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.
Chauncey Bailey: Because without it local issues and local talent often get overlooked. People know they can’t get on BET or VH1, but they can come in here and make a video and get on our channel. We have a show called “The Beat is Going On” that allows young people from the area to perform spoken word and hip hop, and gives them a creative outlet. Oakland has a history of having a strong independent, underground music industry and culture.
Leonard Stephens: “The Beat Is Going On” is like a poor man’s Apollo Theater. The kids are able to come here and we shoot a video for them. They get exposure. We take videos and dance routines from local kids; try to keep them off the streets, give them something positive to do. They come in and they work hard. We’ve had at least 100 rappers on from Monterey to Sacramento. We also have programs that come from churches and community organizations. We have Joe Lewis and his cultural show and David Scott with Christian Comedy. We have Suzanne Mason with ‘Up Close and Personal’ and Miss Punkin’s Showdown Throwdown. We’re smack dab in the middle of the blackest zip code in Oakland: 94605. And we’re just happy to have an opportunity to be the soundboard for the community.
What’s your business model? How do you generate revenue?
Chauncey Bailey: Most of our advertisers are local black-owned car dealerships, clothing stores, boutiques, hair salons. It’s been difficult because a lot of African- American businesses don’t have advertising as part of their psyche. We’re trying to get folks out of the culture of flyers, and into putting their message on television.
Leonard Stephens: I’m laughing because our business partner here, Chauncey, is really good with community relations and he brings a lot of business to us. But if he had his way, bless his heart, he would just open up the network to anybody that wanted to use it.
Chauncey Bailey: We wouldn’t make money.
Leonard Stephens: We wouldn’t be able to survive. [Laughs]
What kind of news and informational programming do you offer?
Chauncey Bailey: Soul Beat was definitely a political power broker in the black community. We talked about issues; we had politicians on. So we inherited that influence. We do a daily newsmagazine that addresses high crime areas, and have a show called “Express Yourself” where we take our cameras out to a busy intersection, and give people thirty seconds to vent. They talk about the state of our schools, high gas prices, unemployment. They also talk about positive things. Like, ‘My son is the first to graduate from college and we’re proud of him.’
How would you say your coverage of the Ron Dellums campaign, for example, was different from that of mainstream news outlets?
Leonard Stephens: The mainstream would just basically give you sound bites. We showed his entire speech. If Comcast tried to do what we do here in Oakland they would not be successful. They don’t have the reach that Chauncey has. Chauncey was at The Oakland Tribune for twelve years, and he was the only African-American news writer there at that time. He was on-camera at Soul Beat for eight years. He represents the community and he was instrumental in getting the whole concept started. All I did was come along to polish it and manage it.
What future goals do you have for your content?
Leonard Stephens: We have a new show called the World News Magazine Show. We’re also in negotiation with the Oakland Post to do a news program. We want to start doing movies. But at the same time, we want to remain in the community because we feel like that’s really part of our uniqueness. That’s what separates us from all the other African- American programming out there.
Why does black ownership matter?
Chauncey Bailey: Because we have different viewing tastes. The top twenty shows in black households are different from the top twenty shows white households. You have only three shows that are on both lists. I was sitting in an airport in Kansas City watching CNN doing a report on Earl Lloyd, the first black player in the NBA. Nobody was watching it except me. We need our own channel that speaks our message.
Leonard Stephens: It’s part of my ministry that I’m going to continue until the day I die. I’m leaving the legacies for our children so that they can be happy and proud of something that we started.
Chauncey Bailey: When a black kid comes up to me in West Oakland, a seven-year-old, and looks at me wearing a tie, and asks, ‘Are you a business man?’ I say, ‘Yes, I am a business man. Don’t let the black face convince you that I’m not.’