Entrepreneur of the MonthTony Brown
May 3, 2008
One of the most sought-after and controversial speakers in the United States, Tony Brown (born 1933)also hosts "Tony Brown's Journal," one of the Public Broadcasting Station's longest-running shows. He hosts the syndicated radio call-in show "Tony Brown" at WLIBAM New York and his books include "Empower the People"and "Black Lies, White Lies". Most of his efforts are geared toward encouraging African Americans to improve their economic destiny by helping themselves.
Gave Rise to Ambition On April 11, 1933, in Charleston, West Virginia, William Anthony (Tony) Brown became the fifth childborn to Royal Brown and the former Katherine Davis.His mother had been having children since the age of 16. There was tension in the marriage from early on due to the different complexions of Royal, alight-skinned mulatto, and Katherine, a dark-skinned beauty. (At that time, the lighter the skin of an African American, the higher his or her rank in society, and vice versa.) Royal's parents had opposed the union, despite the abundant accomplishments of Katherine's family. In addition, the ferocious racism of the small Southern town drove a wedge between the young couple. Unemployed and increasingly frustrated, Royal left with another woman for Philadelphia two months before his last child arrived.
It was into this turbulent world that Tony was born. Katherine was crushed by the desertion and may have suffered from postpartum depression after his birth. Virtually unable to care for the baby, she allowed a concerned neighbor, Elizabeth Sanford, and herdaughter, Mabel, to take the starving two-month-old Tony to live with them. Although poor and uneducated, Elizabeth, whom Brown would always call "Mama," and Mabel cared for and raised the boy lovingly as though he were their own until they died within months of each other when he was 12 years old. Brown still credits them not only with saving his life, but with giving him confidence and a sense of self-worth.
Forced to rely on his mother again for support, Brown moved in with her in a housing project in a decrepit area of Charleston known as the Minor. Meanwhile, his parents had divorced. Although he had grown accustomed to poverty, Brown always dreamed of having enough food and clothes. He demonstrated his developing ambitionand resourcefulness early on when he started selling soft drink bottles around the neighborhood. Through hard work and determination, he earned enough to buy a rooster and a hen and started a little poultry farm. Soon he was able to sell fresh chicken and eggs to his neighbors at a great profit. He also got paid for putting on shows with his friends at the nearby Furgerson Theater.
Excelled in School, Developed Love of Performing
Brown started in Charleston's public school system in 1939, when he was six. His first school was Boyd Elementary, and from there he graduated to Boyd Junior High. When he entered Garnet High School as a teenager, he joined the track team, running the 220-and 440-yard races and relays. An eager and attentive student, Brown did well in school but particularly in English and drama. His teachers in those subjects encouraged him enormously, realizing his potential. Despite a slight shyness and natural reserve, he won a leading role in the play Our Town,and just before graduation in 1951 he performed parts of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar on the local radio station.
After working for two years after graduation, Brown joined the army in 1953. He eventually made the rank of corporal before leaving in 1955 to study psychology and sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated with a degree in 1959 despite having worked part-time at a warehouse to pay for his education. Brown had become convinced that he could help fellow African Americans improve their generally dire economic circumstances and remained at Wayne State until 1961 to earn his masters degree in social work. His educational focus, psychiatric social work,meant that he was assigned some of the most tragic and difficult cases in the city, and by 1962 he had had enough.
Career in Social Work Yielded to Media Involvement
In the meantime, Brown had protested racial segregation during massive marches that he organized and that were led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on these experiences, Brown decided that the media would be the conveyor of his messages to black Americans. He found a job as a drama critic with the Detroit Courier and quickly moved up the ladder to city editor. In 1968 he left the paper to take a job as public affairs programmer for Detroit's public television station, WTVS. He soon became producer of the station's first show specifically for African Americans, "CPT," or"Colored People's Time." Meanwhile, Brown also tried his hand at hosting for the first time on the station's community program "Free Play."
While Brown worked at WTVS for the remainder of the 1960s, a program called "Black Journal" began airing in New York City. Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the show investigated political and social issues relevant to African Americans through interviews, surveys, documentaries, and editorial commentaries. "Black Journal" had won the Emmy, Peabody, and Russwurm awards by 1970.
