After two announced launches that didn’t happen in November and January, it seemed reasonable to ask Gary Wordlaw, vice president of news & programming for the Black News Channel (BNC), if America really is going to have a new 24/7 news channel focused on black life starting Monday as promised by its founders.
“We are 99.9% there," he said in a phone interview last week. “At 6 a.m. on February the 10th, we’re going to give the nation a look at the black community that has not been seen on any other network. Our mission is to illuminate and to tell the truth. We’re not partisan. We’re not political. We’re journalists. And we want to give good stories from the peoples’ perspective. We should be the peoples’ network."
All of television and media will be better if the Tallahassee-based BNC can become the kind of news channel Wordlaw is promising.
Black Entertainment Television (BET) and TV One offered some news content over the years. But cable TV is long overdue for a 24/7 channel devoted to covering the news with an emphasis on black life and culture. For all the channels available via cable, satellite and digital, there is an astounding lack of diversity in covering various communities and helping viewers see the world through the eyes of members of those communities.
Adding that kind of diversity to the media landscape is at the core of BNC’s mission, according to Wordlaw. Here’s what else he had to say in a recent interview:
SUN: With all the possibilities for diversity that technology offers, why do you think we have not had channels with news and information focused on and targeting the audience that BNC is targeting?
WORDLAW: Most broadcast operations are just that: broadcast operations. For years, the model has been to give as much news to as broad an audience as you possibly can within the constraints of time.
This network is dedicated primarily to what has become largely felt in the black community as an underserved news community. And so, the information we’re going to present is information you won’t necessarily find on your local newscasts, and you definitely won’t find on your national newscasts. ... We’re dedicated to programming news- and information-oriented programming that is really reflective of a culturally specific audience.
SUN: So, it is not just an ethnic or racial demographic, it’s a cultural demographic that you are programming to as well. Am I right about that?
WORDLAW: Absolutely, because all black folk in America aren’t African American.
SUN: With the 2020 elections, what will you be offering your audience that they might not be getting on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News?
WORDLAW: There is a feeling among some African Americans that when the networks give the voting results, they talk specifically about the large cities that elect people, but they don’t talk about the small towns that are germane as well. A lot of African Americans don’t just live in Detroit or Chicago or Atlanta. They live in Chattanooga, Birmingham and Kansas City.
So, we’re going to take key precincts in big cities and small cities that are populated by African Americans. And in those precincts, the vote goes both ways. It isn’t all Democrats. There are a lot of black Republicans and independents. So, we want to do a cross-board cut of how the African Americans are shaping their local elections and how that translates to the national landscape.
SUN: Is Baltimore going to be a focus for BNC? I know you worked here from 1981 to 1990 as news director at WMAR-TV. And we are a majority black city.
WORDLAW: Baltimore is very near and dear to my heart. Two of my children were born in Baltimore, and two of my children still live in Baltimore. ... After we launch, I will be doing a series of stories on key cities on the East Coast. The stories are going to be called “My Side of Town.” And we’re coming to Baltimore to tell the stories of my side of town. It’s going to not be reflective of just what happens in west Baltimore, it’s the total community. ... There are stories of great history in Baltimore. There is a wide swatch of people who made a great difference. There’s the Mitchell family from bygone days, for example. ... And the stories continue today. Morgan State University has become a major player among historical black colleges. I mean it goes on and on. I could do a whole month of programming on Baltimore.
(In a follow-up email, Wordlaw said BNC will be airing a documentary on Baltimore’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery titled “Sacred Ground: The Battle for Mt. Auburn.”)
SUN: Speaking of Morgan State, when I interviewed former congressman J.C. Watts [co-founder and chairman of BNC] in October, he said historically black colleges and universities would be playing a key role for the channel both as production facilities and as a source of news stories, faculty expertise and research. Can you tell me how that is going, and will Morgan have a role?
WORDLAW: I’ve reached out to DeWayne Wickham [dean of Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism & Communication], who is a dear friend of mine. But we have to just get on the air first. It’s daunting. But once we get on the air, then yes. We’ve already reached out to 30 or 40 of the HBCU’s. And we’re airing a weekly program called “HBCU Today.” We’ve invited the colleges to send the best reports by their students, and we’re going to air them on the network.
SUN: How have the media and business communities reacted to BNC? Have they been receptive, resistant or somewhere in between? It sounds as if it might have been a struggle to get to where you are today.
WORDLAW: It’s been a labor of love. I mean, it has taken a while to convince key investors that our business model is going to be one that’s going to make a profit. I mean, this is a commercial enterprise. By the same token, if you look at the demographics and how money is being spent today, there’s never been a better time for something like this to be launched. African Americans are now spending $1.3 trillion a year on products.
SUN: How about the cost of talent? With newspapers buying out and laying off journalists, is it a buyer’s market when it comes to talent?
WORDLAW: We’re paying a competitive wage to get some of the best African American talent in the nation. Good people are always hard to compete for, so you pay what you need to pay to get the people that you need. I mean, Fred Hickman, formerly of CNN and ESPN, is our prime anchor. He’s one of the names we’ve been able to attract to the network. Byron Pitts, of ABC, will be working with us as well. He will be one of our prime contributors by mid-next-year. Right now, he still works for ABC, so his life is pretty tied up.
SUN: Can you give me a preview of some of the shows and how they will line up?
WORDLAW: Starting at 6 a.m., there’s a three-hour newscast. Then we go into a 9 o’clock program called “D.C. Today,” and that’s going to be out of Washington; Del Walters [former “Al Jazeera America" show host] and Anqoinette Crosby will anchor that show. Then at 10, it’s back to Tallahassee for a live program called “Being a Woman.”
SUN: And what’s prime time going to look like?
At 6 p.m., again out of Washington, we have a show hosted by Kelly Wright [former Fox News reporter and anchor] that is going to talk about the black experience, politically, socially and religiously. It’s going to be a talk show format around the news of the day. Then from 7 to 10 p.m., it’s prime nightly news with Fred Hickman.
WHERE TO WATCH BCN
Wordlaw referred questions on where viewers could go to see BNC to Tommy Ross, network spokesman.
“The Black News Channel will launch on Spectrum, Xfinity X-1 Platform and Dish Network, soon to be followed by Sling, Vizio Smart TVs, Xumo and Roku Channel. With these additional partners we will have a cumulative total of 100+ million homes,” Ross wrote in an email to The Sun.
Ross said he did not have a channel number for Dish Network and said that he is urging viewers to “check with their local provider" to try and find that information.
He also suggested viewers visit the channel’s website at blacknewschannel.com for “additional content.”
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.