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Media executive Byron Allen on breaking barriers in show business
Geoff Bennett: Time now for our weekend spotlight with media mogul Byron Allen, Chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios, one of the largest privately held media companies in the world.
Byron Allen has been a familiar face for decades. As a stand-up comic, TV host and celebrity interviewer, as he was building his entertainment career, Allen was also building an entertainment business.
He now owns the Weather Channel, 36 local TV stations, and more than a dozen cable and streaming networks. He also produces and distributes more than 60 syndicated TV shows.
Byron Allen: Sometimes we do some talk shows here.
Geoff Bennett: Entertainment Studios, the company he founded is now a billion dollar business. We sat down for a conversation at his Los Angeles studio on the set up his comedy game show Funny You Should Ask.
So let's start at the beginning. Born in Detroit, raised in LA, your mother was a publicist for NBC, and would bring you to work and I imagine that was an incredible education to show business education.
Byron Allen: Oh my god, I had one of the best childhoods ever. My mother got pregnant with me when she was 16 years old. And she had me 17 days after her 17th birthday. So listen, nobody's betting on a little black teenage girl and a little black baby and thinking much it's going to come with that story. But I'm really fortunate. My mother's very smart. She's very beautiful.
When they murdered Martin Luther King in April of '68, they lit up Detroit. The riots were just all across the country. Detroit was hit hard. And my mother and I ended up coming to LA in the summer of '68 for a two-week vacation. And we ended up not going back.
Geoff Bennett: Allen says when his mother started working at NBC, she couldn't afford childcare. So his daily routine involves hanging out at the Network Studios, learning from the greatest comedy stars of the day.
Byron Allen: I'm watching Johnny Carson Tape The Tonight Show. What 13, 14 years old. It's mid that '74, '75 then I walk across the hall and I would watch Red Foxx tape Sanford and Son.
Geoff Bennett: Wow.
Byron Allen: And then I go down the hall and watch Flip Wilson do the Flip Wilson show. And then I go down the hall and watch Jack Albertson and Freddie Prince do Chico and the Man. And I watched Bob Hope tape his specials.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Byron Allen: George Burns do his specials, Dean Martin tape his specials. And I watched some unknown, you know, newscasters. I watched an unknown sportscaster doing the local sports on KNBC.
Geoff Bennett: Was it Brian Gamble?
Byron Allen: It was Brian Gamble and an unknown weatherman, Patts Ajay (ph).
So I'm watching all of this and I'm watching them do soap operas, and I'm watching them do the news and make television, I thought what a wonderful way to go through life.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Byron Allen: Making people laugh, right, making them laugh and making television.
Geoff Bennett: By his early teens, Allen wanted to give comedy a try himself performing stand up at the legendary Comedy Store. His jokes were good enough to get him scouted by Jimmy JJ Walker of Good Times fame. So with just 14, Allen's mother dropped him off at Walker's house where he sat down with to promising young comics pitching jokes at $25 a pop, their names Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Geoff Bennett: By 18, Allen landed a spot on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the youngest comic ever to take that stage.
Byron Allen: I remember standing behind the curtain joking with you know, the crew, and I had my back to the curtain. And all of a sudden they stopped laughing and kidding with me. And then they said they clear their throats like, like Turn around, turn around and was Johnny Carson.
And he had gotten up from behind his desk, and he said, Hey, kid, don't worry, you're going to be great. And they said we'd been pulling the curtain for him for 30 years, whatever, years and they said he has never gotten up from behind the desk and said anything to anybody.
And at that moment, I said, Wow, this guy is one of my heroes. And I said, what I do in the next five minutes will change my life, and my mother's life, the trajectory of our lives forever. So I'm going to go out there, I'm going to have fun, and I'm just going to light it up.
Geoff Bennett: How did you make that transition from performing, to performing and producing? Why was that important for you?
Byron Allen: You know, I realized quickly that it's not show business, its business show.
Geoff Bennett: In the early 90s, Allen built the foundation of his business from his dining room table, calling hundreds of TV stations and pitching his first syndicated show entertainers with Byron Allen.
