Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

Percy Sutton Dies, Media-Ownership Pioneer

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Percy Sutton, third from left, is one of the 'Gang of Four (Harlem)' depicted in a documentary planned by Double 7 World films. From left are former New York mayor David Dinkins, former New York secretary of state Basil Paterson, Sutton and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

Power Broker Co-Founded Inner City Broadcasting

Percy Sutton, a pioneer in African American radio ownership in addition to his roles as New York political power broker, Tuskegee Airman, civil rights attorney and lawyer for Malcolm X and his family, died Saturday at age 89, the Associated Press reported on Sunday. 

"Marissa Shorenstein, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Paterson, confirmed that Sutton died Saturday. She did not know the cause," the AP story said.  His family told the New York Times he died in a Manhattan nursing home.

"He was a pioneer. A man who did so much for New York," Elinor Tatum, editor and publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, told Journal-isms. "He allowed WLIB to be a voice for all for so long. In politics he broke down barriers and made sure to bring others along with him. A devoted family man and a good friend. He will be truly missed.

"He helped to make Black Radio what it is today." 

"Mr. Sutton's business empire included, over the years, radio stations, cable television systems and national television programs. Another business invested in Africa. Still another sold interactive technology to radio stations," Douglas Martin wrote for the New York Times.

Sutton told Gina Imperato of Inc. magazine two years ago, "I got into radio because I feel if you are a people who have been injured, one of the most important things is to get ahold of the media and use it to define yourself before it defines you."

Fellow black-media entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, chairperson of Radio One, considered the largest black-owned radio-station group in the nation, told Journal-isms, "Percy Sutton was truly the Chairman in every sense of the word and the world was blessed that God allowed us to share in his life for 89 wonderful years.  The black owned radio industry was made much better because of his participation and his class and style will be sorely missed."

Her son and business partner, Alfred Liggins, CEO of Radio One, told Broadcasting & Cable in 2005, "Percy Sutton started it all. We at Radio One aspired to emulate Percy and Inner City Broadcasting, as did any black broadcaster of any size and scale."

"The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB as it commonly called) was formed with the guidance and support of Mr. Percy Sutton," Sherman K. Kizart, managing director of Kizart Media Partners, said in RadioInk. "Today, NABOB represents the interests of 300 African American
radio and television owners."

Although the New York Amsterdam News was Sutton's most well-known newspaper investment, he told the National Newspaper Publishers Association in 1999 that a small paper called the Courier preceded it. He was named Manhattan borough president in 1966 and held that job until 1977.

"I was borough president when I bought the Courier. At the time the circulation was just 2,000," he said, Vinette K. Pryce reported then in the Amsterdam News. "I would read all the newspapers at night and my wife would help me by typing up the stories. She also drove the truck," he added.

"Sutton said they would rent a U-Haul each week in order to deliver the Courier, whose circulation jumped to 25,000 one year after he took ownership. He said during that time he got no advertising."

"I know what you go through to get the news out," Sutton said, "but advertisers should know that no major newspaper can reach the community like you can."

Martin wrote in the Times:

". . . Mr. Sutton began investing in communications companies in 1971 when he and a group of prominent blacks bought The New York Amsterdam News, New York's largest black newspaper. Critics said the borough president was using the weekly to further his own political career, but he insisted he wanted to 'liberate' blacks by expanding their influence in the media. 

"(Skeptics couldn't help noting that it didn't exactly subvert Mr. Sutton's political career when an Amsterdam News writer wrote that he had never seen 'a more diligent or competent public official.')

"Mr. Sutton sold his stake in the paper in 1975, calling it 'a political liability.'

"In 1971 Mr. Sutton and others bought WLIB, a New York AM radio station, making it the first black-owned station in New York City. In 1974, they bought WBLS-FM, which soon became their main profit center with music that appealed to blacks, whites and others."

In 1981, WLIB would follow Washington's WOL to become the second station in the nation with a black news-talk format.

