. In 1976, the U.S. Court of Appeals told the FCC that it had been wrong to not consider a person's race in applications for station ownership. The Court advised that it should begin to do so to rectify serious historical disparities.
Yet more than three decades later not much has changed. Minority ownership has plummeted by 14 percent since 1996, reversing many of the small gains that were made in the '70s and '80s.
Media ownership matters, I tell my journalism students at Hofstra University, because the life experiences of people of color are often wildly divergent from those of non-minorities. While 93 percent of African Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of the situation after Hurricane Katrina, for example, only 66 percent of white Americans felt the same way.
Ownership matters because differences in perception and experience shape how we as members of the media decide how to tell a story.
As the FCC continues to reduce the emphasis of equal access to ownership—in some cases stonewalling progressive measures that could help to increase local, minority and female control of stations—Henry's achievements represent a particular triumph in a battle that has been virtually ignored by mainstream media outlets—a battle that, like many others in our supposedly post-race, glass-ceiling-cracking society, many of us assume no longer needs to be waged.
It seems incomprehensible that women of all races, who make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, own just 5 percent of all commercial full power television stations in the country. African Americans own less than 1 percent of such stations, and the numbers continue to spiral downward.
Yes, there is the Internet. But the majority of the country still relies on local news from traditional stations to shape its worldviews. And local station owners do a better job of serving their communities, according to the FCC's own (censored) studies.
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).