Byron Allen: Too much talk, not enough action on advertising equity
Byron Allen first made his mark in the entertainment industry on stand-up comedy stages, but these days, when discussing the state of advertising investment on Black-owned and Black-targeted media, the powerful mogul is pulling no punches.
“It’s time to stop the excuses,” Allen said, calling on brand marketers and their agencies to allocate their advertising budgets in a way that more closely aligns ]with Black representation in the broader American population.
“We as African Americans represent approximately 14% of the population, and we believe the ad spend should be approximately 15% going to Black-owned media,” Allen said. “With that kind of capital getting invested in Black-owned media, all boats will rise, all ships will sail. Right now, there isn’t enough.”
Allen’s remarks came during a recent TVNewsCheck webinar, “Unity In Black Media,” in-conversation with the publication’s co-founder and publisher Kathy Haley. Allen, the founder, chairman and CEO of the Allen Media Group, which owns dozens of TV stations, 10 cable networks, a portfolio of streaming services and a TV and film production company, also discussed the Black Owned Media Matters initiative he launched in 2020. His goal with the movement: Spread awareness about the lack of investment into Black media enterprises and to compel change.
“We’ve given everybody, now, two years to show us who they are, not say who they are, [but] show us,” Allen said. “The only way you show us [is] through the numbers, and if the numbers aren’t where they should be, that’s where the accountability starts to kick in.”
Black-Owned And Black-Targeted Media Both Need More Support
He doesn’t just want to see the numbers improve for Black-owned media companies. Black-targeted publishers, such as BET, which is owned by Paramount, should also be better supported, he said. One way that can happen is if advertisers devote funds to media companies in both categories, with each amount commensurate with the size of the Black American population. As Allen pointed out, advertisers tend to think they’re doing their due diligence by spreading their already relatively scant spend across both areas. But that’s insufficient in Allen’s mind.
Allen’s efforts have already secured monetary commitments to the cause from a number of organizations, including General Motors. The auto giant announced in 2020 that it intended to spend 4% of its advertising on Black-owned media companies in 2022 and up that ante to 8% by 2025.
While “some folks are leaning in” to the chance to make systemic changes, Allen said, “there are some folks who are not.” Those companies that deny opportunities for Black media companies to thrive on the basis of race, Allen said, “unfortunately” run the risk of seeing “major legal action” taken against them.
He has sued Charter Communications, AT&T and, last year, McDonald’s, for various forms of racial discrimination. However, he told Haley he does not consider himself “litigious,” and said he’s involved the courts only “to bring the truth out, so people can see the numbers.”
Allen also does not want to come off as particularly confrontational, either. He said he’s not into threats and is giving White corporate leaders who engage with him “the benefit of the doubt.” He stressed that he’s simply “here to communicate to make it better” — for not only Black-owned media companies, but groups that target Black consumers as well.
Systemic racism in the business community
“The greatest trade deficit in America is the trade deficit between White corporate America and Black America,” Allen said. “It’s that trade deficit that is the very root of the systemic racism in America.”
He asks White-run media outlets to cease discussing crime as endemic to Black communities until they throw greater support behind education efforts directed at Black Americans as well as Black economic inclusion. Should that ever happen, crime would decrease significantly, Allen said, and America “will not need its prisons.”
Allen’s put his money where his mouth is on this front. In 2022, the Allen Media Group purchased the Black News Channel — which was not Black-owned at the time — out of bankruptcy. Lest anyone think Allen, who is bald, has completely lost his sense of humor in his second act as an executive, he told Haley the Black News Channel sold $3.6 million in ads for “1-800-Spray-On-Hair, which I probably should buy a can of, myself.” But he also said the reason the station entered bankruptcy was because in the previous year it “wrote up less than $2 million in advertising” that was “non-direct response.”
“White corporate America should be ashamed of themselves for that simple fact,” Allen said, returning to the more pointed but measured tone he assumed throughout most of the webinar. “I have all the books, I have all the records, I knew everybody they reached out to, I saw every excuse and every lie.”
DEI’s role in media buying
He went on to explain that The Grio, the Allen Media Group’s streaming platform geared toward Black viewers, assumed the Black News Channel’s distribution and, overnight, TheGrio entered 55 million homes, becoming the United States’ first Black-owned and -targeted network. The Allen Media Group then bought the rights to what he told Haley was “99.9% of all Black college sports” for air on TheGrio.
“We took those sporting events [and] paid the HBCU millions of dollars to help educate Black kids in America,” Allen said.
But in spite of these maneuvers, made during a time of widespread corporate pledges for enhanced diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), sparked in part by the killing of George Floyd and the rejuvenation of the Black Lives Matter movement, Allen said no sponsors came calling. The Grio had to reach out to them.
“We had to pick up the phone and call everybody and say, ‘Excuse me, don’t say “DE&I”; it’s time to live DE&I,’” Allen said. “We shouldn’t have to call you to get you into Black college sports, supporting the education of Black kids in America on a 100% Black-owned cable network.”
Sponsorships key, particularly for startups
Allen also called on marketers to prove they are “leaning in” by buying “sponsorship, non-guaranteed” ads, no different than when they purchase ads during the Super Bowl for “$7 million a pop.”
“They’re setting a precedent of buying things that are non-guaranteed for White media, but not for Black media,” Allen said. “That’s the very definition of differential treatment and of discrimination.”
“It’s not like they don’t have opportunity,” Haley responded to Allen. “You’re talking about sports, which is premium programming, on The Grio. “Why wouldn’t a beer company or a car company attach their name to that?”
“Because we’re Black and they don’t care,” Allen said. “They say they do, but they don’t do it.”
If White corporate America decides to care and actually show it, Allen believes it will reverse a trend toward this country’s self-immolation. He said Coretta Scott King once noted that her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., was not assassinated after his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. He was murdered a couple months after a speech at Stanford University called “The Other America” in which he discussed economic inclusion for Blacks and everyone in the U.S.
“We can no longer afford lots of people who are not really being supported and positioned for great success,” Allen said. “America will implode if we don’t bring balance to the system.”
Watch the full Unity in Black Media webinar here.