Martin continued:

"Mr. Sutton's group, which he named the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation grew to own, at various times, 18 radio stations in other cities, and cable franchises in Queens and Philadelphia. Mr. Sutton's principal partner in the various deals was Clarence B. Jones, a close associate of Martin Luther King.

"In 1981, Inner City bought the Apollo, the celebrated Harlem Theater famed for helping launch careers like those of Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown, at a bankruptcy sale for $225,000. Mr. Sutton presided over a $20 million renovation, which included building a cable television studio used to produce the syndicated TV program, 'It's Showtime at the Apollo.' The theater reopened in 1985.

"In 1992, a non-profit group took it over after Mr. Sutton said he could no longer afford to run it. But he continued to produce a TV show, which seemed to draw on the Apollo mystique, though it was taped elsewhere. That sparked a tangled legal brouhaha, with New York State investigating members of the Apollo foundation's board and Mr. Sutton. All were cleared of wrongdoing."

However, a series of editorials on mismanagement by the Apollo foundation earned the New York Daily News a Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

"Under the stewardship of Rangel and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, the 'Apollo's grand legacy has been reduced to a faded mural in the lobby,' the board wrote," the Daily News recalled when it received the honor, referring to Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and its own editorial board. 

"It also discovered that Sutton, whose syndicated TV show 'It's Showtime at the Apollo' rakes in millions, was not paying 25% of its revenue to the Apollo Theatre Foundation as required by a 1992 license agreement."

Jonathan Capehart, a black journalist who writes editorials at the Washington Post, was a lead writer on the Apollo series. Capehart and his News colleagues were vilified on WBLS and in the Amsterdam News, whose publisher, Wilbert A. Tatum, called Capehart "an acid-tongued little demon" who "perpetrated a fraud on the people of New York City, the Pulitzer Prize Committee and any other person or institution that believed that the Daily News and its employees had any integrity left."

Inner-City Broadcasting has not been without its financial problems. In 2006, WLIB dropped its black-talk format and ran programming from the then-new progressive Air America network. Sutton said in the Times two years earlier, "For 30 years LIB has been geared to the black community, and not one year have we been able to make it break even. It's been subsidized by WBLS, its sister station."

This month, Eric Lipton of the Times reported that members of the Congressional Black Caucus decided to buck their party and president and tried stall financial regulation reform.

The caucus "is holding back support for the legislation because it wants the administration to help minority-owned businesses, including Inner City, whose financial plight has been specifically identified in meetings with top administration officials.

"Inner City Broadcasting, which owns 17 commercial stations nationwide and was co-founded in 1971 by Mr. Sutton, faces a possible financial collapse because of pressure by Goldman Sachs and GE Capital to repay nearly $230 million in debt, Pierre Sutton, his son, said in an interview Wednesday."

Minority radio ownership is virtually at a standstill, despite a growth in the number of commercial radio stations, a study reported last month.

Many of the news stories Sunday described Sutton as the "son of a slave." In fact, as Martin wrote in the Times, "His father, Samuel Johnson Sutton, born in the last days of slavery, was the principal of a segregated high school in San Antonio. His mother, Lillian, was a teacher.

"The 12 children who survived into adulthood went to college, with the older ones giving financial and moral support to the younger. (One of the brothers, Oliver C. Sutton, became a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan.)

"His father was an early civil rights activist who farmed, sold real estate and owned a mattress factory, a funeral home and a skating rink - in addition to being a full-time educator."

The Rev. Al Sharpton drew a similar trajectory for the son's life. "He personified the black experience of the 20th century," Sharpton said. "He started the century where blacks were victims. We ended as victors."  

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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Percy Sutton (Barbara Robinson)

Percy Sutton was my mentor. He was a political genius. We met when I volunteered to work on the first campaign to elect Charlie Rangel. I was a high school drop-out whose voice they used on various taped announcements for the campaign. Percy told me no one would listen to me unless I had a legitimate education. He encouraged me to go to college. He hand wrote my letters of recommendation for Law School admission. He was always there for me. There would be no Barbara Robinson, Charlie Rangel, or many others, without Percy Sutton. I have tried to follow his example and encourage young people to get their education and speak out.

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