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Widening the Scope of Soul, Via Cable : Donnie Simpson, host of ‘Video Soul,’ gives viewers a larger glimpse of what black artists are really like

The black Johnny Carson? The Ed Sullivan of the cable age? The Dick Clark of soul?

Donnie Simpson has been called all these things--and more. As the host of “Video Soul,” the highest-rated show on the Washington-based Black Entertainment Television cable channel, Simpson presides over a funky two-hour mix of live interviews and urban-oriented music videos that is seen five days a week by an estimated 225,000 households around the United States.

“ ‘Video Soul’ represents to black artists today what Ed Sullivan or ‘American Bandstand’ must have meant years ago to entertainers like Elvis and the Beatles when they were starting out,” says recording star Bobby Brown, whose videos were played by “Video Soul” long before they were accepted by MTV. “Thanks to Donnie, black artists have a chance to speak their mind and expose a more personal side.”

Besides helping launch the video careers of such contemporary rap and soul stars as Brown, LL Cool J, Keith Sweat, Run-DMC, Luther Vandross and Regina Belle, “Video Soul” also offers its viewers a touch of music history by regularly spotlighting the latest works by such R&B; veterans as George Clinton, Betty Wright, Al Green and Mavis Staples.

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But music isn’t the only reason fans tune in.

“Soul Train"--the nationally syndicated show hosted and produced by Don Cornelius--has showcased the music of black performers in a dance format on national TV for nearly two decades.

“Video Soul” widens the scope a step further, featuring more in-depth interviews with the artists. Simpson, in fact, credits the interview segments with setting his show apart from other music and video programs.

“I admire Don Cornelius and all he’s done, but for a long time, the only outlet for black artists was ‘Soul Train.’ You go on . . . you perform your song . . . and you answer a couple of questions about where you got your jewelry and what your sign is and then you’re out of there,” Simpson said during a recent stopover in Los Angeles. “But our show is different. It gives the audience a glimpse of what the artist is really like.”

Simpson, 36, came to BET from radio station WKYS-FM in Washington, where he continues as a deejay and program director. After being involved with black music radio stations for more than 20 years, Simpson has strong feelings about what he perceives as the entertainment industry’s reluctance to promote records by black artists. He complains that prime time television music award shows like the Grammys frequently overlook the work of black radio’s funkier stars, opting instead to honor more pop-oriented acts.

“The industry needs to remember that people who buy pop records appreciate musical styles that are not strictly pop-sounding,” Simpson said. “For example, look at Aretha Franklin. When she came out with ‘Respect,’ she was about as far away from being a pop act as anyone could imagine. She didn’t look, sing or dance like a pop singer. Yet pop audiences found her irresistible.”

Thanks to “Video Soul,” which is now in its eighth year, Simpson has become a household name in the black community. According to BET President Robert L. Johnson, Simpson--a stylish dresser with a calm, relaxed manner--preceded Arsenio Hall as the first black male to host a daily television show in prime time. Like Hall, he attracts a racially mixed audience.

“Admittedly, the focus is on black music, but lots of white, Asian and Hispanic people are into black music, and our program gives them access to material they’ll never see on MTV or VH-1,” said Simpson, who estimates that only about half of his audience is black.

Because of Simpson’s easygoing nature and his ability to reach a music-conscious audience, press-shy stars such as Janet Jackson have gone out of their way to grant him interviews.

“The thing about Donnie is that he does his homework,” says R&B; crooner Luther Vandross. “He knows your music and he can get you to talk about it in a very conversational way. Being on ‘Video Soul’ is sort of like sitting around and talking to a friend at home. You forget that the cameras are on.”

Record companies insist that “Video Soul” is not just the best vehicle on television for showcasing R&B; and “urban contemporary” (the industry’s umbrella term for a wide range of primarily black styles) videos, it is the only outlet available. (“Soul Train” doesn’t feature videos.)

Linda Haynes, R&B; publicity director at Virgin Records, maintains that MTV ignores music clips by R&B; and urban artists until a performer has a proven track record on the pop charts.

Videos by MTV Award winners such as Whitney Houston and Paula Abdul played for months on “Video Soul” before MTV or VH-1 decided to promote their clips, she said.

“Long before Paula hit it big in the pop world, Donnie recognized her potential. BET actively supported her music and videos from day one,” Haynes added.

Linda Alexander, MTV’s West Coast press director in Los Angeles, attributes the differences in programming between the two cable channels to the audience each targets.

While MTV was once criticized for ignoring black artists, the network is now home to the nation’s most popular rap music show, “Yo! MTV Raps.” Black music is also featured regularly on “Club MTV” and on “Inner Visions” on MTV’s sister station, VH-1. Still, Alexander admits that the station’s focus is not R&B-oriented.;

“People turn on MTV for rock and pop-oriented music, not R&B;,” Alexander said. “But as soon as an R&B; artist, for instance Bobby Brown or Janet Jackson, crosses over into the pop-rock field, MTV is right on top of it.”

No matter how unique “Video Soul’s” perspective may be, the show has a long way to go before BET’s ratings reach the level of MTV, CNN or ESPN in the top ranks of basic cable services. According to Kagan Associates, a media consulting firm, BET ranks 20th out of 42 basic cable services in number of viewers.

Even so, R&B; fans represent a substantial, untapped market for advertisers. According to the network, more than 100 corporate sponsors such as American Express, Toyota, Michelob, Pontiac and Amtrak keep the show’s advertising budget sold out long in advance.

Nick Howse, vice president/media director at Burrell Advertising, a Chicago-based agency specializing in segmented marketing whose clients include Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Ford Motor Co. and Procter & Gamble, says Simpson’s show is the most cost-efficient vehicle available on national television for targeting a young black audience.

“ ‘Video Soul’ is the only property which covers a wide range of the (black) music spectrum, as opposed to say ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ or ‘Soul Train,’ ” Howse said. “It is the only daily national TV program designed specifically to reach African Americans, both teens and young adults.”

Simpson feels one of the show’s strengths is that is appeals to both teens and adults.

He was distressed last fall when BET informed him that the focus of his program would be altered to accommodate the debut of the channel’s new hip-hop video show “Rap City.”

The move resulted in a phasing out of guest appearances by rap artists on “Video Soul” in favor more adult-oriented entertainers, such as Stanley Turrentine and Ramsey Lewis.

“What many people in the industry fail to recognize is that rap is adult music,” Simpson said. “Kids who got into it when they were 17 are adults now. They’ve grown up with the music and they love it. I can appreciate the idea of trying to reach a more mature audience, but I don’t think you have to avoid rap to do that.”

If it were up to him, Simpson would expand the program’s scope rather than narrow it. Attributing “Video Soul’s” broad appeal to its unorthodox play list, he contends that the show’s eclectic focus should not be tampered with.

“Look at Lee Trevino’s golf swing. Look at Magic Johnson’s set shot--nobody else plays the way they do, still it works for them,” Simpson said. “It took me the first 11 years of my career to learn that there is no ‘right’ way to do anything. The only thing you can do in this life any better than anyone else is be yourself.”


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