Later that year, Brown was invited to work as executive producer and host of "Black Journal." He accepted, but within months his candor and unflattering commentaries on the government were igniting controversy and criticism from people at all levels of the broadcasting industry. His allegations of racism in public broadcasting were especially ill-received. The controversy, however, sparked interest in the show and its ratings skyrocketed. The station expanded "Black Journal" from its original once-a-month feature to a weekly, 30-minute show.
Aggressive Style Sparked Controversy
Although his goal was to emphasize the positive aspects of African Americanism, Brown occasionally ran into trouble with his viewers, who perceived him as arrogant, condescending, and out of touch with the experiences of the average black person. Brown'semphasis on self-help may have caused this reaction, but his purpose, to give African Americans self-respect, remained firm.
Brown was one of the first people to encourage blacks to enter the television industry, and most of his staff came from the local community. He located production companies willing to teach his trainees and help them find jobs in the field. His work led to his appointment as the founding dean of the Howard University School of Communications, and he used this position to launch the Careers in Communications Conference. This became an annual event that still helps students find work in the communications industry. Brown resigned as dean in 1974.
When the CPB withdrew its funding of "Black Journal"for the 1973 - 1974 season, the African American community responded with outrage. The corporation relented and agreed to fund the show but instead reduced its airtime. Brown took matters into his ownhands in 1977. Determined to keep the faltering show alive and frustrated with the limits imposed by the CPB, he negotiated a contract with the Pepsi Cola Company to sponsor the show. Brown changed the program's name to "Tony Brown's Journal" and left the relatively sheltered world of public television. The syndicated show began airing in 85 cities nationwide, and he also started doing a successful segment called "Tony Brown at Daybreak" on WRC-TV in Washington, D.C.However, Brown soon became dissatisfied with the odd viewing times commercial stations offered "Tony Brown's Journal," so in 1982 he moved the show back to public television.
Campaigned Hard for Black Educationand Economic Empowerment
Throughout the 1980s, Brown was instrumental in improving the outlook and atmosphere for African Americans in the academic world. He launched "Black College Day" in 1982, in what was called a one-man effort to save and support colleges dedicated to serving blacks. In 1985, he founded the Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans, whose motto is "Buy Freedom." The group's main platform is that blacks should patronize businesses displaying the "Freedom Seal," which signified a black owner who had agreed to be courteous, offer competitive prices, provide employment, give discounts, and stay involved in the community.
Brown's most inspired attempt to reach African Americans through the media came in 1988, when he released a cautionary film about cocaine abuse titled The White Girl. He wrote, directed, produced, and distributed the film himself, and while it was panned by the critics, it gave Brown a medium in which to address what he perceived as "two destructive trends in society: drug addiction and self-hate." Ignoring the negative reviews, he circulated the film throughout the black community for the next 18 months. Local groups showed it for a small profit, benefiting both Brown and charitable causes.
Became an Author to Reach Audience
In the 1990s, Brown began writing books to broadcast his message of self-help and self-respect to African Americans. His first book, Black Lies, White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown, came out in 1995. With its innovative approach to making the United State more economically competitive and suggestions of ways to solve the country's racial issues, the book was well received among blacks, although not reviewers. His next book, Empower the People: A 7-Step Plan to Overthrow the Conspiracy That Is Stealing Your Money, was published in 1999 and presented, as his publisher put it, as "a practical plan to reclaim our resources and institutions from a selfish and exclusive power elite." It has also enjoyed steady success despite some less than positive reviews. Brown's What Mama Taught Me: The Seven Core Values of Life appeared on bookshelves in 2003. Literally the story of his life,Brown uses himself as an example of what people can overcome and achieve with the help of self-empowerment.
Brown, a prominent and influential member of the Republican Party, lives in New York City, where he hosts a call-in radio program on WLIB AM and continuesto host the now-syndicated "Tony Brown's Journal." He is an occasional commentator on the popular National Public Radio show "All Things Considered" and appears regularly on C-Span, CNBC, and other major networks. He is also the founder of Tony Brown Productions, Inc., which produces television programs and movies and markets videotapes from a collection called "The Library of Black History." Brown is a member of numerous boards and advisory committees, including the Shaw Divinity School, The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. Talkers, the premiere radio trade magazine, has named Brown one of the top 100 most important talk show hosts in the country, and USA Today chose him as one of the top five U.S. experts on the status of African Americans.
Brown married in 1970 and had a son, Byron Anthony Brown, in 1971. The marriage ended in divorce in 1974.