In 2006, TV One President and CEO Johnathan Rodgers planned to hold a meeting with radio host/CNN correspondent Roland Martin and a number of the channel's executives in Washington. After a scheduling mishap, Rodgers made an executive decision: “He was like, 'It's 2 o'clock,Roland has a 7 o'clock flight, we're meeting on the golf course,'” Martin remembers.
It's not surprising that Rodgers—an avid sports fan who still flies to see the football games of his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley—would call for a meeting on the fairway. It's indicative of the flair, fun and affability Rodgers is known for throughout a career that spans broadcast and cable, editorial and executive, and East Coast to West.
The first African-American president of a major network's station group, he has left a mark on a generation of reporters, producers and executives. “I have been a member of NABJ [National Association of Black Journalists] for 20 years, and when you talk to African-Americans who are executive producers, news directors, GMs, they look to pioneers like Johnathan as setting the example for what it is that we want to achieve in this industry,” Martin says. “There is no doubt about that.”
As a college junior, Rodgers was featured in a Sports Illustrated story about student protests and athletics. His comments caught the eye of an SI executive who gave Rodgers an internship at Time Inc. After graduating from Berkeley, Rodgers made the trek back to New York, where he landed a full-time job at SI. After two years there, Rodgers took over the urban affairs section at Newsweek. He served in the Army in Korea during the Vietnam War and returned to Newsweek after a two-year hitch, but he had his sights set on the “impact and immediacy” of television news.
He moved to WNBC New York in 1973 and began working as a news writer and field producer for sports anchors Dick Schaap and Marv Albert. Driven by an urge to get in front of the camera himself, Rodgers then went to Cleveland as a local reporter, where his on-air tenure lasted all of six months. “My bosses at NBC were right: I wasn't very good at reporting,” he says.
Rodgers soon found his calling behind the scenes. He took a job as assistant news director at CBS O&O WBBM Chicago, moved on to become news director and station manager at KNXT Los Angeles (now KCBS), and then back to the East Coast in the mid-1980s where he executive-produced for CBS' Nightwatch, CBS Evening News' weekend edition and CBS Morning News.
“Johnathan had the ability to look at things both from a distance and close-up at the same time,” says David Corvo, executive producer of Dateline, who first worked with Rodgers in the KNXT newsroom and then came with him to CBS News. “No matter how big the story got, how chaotic it got, Johnathan was always incredibly calm. He understood how the newsroom worked, and how to set a tone and give a direction.”
Rodgers returned to WBBM in 1986 when the station faced harsh backlash from the black community, stemming from the station's decision to demote a black anchor and an ongoing dispute with the Rev. Jesse Jackson over coverage. During his second stint at WBBM, Rodgers solidified his reputation as an executive with vision who got results. He hired more minorities and women, acquired hits like The Arsenio Hall Show—a huge success in Chicago—that lifted the station out of its ratings hole, and increased revenue.
Rodgers was named president of the CBS owned-and-operated stations in 1990 and again, within a few years, had increased viewership, revenue and profits at the majority of the O&Os. In 1996, he left CBS and settled into a short-lived retirement. “[I] drove my wife crazy after 30 days and she said, 'You gotta get a job,'” Rodgers says.
He set his sights on cable, joining Discovery Networks as president. In a six-year period, he helped grow Discovery from a two-channel, $1 billion outfit to an 11-channel, $20 billion company.
In 2002, he received a call from Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins, who was looking to get into the African-American cable space. A giant from another walk of the entertainment world, Quincy Jones, who was familiar with Rodgers, had told Liggins, “If you're going to do that, there's only one brother you want.”
While BET was serving the 18-34 African-American demo, Rodgers says that “there were so many dissatisfied African-American adults because [BET] didn't have a channel for them.” And Rodgers—who could easily have spent his later years on the golf course—was drawn to the challenge of TV One and envisioned a channel where audiences could see stories of African-American life and culture that were more representative of the way they actually lived.
“So many people's images are based on what they read or see in the media,” Rodgers points out, adding that TV One represented an opportunity to “do something good, bring about change in our society, to raise up in the eyes of the rest of society a group of individuals.”
As Rodgers is inducted into the 2009 B&C Hall of Fame, his longtime friend Roland Martin is settling into the TV One lineup. Martin debuted his public affairs interview show, Washington Watch, in September. In all the time that has passed since Martin first met Rodgers, when Martin was a college-student representative on the NABJ board of directors, he remains most impressed by the man's humility. When the two attended an NAB reception a few years back and Rodgers' name was not on the dinner list, he said simply, “I'm with Roland.”
“He is, in so many ways, unassuming like that,” Martin says. “I always get a kick out of that.” The irony, for Martin, is that the recognition didn't go the other way around.—David Tanklefsky