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Roland Martin believes in Black-owned media, and he’s using his own money to prove it

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A portrait of a man with his hand under his chin in thought
American journalist Roland Martin.
(Jared Soares / For The Times)

Veteran journalist and political analyst Roland Martin’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., is filled with vibrant paintings and prints by Black artists. But the one that speaks loudest is the large collage topped with bold, large letters that say #BlackOwnedMediaMatters.

Covering an entire wall, the piece displays front pages from various publications such as Jet, Ebony, Essence, the Pittsburgh Courier, Negro Digest, Savoy and the NAACP’s journal, the Crisis. There are logos from the first Black-owned TV station, WGPR in Detroit, and TV One, the cable channel where Martin anchored a daily news program.

It’s a legacy Martin wanted to follow when, in 2018, he launched his own streaming news show, “#RolandMartinUnfiltered,” aimed at Black audiences. Three years later, it became the flagship for his Black Star Network, which now has seven shows.

When Martin, 53, describes his entrepreneurial vision, he cites an 1827 quote from Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first Black newspaper: “We wish to plead our own cause; too long have others spoken for us.”

While mainstream news organizations have added more diversity on camera and in the executive suite, Martin says having sources dedicated to Black audiences still matters.

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“The most important thing we have in Black-owned media is authenticity and trust,” Martin said. “We are perceived differently. They see us as family.”

Martin toiled for a number of Black-owned outlets — he ran the Chicago Defender and launched the digital platform for Tom Joyner’s syndicated radio program. But his popularity skyrocketed when he became a cable news fixture as a commentator for CNN from 2007 to 2013.

“Roland has always had the pulse of Black America,” said veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien, a colleague of Martin’s at CNN. “He’s a truth-teller.”

A staunch defender of former President Barack Obama, Martin was a bold voice during CNN’s political coverage, which earned a Peabody Award in 2008. He also drove the network to pay more attention to such stories as the Trayvon Martin killing. He combined passion with a mastery of detailed facts.

“He never got ahead of his skis,” O’Brien recalled. “He would use long verbatim quotes, and they would be accurate.”

CNN ratings spiked whenever Martin appeared on the cable channel’s programs. Such data would ordinarily be a reason to give a personality a show of his own.

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But being a fiery communicator who takes no prisoners — especially when opposing talking heads spout misinformation — made some TV news executives uncomfortable.

“A network president said to a friend of mine that ‘Roland is like a strong cup of black coffee,’” Martin recalled during a recent interview at his office. “And I said to my friend, ‘The value of a strong cup of black coffee is that it shakes you out of your complacency.’ I think in many ways the strong and black part are what’s problematic. I’ve heard ‘Oh, you’re arrogant, you’re cocky.’ No, I’m confident. I know what I know.”

A man poses inside of a TV network studio.
When Martin, 53, describes his entrepreneurial vision, he cites an 1827 quote from Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first Black newspaper: “We wish to plead our own cause; too long have others spoken for us.”
(Jared Soares / For The Times)

Martin called out lies on TV before it became standard operating procedure in recent years, and he received pushback for it.

“The media was in this thing where they literally did not want to say the word ‘lie,’” Martin said. “It was, ‘Well in order for us to use the word lie, that means that we have to know the intention of the person who said it.’ I said, ‘If I came home late at 2 a.m. and I said I was out doing something else, my daddy would say, “Why you lying to me?” not, “Son, what is your intention?”’"

Martin left CNN to become anchor of a daily newscast, “NewsOne Now,” on TV One, where he already hosted a weekly Beltway talk show. It was canceled in 2017 after four years due to budget cuts, despite earning a loyal following and an NAACP Image Award.

By that time, Martin, a student of the technical side of TV, realized how streaming video offered the opportunity for ownership, editorial freedom and the ability to target an audience seeking his perspective. Using his own funds ($400,000 was the initial investment), Martin created “#RolandMartinUnfiltered,” a daily two-hour show distributed through an app, social media sites and streaming video platforms such as Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV. Today, he has nearly 900,000 subscribers on YouTube, where the show first launched, and 11 employees.

Martin knew his fan base would respond. In the small lobby of the 5,000-square-foot office space he converted into a studio, there are oil paintings and sketches created by devoted viewers of his TV One programs.

Martin’s voice was welcomed as major stories such as the police murder of George Floyd and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic made race and equity issues a major national conversation. In 2020, his program averaged 30 million views a month and turned a profit, he said. Like all other news platforms, its viewership ebbed in 2021, but he says his channel is still drawing between 15 million to 20 million views a month.

The “CBS This Morning Saturday” host is bringing a lifetime of experience to the network’s George Floyd coverage.

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Major advertisers have signed on, including Procter & Gamble, General Motors, Verizon, Target and Coca-Cola. He is on track to take in $3.5 million in revenue this year, up from $3 million in 2021.

Martin’s venture grew at the same time that Black News Channel — a cable channel funded by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan — launched and then folded inside of two years. Martin predicted the demise, noting that BNC could not sustain itself at a time when traditional pay TV subscriptions are in a slow but steady decline.

“They tried to scale on a level that their money could not afford,” Martin said.

Martin’s venture demonstrates how well-known personalities with devoted followings can take control of their own destiny by adapting to streaming.

“He has a special appeal to his fans, and that keeps him going,” said Jon Klein, a former CNN president who has developed subscription streaming channels built around individual personalities. “He knows that it’s resonating. You don’t need a huge following to make a lot of money.”

