Slain journalist Chauncey Bailey was a crusading reporter who lost his life for working on a story that would have exposed the shady business and criminal practices at Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, California. Gunned down in the streets in broad daylight, by a killer who was not much older than his own thirteen-year-old son, Bailey has been remembered in eulogies in recent weeks for his dedication to the local black Bay Area community.
But what is not as well-known is the fact that Bailey did not believe journalism was the terrain of the few, elite ranks. He believed in community access to media. And he believed in cable television as the means to achieve that end. And so, armed with letters of recommendation from the Oakland mayor and from members of the city council, he spent many months meeting with Comcast executives and with potential investors, arguing for the importance of local African-American programming in Oakland.
The result of this work was OUR TV, or “Opportunities in Urban Renaissance,” a small leased-access cable channel that Bailey launched, together with his partner and financier, Leonard Stephens, in December of 2004. Channel 78, which is on the air from 6 p.m. to midnight seven days a week, reaches over 150,000 homes in the predominantly black areas of Oakland, Piedmont, and Emeryville, and is growing.
Last spring, just a few months before his murder, I spoke with him and Stephens for over two hours in the modest reception area of their East Oakland offices.
It is not possible to talk about OUR TV without first talking about Chuck Johnson, the founder of Soul Beat TV, the predecessor to OUR TV, who died in July of 2004. Chauncey what was your role at Soul Beat TV?
Chauncey Bailey: I was news director for eight years and on camera with a daily news show. At the time, I also worked as a reporter for The Oakland Tribune, so I could pull up stories that would never get into the paper - stories about black farmers, or Louis Farrakhan - and use them at Soul Beat. The channel was very rudimentary; very Third World in terms of production. We didn’t have a teleprompter. And there were technical problems. We’re much better packaged now.
What happened after it was taken off the air?
Chauncey Bailey: Soul Beat was put up for sale for $3 million but investors didn’t think it was worth that amount. It probably wasn’t. We were basically trying to buy the legacy, which was both good and bad. Eventually I realized that we had to start from the ground up.
Leonard Stephens: Chauncey also helped start KBLC, a black station here which was initially on for twenty-four hours. They had some, I want to say, financial problems. They didn’t expect some of the expenses that were required for a station to run 24 hours. Kelvin Lewis, who founded it, wanted to pull out of his prime time slot because he needed to cut back on his expenses. So that opened up a time for OUR TV and for another channel, VJ TV, which plays music videos all day, in the same format as Soul Beat. Allowing music to play continuously in a two-hour loop is very low maintenance. So it’s a very smart operation they have over there at VJ TV.
But OUR TV has input from churches and community programs. We cover sports at the high school. We’re constantly in the community. That’s what separates us from TV One, VJ TV, and KBLC.
Chauncey Bailey: I think you can beat the big guys if you’re community-based. Comcast also needs us because they need relevant black programming. We’re an asset to them.
OUR TV launched December 18, 2004. How did you negotiate carriage with Comcast, which was also launching TV One at the time?
Chauncey Bailey: In the beginning I think they saw us as competitors. But we had to convince them that we were separate fingers on the same hand, and that we were complimenting TV One. We also showed them that there were some rumblings in the community. People were still upset that Soul Beat was gone and they were looking for a local replacement. TV One didn’t fill the void. We enjoy TV One and we embrace it, but I don’t think we need to watch Good Times eight times a day. We need diversity. And we need local programming.