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BET's Johnson tells chamber: take risks

(Original publication: June 19, 2002)

Robert L. Johnson's cable TV project, Black Entertainment Television, and its related holdings were sold to Viacom Inc. in 2000 for about $3 billion. The deal elevated Johnson's net worth to $1.3 billion and got him on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans last fall.

But money didn't always come easy for him.

As Johnson told the Business-to-Business Luncheon of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Westchester and Rockland yesterday, he flew to Colorado more than 20 years ago to see John Malone, then the chief executive of TCI Communications Inc. Johnson wanted Malone to loan him $500,000 for an idea he had about starting a cable television channel aimed at a black audience.

A former lobbyist with the cable television industry, Johnson reasoned there were business opportunities for those who were willing to market to black audiences that were being neglected by white corporations. Many of the people in the cable industry were talking about using new technology to move content across the United States. Johnson thought he could, too.

"These guys are not rocket scientists," Johnson recalled thinking to himself. "Particularly Ted Turner."

After a 45-minute pitch from Johnson, Malone wrote him a $500,000 check with the agreement that 20 percent of it would be an investment in the company and the remaining 80 percent would be a loan. Johnson, who was eager to get his venture under way, couldn't believe his fortune.

"If he had said the numbers in absolute reverse, I would have said, 'John, that's a deal,'" Johnson told the audience of more than 150 at the Hilton Rye Town.

"John Malone saw I was willing to take a risk on myself . . . The first risk you have to take is believing in yourself," he said. "If I can do it, there's a lot of other people in this room that can do it also."

The success of BET, Johnson said, came about as a result of selling a product to black consumers. The notion shouldn't be lost on the businesspeople present, he told them.

Johnson likened the size of gross domestic product of blacks in the United States to the economy of Mexico. More blacks are going to school, owning their own homes, and buying stock than ever before in American history.

"It means African-Americans are beginning to take their rightful place with the wealth engine of this country," he said. "We've got to make sure everybody is participating in the benefits of that economy."

One way of doing that is by networking through organizations such as the chamber, he said. And in a nod to the struggles of the organization — chamber President Robin Douglas said the group has had to reduce pay and put staff on temporary layoff — Johnson urged the audience to do more to keep the chamber from foundering.

"As African-Americans, we should never let something like this happen to us," he said. "We should do for ourselves."





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