Growing up in the Clinton Park section of Houston, Martin got his business education by working for his grandmother’s catering service, where he observed negotiations with customers and vendors. Those lessons taught him how to operate with a lean staff and limited resources.

Martin knows the function, model number and cost of every piece of video equipment he uses. When he travels to Los Angeles or events such as the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, he will bank hours of interviews for future programs and archival material. When young producers at his company are presented with an opportunity for a higher-paying job elsewhere, he encourages them to take it and fills the role with a salary he can afford.

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A man wearing all black stands in a TV news station.
In 2020, Martin’s program averaged 30 million views a month and turned a profit, he said.
(Jared Soares / For The Times)

Martin’s daily two-hour program does not try to reinvent the cable news. He leads discussions on the biggest stories of the day, most of them Washington-based. The difference is every topic is examined through the prism of what it means to Black Americans with experts not often seen on other outlets.

“During the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, I said, ‘Get me every Black dean of an HBCU law school,’” Martin said. When the pandemic hit, he featured professors from HBCU medical schools and Xavier University.

“There is a huge reservoir of knowledge and intellect there that folks don’t tap into,” he said.

Stories that have an impact on the Black community and get a segment or two on mainstream outlets will get a full program from Martin. He streamed live for six days from Tulsa, Okla., to cover the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Black Wall Street.

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He will often wear the colors of a historically Black college or university or one of the dashikis he had custom-made during visits to Africa. His set features images of Black icons such as journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Harry Belafonte, as well as a pair of Nike Air Force 1 sneakers that commemorate Colin Kaepernick.

“I’m just proud to have him be someone that can sit in certain situations and circles and represent and speak for the culture because again he is the culture,” said actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry. “Roland knows us inside and out because it’s his DNA.”

Martin said Black Star Network is the fulfillment of a dream he’s had since his days as a student in the communications program offered by Yates High School in Houston.

Martin’s childhood was steeped in current affairs before studying journalism at Texas A&M. His parents were politically active, working on local campaigns and forming a civic association in their neighborhood. His father, a railroad worker, was a heavy viewer of local and network TV news.

Martin had to speed-read his household’s daily newspaper so he could get it back in the plastic delivery bag in pristine condition before his father returned home from work. “Black fathers didn’t play with their papers,” he said. “You didn’t touch it until he finished it.”

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His rapid reading skills helped him plow through 300 library books every summer as a student. He also immersed himself in the leather-bound volumes of the “Ebony Pictorial History of Black America,” turning him into a human search engine of important African American milestones and civil rights figures.

In the digital age, Martin can be a boisterous presence on social media, where has more than 3 million followers. It got him into trouble in 2012 when, during the Super Bowl, he tweeted about a commercial with soccer star David Beckham. (“If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him!” he wrote.)

Critics said Martin’s jokes promoted violence against gay people. He was suspended by CNN for a month and had a meeting with the media watchdog group GLAAD, which called for his firing.

GLAAD accepted Martin’s apology for the tweets. Martin stands by his record on LGBTQ issues, having called for the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and supporting gay adoption. He gave national attention to the case of Ed Buck, a wealthy political activist who used drugs to exploit gay Black men, two of whom died of overdoses. He also picked LGBTQ hosts to fill in for him on his TV One program.

But being a provocative personality can be an obstacle when dealing with advertisers.

Even though many companies committed to spending more on Black-owned and -targeted media outlets after Floyd’s death and the uprisings that followed, Martin said it’s still a struggle to get the attention from ad agencies.

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Lately, Martin has heard agencies raise issues about “brand safety,” as executives fear running their ads during content they perceive as too divisive or disturbing. It’s why Martin has developed several non-news shows, including a celebrity interview series, “Rollin’ With Roland,” and programs dealing with personal finance, tech, culture and mental health.

But he does not want to stray too far from confronting social justice, voting rights and other issues facing the Black community. “If you choose to go safe, you lose what makes you powerful,” he said.

A man stands in a black T-shirt stands in front of green screen fabric.
Martin said Black Star Network is the fulfillment of a dream he’s had since his days as a student in the communications program offered by Yates High School in Houston.
(Jared Soares / For The Times)

Despite the challenges, Martin is determined to keep Black Star Network free for its users. He believes many of his followers could not afford the cost of a monthly subscription for his programs. He supplements his ad revenue by soliciting contributions through fan club memberships and has amassed 35,000 since he launched.

While most donors use online payments, Martin stops by a post office box and picks up mailed-in contributions as well. During a recent visit to his office, he pulled a stash of checks and money orders and a wad of bills out of his overstuffed backpack.

Martin’s eyes fill with tears as he recounts how fans come up to him at appearances and remote broadcasts with cash in hand. He shows a dollar bill folded into an origami heart, given to him by a wheelchair-bound elderly woman he encountered at an airport in Atlanta.

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“She said, ‘This is all I have — our people need your voice,’” Martin said. “They will put cash in my hand and say, ‘Thank you — you keep giving them hell.’”

Another fan, New York scenic designer Harlan Penn, donated his services to create one of Black Star Network’s sets. “I saw this as my way of giving back to a cause which is greater than me,” Penn said.

Martin did not want to launch Black Star Network on his own. But some potential partners kept talking about an eventual sale, instead of the mission of providing a news and information source for his audience. He believes the pressure to continue to attract investors and raise money is not good for journalism.

But Martin is a realist. He believes Black-owned media is still too fragmented, making it easier for the ad industry to ignore.

“I think we should be looking at partnering with one another to achieve a level of scale so we can take down additional ad dollars,” he said. “To negate the excuse that we can’t.”

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