Byron Allen: I started you know, smiling and Island, ballin and smile and keep smiling. I would start it like I'm in LA, right. So I'd start at like 5:30 in the morning, five in the morning, you know, try and get some of the general managers get into their desk early at eight, on the East Coast, 8:30 before they had a secretary hanging up on me. I called all 1,300 television stations.
Geoff Bennett: Wow.
Byron Allen: And from sunup to sundown, I literally wore holes in my chair in my dining room chairs, just sitting there all day.
Geoff Bennett: And you probably got more nos than yeses I would imagine.
Byron Allen: I got probably about 50,000 nos to get to about 150 yeses. And it wasn't easy. I mean, they were hanging up on me. And they were telling the receptionist don't ever put him through again, still, and I would get around the receptionist. I had so many ways. I was coming up with ways to get around the receptionist.
Tom, good to see you.
Tom Cruise, Actor: Good to seeing you.
Geoff Bennett: Eventually, Allen got about 150 TV stations to say yes, covering every major market. He offered entertainers for free. But with a 50-50 split of the built in commercial time. That success led to the purchase of the Weather Channel for more than $300 million in 2018.
Byron Allen: We made history with the Weather Channel. It's the very first mainstream news operation owned by an African American.
Geoff Bennett: He also purchased The Grio, a news network focused on African Americans. And earlier this year bought and rebranded the Black News Channel.
Byron Allen: I wanted to own it because I really wanted to help be a part of that conversation, especially for black America. And now The Grio is one of the most visited news sites and information sites for black America.
Geoff Bennett: And this past summer, Allen entered the world of professional sports, but ultimately lost his bid to buy the Denver Broncos, which would have made him the NFL first black owner. But he says he's confident he'll get the next one. He's reportedly preparing a bid for the Washington Commanders.
So you're in the market to purchase an NFL team. Why is that so important to you?
Byron Allen: Very important, because I want young black kids to not only see us play the game, but own the game. I'm a kid from Detroit, born to a teenage girl. And it's not a bad day at the office when you're losing to the richest family in the world, the Walmart family.
And I think that -- I think this is something that is long overdue. I think it's a goal that will be achieved. I think over the next, you know, I think will easily have to the fourteens come up for sale over the next 12 to 36 months. And I will aggressively pursue getting one of those teams.
Geoff Bennett: So it's a matter of when not if.
Byron Allen: We're on it.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Byron Allen: We're going to chase it down. Like we're going to chase it down like a lion chases a gazelle. We chase down.
Geoff Bennett: I heard you say that it was not your intention to have Entertainment Studios to have you be the CEO in the sole shareholder that that was a consequence of other people choosing not to invest. Is that right?
Byron Allen: I owe one of the largest privately held media companies in the world. 100 percent. Why? Because I'm black. And I could not find investors. No one would invest in me. That's a big problem for a lot of black entrepreneurs.
The miracle about this company that's about to celebrate its 30th, you know, year is that the first 15 years of this company, I couldn't get a bank loan. I watched my white counterparts constantly raise money like it was nothing. And that turned out to be a blessing. And a lot of people looked at it as a curse.
The way I look at it is two guys go to the gym. And one guy has to benchpress 50 pounds every day. And the other guy has to benchpress 500 pounds every day. Which guy is going to be bigger and stronger and unstoppable. The guy you're making benchpress 500 pounds a day.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Byron Allen: So they made me benchpress 500 pounds a day. And that just made me bigger and stronger and unstoppable.
Geoff Bennett: When you think back to the early 90s when you were at that kitchen, table dining room table bowl 15, 16 hours a day dialing and smiling. Did you know that this would be the end result that this would ultimately come into fruition one day?
Byron Allen: Yes. This is what I envision day one biggest media company in the world. No close second. This is a fraction of what we're going to do.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Byron Allen: We haven't even begun. The first 20, 30 years was the hardest, that was laying down the foundation. Now we've laid down the foundation, watch the skyscraper go up.