WLBT And Gray Television Do The Right Thing
Today, WLBT is a model for race relations, but in the 1960s things were very different. The original owners had worked zealously against minority rights, using the station’s airways to actively promote segregation.
Things got so bad back then that in 1969 the Federal Communications Commission charged WLBT with what came down to blatant racism, revoking the station’s license. This was not a free speech issue. WLBT had encouraged viewers to defy the government, break the law and mistreat their fellow human beings. Among other things, the station had refused to carry any program that showed African Americans in a positive light. NBC’s Julia, for example, was preempted because it starred Diahann Carroll.
After the revocation, station owners held on for several years through legal challenges. They also tried to clean up their act, but eventually went down in history as the only owners ever to lose their license for racism. A community nonprofit ended up with the station, followed by other owners, all of whom worked hard to make WLBT a different place.
Today, WLBT is an example of how to do race relations right, reflecting the needs, interests and employee makeup of a largely African American community. The same is true for the other stations in town, now one of the most community-reflective markets in the country. No one sees this as unusual. It is the normal way of doing business in Jackson. That is also a legacy of WLBT’s past.
As positive as those things are, to Ted Fortenberry, a native Mississippian, WLBT had an obligation to do even more. That’s when he came up with the big idea.
The television industry is experiencing a shortage of qualified new employees, especially minority ones. What if WLBT did something about that shortage? Not just the usual internships, but a major program partnered with Mississippi’s five historically African American universities to feed fully trained, highly qualified minority graduates into Gray Television’s 113 markets.
Fortenberry’s first call was to his boss, Sandy Breland, a senior vice president with Gray. Breland loved the idea and the two began to bat ideas around. The big idea became even bigger.
By the time the proposal got to Gray President/Co-CEO Pat LaPlatney and EVP/Chief Operating Officer Bob Smith it was a major program with its own facility offering hands-on professional training. Doing it right would require a significant investment, something the Gray executives were happy to approve. The big idea was now becoming a reality.
The Gray Media Training Center will be a first of its kind, housed in a state-of-the-art million-dollar building connected to WLBT’s downtown studios. WLBT employee and Jackson State University graduate Michael White has been named director of operations.
At the groundbreaking and luncheon two weeks ago, LaPlatney pointed out the irony of the center’s location. “In launching the media training center at WLBT, a building that one time stood as a monument to ignorance, we’re using that facility to educate and help train young people. What they will learn will allow them to use fact and truth to help inform citizens of Mississippi and beyond at a time when facts and truth are needed more than ever.”
At the same event, Breland talked about Gray’s commitment to train minority students in all aspects of television, but she also asked that they be “All in … work hard, ask questions, be curious, find your passion. We want you to be ready when opportunity presents itself.”
As for Ted Fortenberry, he points to his own experience growing up in Mississippi and his struggle in college to get the kind of experience that would lead to a job in television saying “Somebody gave me a shot to get that hands-on training. That’s what this program is all about, giving these students an opportunity.”
At its best, television is a business of big ideas. For Ted Fortenberry, his big idea has now become a big reality.
Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, Leading Local Television, has become a standard text for television general managers. In a 30-year general management career, Price led TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/Winston Salem, N.C. Earlier, he was a consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. He is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.