Debuting on May 1, 1972, the Mutual Black Network was Mutual's take on the old adage: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

ABC Radio's four-network plan was here to stay, despite Mutual's numerous petitions to the FCC to have it stopped. What's more - although it was still losing money - ABC was securing its position as the leader in the field. So Mutual borrowed a page from ABC's playbook, putting together two demographically targeted networks . . . although, unlke ABC, it didn't scrap its traditional web.

But the story behind MBN's creation is as intriguing as was Mutual's fight against ABC.

Former Mutual president Robert Pauley gives himself the credit for coming up with the idea to target a radio network to a black audience. He told a news conference in 1972 that he proposed it when he was with the network in the late 1960s, but that the Mutual board rejected the idea.

That set off a fierce race for the nation's 22-million black americans. After Mutual showed him the door in 1969, Pauley revived his idea and announced the formation of the National Black Network at a news conference in June 1970, planning for a February 1971 sign-on with up to 75 affiliates.

But that date came and went while Pauley worked to get financial backing. Meantime, Mutual forged ahead on its own, and in early 1972 announced it was forming the Mutual Black Network.

It wasn't until black venture capitalist Eugene Jackson came aboard that banks showed interest in Pauley's NBN plan. Jackson took control (with Pauley taking "a very minute share of equity"), and announced the National Black Network would sign on June 1, 1972.

Jackson described NBN as "black-owned-and-operated," and said that Mutual's white management would result in a "grey" network that lacked credibility. But at the March 20 press conference, he introduced Del Raycee, NBN's executive v.p. for station relations, as a principal of the firm. Raycee was white - and there was one other twist.

Until a week prior, Raycee had worked for Mutual - in its station relations department.

Raycee said he was in on Pauley's project from the beginning, and had been working on it while working at MBS - on his own time, he said. He also said he knew nothing of Mutual's black network plan until "late in February," because the whole thing was "very hush-hush."

MBS president Ed Little, though, said Raycee must have known about it earlier, because his boss, Charles Godwin, knew of it and inter-office memos were in circulation.

Little said that on March 8, Raycee was asked to draw up an itinerary of stations to be called on for possible MBN affiliation. Raycee said he would do so and prepare to visit those markets. But the next day, according to Raycee, "the bank said we could have the money," and he resigned from Mutual. Little said the March 9 resignation cited "health and personal concerns" as the cause; Raycee admitted he used those words, but also appended in boldface type, "conflict of interest."

Jackson said that Mutual's announcement of MBN was the element which convinced the Bank of America - which put up roughly $500,000 - that NBN was viable. But Jackson encountered difficulties in getting additional financing, and NBN wouldn't sign on until June of 1973.

Credible or not, the Mutual Black Network signed on May 1, 1972 with 32 affiliates, including flagship station WNJR Newark, KCOH Houston, KWK St. Louis, and WIGO Atlanta. It was an easy start-up: vice-president Steve McCormick said all he had to do was hire the staff - 15 black newsmen, six editors, supervisors and salesmen. The news director was Shelton Lewis, once of New York's WPAT; working with him in New York was Robert Nichols, Joe White and Gerald Bentley. Staffing the Washington bureau was Ed Castleberry, Larry Dean, John Askew and Abby Kendrick.

The network fed five-minute newscasts at 50 minutes past the hour between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. each day, and three sportscasts per day at 8:20 a.m., 3:20 and 6:20 p.m. eastern time, some 100 programs a week.

The service had a "definite slant," according to Larry Dean, who had become MBN's news director by 1976. Although the network didn't editorialize, Dean said the network functions to emphasize stories that don't receive enough play in the "basic" or white press.

Among MBN's program offerings: "Dr. Martin Luther King Speaks," a weekly 20-minute program produced by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference featuring excerpts from Dr. King's speeches, along with comments of black leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, and Benjamin Hooks; and "The Black Experience," a daily feature profiling black Americans and their contributions to American life. MBN also broadcast Saturday night football games of major black colleges and universities.

In addition, MBN joined forces with General Motors starting in 1973 to present the "Black College All-American Football Awards." The awards were presented each December at a banquet that included top names in sports, politics and entertainment. Winners included Walter Payton, who won in both 1973 and '74; and Ed "Too Tall" Jones. MBN also broadcast the only running account of Muhammad Ali's fights, broadcast to more than 400 stations.

Within six weeks of its debut, the 32 affiliates had grown to 55 and MBN signed its first national advertiser: Pearl Brewing Company, which bought a 13-week flight of ads for Country Club Malt Liquor. By its first anniversary, there were more than 70 affiliates; by 1976, the affiliate count had swelled to 94.

While the affiliate roster didn't come close to matching that of Mutual's traditional network, it didn't have to. It was noted at the time that both MBN and NBN covered the major markets with a sufficient base of potential black listeners (back then, 70 percent of blacks lived in the top 50 markets). As a result, they didn't need many more stations than the ones they had.

The problem was getting advertisers to realize the effectiveness of black radio. Black listeners were intensely loyal to stations programming to them. But advertisers didn't always see the value in adding either MBN or NBN to their radio orders - and those that did were made at the expense of spot buys on black stations.

"If 2 to 3 percent of advertisers were on the black networks, we'd make out well," MBN Vice President and General Manager Thom McKinney told Television-Radio Age in 1977. "Our problem is that many advertisers' plans specify no black media."

In April 1976, the black-owned Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation purchased a 49 percent interest in Mutual Black for a reported $850,000, and took over management of the network - which included starting its own sales force. In the past, MBN had been sold by Mutual's sales force, who had been distracted by other, higher-revenue concerns. Taking sales in-house, McKinney said, contributed to MBN turning its first profit in 1977, with sales up about one-quarter from 1976.

Then in 1979, Sheridan bought the rest of MBN for $1 million, renamed it the Sheridan Broadcasting Network, and leased newsroom and studio space from Mutual (it would also share satellite space when Mutual moved its feeds to the bird). When Mutual sold its interest, MBN had 91 affiliates, reaching 17 million black listeners daily - 70 percent of the U.S. black population.

Incidentally, the two networks which started out as rivals in 1972 eventually became one: Sheridan merged with NBN in 1991 to form American Urban Radio Networks.

Some information on this page came from various issues of Broadcasting magazine, Variety, and Television-Radio Age.

Text copyright © 2009 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

No challenges to logo, sound or image copyrights are either inferred or implied.

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