When the Black News Channel launched two years ago, its reporters hoped to cover stories in a new way. NPR’s Ailsa Chang chats with reporter Rodney Ho about the reasons for its closure.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When the Black News Channel launched two years ago, journalists hoped to cover stories in a different way. At the time, they said they were, in quotes, “dedicated to covering the unique perspectives, challenges and successes of black and brown communities.” BNC’s CEO then shocked employees last week by announcing that the network was going to be shut down immediately. Rodney Ho is here to explain BNC’s downfall. It was an entertainment reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who covered the story. And he joins us now. Welcome.
RODNEY HO: How are you?
CHANG: Great. Well, if you could tell us a bit more about the origin story of BNC – like, who started it exactly?
HO: It was actually – Congressman JC Watts came up with the idea and hooked up with this Pakistani billionaire, Jackson Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. And he was ready to put a lot of money to start the operation. They started, I think, officially in 2020, just before the pandemic – probably not the best time. And they focused on basic cable channels. They got a decent cast. I think they got into over 50 million homes.
HO: And they also brought in Princell Hair, who is a veteran cable news network executive. He worked at CNN. And he took over last year, was really ambitious. He hired Marc Lamont Hill, the commentator. New York Times columnist Charles Blow was also treated to a prime-time show. So they wanted to go big.
CHANG: And how did BNC try to differentiate itself from the rest of the media landscape – like, how specifically?
HO: I mean, I think because of its title, Black News Channel – they took it all through the lens of the black community and how that affected them, you know? And interestingly, they had their highest ratings last week with the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Unfortunately, I guess by then the money had started to run out trying to build this operation without having enough of an audience.
CHANG: And can we talk about it? Like, yes, over the past few months, BNC has gone through several rounds of layoffs, ultimately culminating in this announcement that the network is going to shut down completely. Like, what caused all of this?
HO: That’s maybe the fundamental problem that a lot of people who follow the news have – they get their news from social media. You know, they get their news from YouTube and Instagram. Basic cable – it could have been a great idea to launch a basic cable network in 1992. It was not the right vehicle to attract people. And even though it was in 50 million homes, I realize that to find the channel, I had to go to channel 270.
HO: I mean, CNN and Fox News – they’re on Channel 44, 46. I’m not going to wander around that area trying to find them. It’s hard to – you know, to access it. Even if you technically had access to it, it’s like being on the top shelf in a dusty corner of a supermarket where no one can see you.
CHANG: So you see that this demise is more a symptom of, there just isn’t such a big audience for a cable news network trying to get started now, rather than specifically how BNC was run.
HO: You could argue both ways. You could say they may have overspent. That is – some people have argued that they tried to grow too quickly without investing the proper marketing dollars to build brand awareness. Or maybe it was a fundamental problem of, it wasn’t the right place to build an operation. Maybe they should have just focused on a digital video operation. It would have been much cheaper.
CHANG: Well, what’s available in the media landscape right now for black and brown audiences who want to learn more about the news, but through a lens that’s specific to them?
HO: They already exist, but most of them are online – I mean, theGrio, The Root. Roland Martin, who was actually offered a job at Black News Channel but turned it down because they didn’t offer him enough pay – he has his own news channel. It’s very small and popular, but he says it’s profitable. I think there are ways to get the news out in a way that works and where the audience is. And unfortunately, the audience isn’t, you know, the particularly young audience isn’t on cable news channels or cable networks anymore.
CHANG: Rodney Ho is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Thank you very much for joining us today.
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