Pioneering Black Broadcaster Remembered

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Ragan Henry might not be a household name like Oprah Winfrey, but as the first African-American to own a network-affiliated television station, Henry paved the way for many African-Americans to occupy positions of influence in the media. Henry died recently at the age of 74. Claude Lewis, friend and colleague of the late visionary philanthropist, explains the significance of Henry's successes.


MARTIN: And now we want to take a moment to remember a broadcasting pioneer who recently past away, Ragan Henry. That name might not mean anything to most people, but within the industry he is known as the man who paved the way for today's very public black media moguls like Cathy Hughes, Bob Johnson and Oprah Winfrey.

In 1979, Ragan Henry became the first African-American to own a network-affiliated television station, WHEC in Rochester, New York. By 1990, he owned more than 60 mainly radio stations nationwide and was an investor in number of other media companies. In 2003, the University of Maryland's Library of Broadcasting named him one of the 51st Giants of Broadcasting, along with such names as Jack Benny, Bill Cosby and Edward R. Murrow.

Ragan Henry died last month in Merion, Pennsylvania after a long illness. He was 74. To learn more about who he was we turn to Claude Lewis, a long-time Philadelphia journalist and the former editor of The National Leader, a newspaper founded by Henry. Mr. Lewis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CLAUDE LEWIS (Journalist; Former Editor, The National Leader): Oh, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to talk with you.

MARTIN: Can you tell us a little bit about Ragan Henry's background? Where was he from?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, he was from Kentucky. And he was educated at Harvard. Ragan Henry was a dreamer but he didn't just dream. He created the economic vehicles that would sustain his ambitions. And he had huge ambitions. He loved communications even though he was a very private man, and he bought and sold radio and television stations and created his own newspaper. He had interest in other newspapers, one in particular, in Philadelphia. But he couldn't get his newspaper in Philadelphia to do the things he wanted to do, so he said, well, I will just create my own.

MARTIN: Now, many people know you, I think, as a long-time columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. But you also (unintelligible) one of his start-ups, The National Leader. Tell me about the paper.

Mr. LEWIS: Well, Ragan called me and asked me if I could find someone to help him start his own newspaper. And I looked around. I was trying to find good people and Ragan said, well, what about you? And I said, no, I wouldn't be interested. And he's a very - he was a very persuasive man, and he persuaded me to join his effort, and it was probably the best job I ever had. I work for Newsweek and NBC and The Philadelphia Bulletin, but I think I enjoyed The National Leader more than any other operation.

MARTIN: Why was that?

Mr. LEWIS: Because I had a certain amount of independence and Ragan said, this is going to be your project. He said, yes, I am the principle owner but I want you to run it, lend your expertise to it and create something that we can all be proud of. And that's what we tried to do. He invited several other people, fairly wealthy people, to join in the effort. Unfortunately, several of them did not put up the necessary funds that they agreed to put up. And so we lasted about two years but we created something that we really were proud of.

MARTIN: And obviously, you know, this paper, I don't know if people remember this, but some people will, that this paper was so significant that there are two big celebrities, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Cosby, heard that the paper was in financial trouble and tried to lend a hand or wanted to do something to lend a hand to keep the paper running. Why was it that important?

Mr. LEWIS: Because I think it was the first of its kind. It was kind of a prototype, and both of them were very impressed with the work that we were doing and the issues that we covered. And they flew me out to Lake Tahoe for a weekend and we talked seriously about the effort to keep the paper afloat. But again, by the time Sammy and Bill Cosby got involved, it was a bit late and Ragan made a decision to close the paper. He wasn't a sentimentalist. So we had a good run and we had to close it down.

MARTIN: Was his media focused on issues of particular interest to African-Americans? Or was it more that he was a businessman who happened to be African-American?

Mr. LEWIS: I think a little bit of both. Some of his radio stations were geared towards the white community. And many of them, of course, were geared toward the black community. And some there was some crossover. So Ragan Henry essentially was interested in creating anything that would make money and bring pride to the community and to himself. So he was a very ambitious guy.

MARTIN: As I mentioned that by 1990 he owned more than 60 broadcast stations as a first to do a number of things. He was known within the Philadelphia area, particularly, where he was also a partner in a major law firm and one of the first African-American to make partner in a major law firm in the area. But I don't think a lot of people know his name and he tended to shy away from, sort of, a lot of public acknowledgment.

I mean, I remember one person I spoke to about him said that, you know, he had been approached to offer some charitable assistance to this particular cause. He did so. He actually attended the event, did not want any acknowledgment. Why is that?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, I think it was just his nature, you know. To be honest with you, I knew Ragan Henry well but when I think about it, I didn't know him at all because he was so private an individual that it was hard to get to know him. He was always pleasant, very intelligent, very capable. He enjoyed collecting oriental rugs. He loved to fish. But he didn't like to mix with crowds. He didn't like to spend a lot of time with a lot of people. He had a few close friends and he let it go with that. He enjoyed his family.

MARTIN: You know, some might wonder why we're just reporting on this death now when he died July 26th, and one reason is that it's been reported that he asked that there be no funeral, no memorial service and no obituary. Why on earth not?

Mr. LEWIS: Well, I think that was very fitting for the kind of individual he was. People should know about people like Ragan Henry because he made a massive contribution to the entire community. But at the same time, he enjoyed his privacy. He really thrived on his family and his children and a few friends that he maintained, and he loved the Lord, as well. But he didn't like to get out on the big arenas.

MARTIN: What do you think his legacy will be?

Mr. LEWIS: His life will have served to encourage other people to not just work at the area of communications but to create new vehicles that will enhance the entire community. He just enjoyed a good life and good times. And he was very kind individual. He was a gentleman.

MARTIN: Claude Lewis is a Philadelphia journalist and a former editor of The National Leader, that's a newspaper that was owned by media executive Ragan Henry, who died last month at the age of 74. Mr. Lewis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LEWIS: Well, thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

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