Roland Martin is a multi-tasker.
Minutes after finishing a shoot of TV One’s “Washington Watch with Roland Martin,” the Texas-bred Martin scarfs down lunch in the entry way of the studio while meeting with producers to plan the guest list for the next show.
On his walk down to the garage of the glass-front building that is Washington, D.C. headquarters for TV One, Martin twice interrupts our interview: once to bear hug actor Charles S. Dutton who he had just interviewed and again to trash-talk with a security guard about Texas football. We resume our conversation while Martin cleans out the front seat of his car for an unexpected guest.
I first met Martin when I interned for Cox Newspapers several years ago; he’s always been this way: A juggler who often carries several different titles at once.
He’s a syndicated columnist, author, CNN contributor, and senior analyst with The Tom Joyner Morning Show, all in addition to his roles as host and managing editor of the most diverse Sunday morning news show on television.
The juggling appears to be paying off. Ratings for “Washington Watch with Roland Martin” are up 35 percent and pacing 27 percent ahead of last season, according to a network press release.
CNN’s loss is TV One’s gain
Martin signed a development deal with CNN to create a weekend show, but the network nixed it in May 2009, Martin said. In 2011, MSNBC announced it would launch its own daily news program led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a move that was blasted by critics including black journalists including Martin.
“It doesn’t make sense that Al Sharpton is the only African American hosting his own show. Not a journalist, but Al Sharpton. All we want is the opportunity, but all we get to hear are excuses,” said Martin who, along with long-time friend and former TV One President and CEO Johnathan Rogers, launched the show in 2009, three months after CNN ditched the idea.
More black Americans get their news from television than whites or Hispanics, according to a Pew Research Center’s Trends in News Consumption report issued in September. Sixty-nine percent of black consumers said they watched TV news the previous day, compared to 56 percent of whites and 43 percent of Hispanics. In 2010 the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that African American cable subscriptions rose to 61 percent from 59 percent in 2009, while falling for other ethnic groups measured in the same time period. Shows hosted by Martin and Sharpton, the report concluded, might have come at the “right time,” but black oriented TV news programs are rare and few have staying power. Just this week Viacom’s Black Entertainment Television (BET) announced this month that it would be scaling back on “Don’t Sleep,” a nightly show hosted by former CNN anchor T.J. Holmes, due to poor ratings. The show will now air once a week for one hour.
Martin’s show appears to be bucking that trend.
Unlike Other News Shows
“Washington Watch” reaches 142,000 homes, up from 105,000 last season. That may seem paltry compared to network Sunday news programs that reach millions of viewers each week, but Martin’s show is keeping pace with week-day cable news programs in terms of household share. For example, his show garnered a 0.25 household rating, compared to five-day-a-week news programs like MSNBC’s Politics Nation with Sharpton, which garnered a 0.7 percent share and CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, which received a 0.5 percent share, according to data compiled by Cable News Ranker for June through September 2012.
“That’s huge,” said Martin while maneuvering through traffic in Washington, D.C. “If we were in 90 to 100 million homes like MSNBC, CNN and FOX, we would be doing gang busters.”
TV One reaches 57 million homes, Martin said.
“Washington Watch has allowed TV One to keep our loyal and expanding viewership informed and up-to-date about key issues and current affairs on a regular basis,” President and CEO Wonya Lucas said in a press release last month. Lucas credited Martin for the “leap in viewership,” and said the show has become “an important touchstone for Black audiences” especially during this year’s election.
“I never operated like I needed to work at The Washington Post or The New York Times to do great journalism. For me it’s about the opportunity,” said Martin who ran black newspapers in Dallas, Texas before becoming editor-in-chief of The Chicago Defender in 2004. “My deal is, if CNN did not want to launch a weekend show, fine, we got one on TV One. The opportunity at TV One to helm my own show and to have my name on it where I get to be the host and managing editor… I get to decide whose on it and the topics we cover. That was important to me.
“I don’t believe that TV One is secondary to CNN,” he continued. “I’ve never believed that. It’s the same attitude I had when I ran black newspapers. I never believed that we were inferior.” (Martin mentored me when I ran a weekly newspaper in Dallas.)
Martin got his start in the black press when he turned down an internship with CBS to work for the Houston Defender. He later covered government beats at The Austin American-Statesman and The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. It was while he was assigned to the City Hall beat in Ft.Worth that a local radio station, KKDA, approached him about doing a show. The Star Telegram blocked that from happening, he said. “I’ve always believed in using all of my skills,” added Martin.
And that’s what he ultimately did. In addition to providing analysis on a radio show with the largest black audiences in America, Martin is also a blogger, an author and prolific tweeter. It was multitasking – watching television and smack-talking on Twitter – that landed him in hot water earlier this year. After being temporarily suspended by CNN, Martin returned to that network, but was largely absent from CNN’s election coverage. Martin was a constant presence on the network in past elections. When asked on social media by followers and by Poynter, Martin responded, “You’ll have to ask CNN about that.”
While he was virtually shut-out of CNN’s election coverage, Martin had his other platforms in which to discuss topics important to black viewers, readers and listeners. He insists that ‘Washington Watch’ doesn’t try to compete with the other network and cable news shows.
“We don’t do what they do,” he said. For one, Martin makes no apologies that his show caters to an audience interested in black issues. “Those other shows are locked into a formula,” he said. “You’ll see more diversity on our show. We have white panelists, we don’t lock anybody out. We just don’t want to hear from the same senator that will appear on those other shows. We want to hear from different voices.”
Producing the show, Martin said, is not without its challenges.
TV One has limited resources, so Martin shoots the show on Fridays because it is more expensive to do it live. The show also has difficulty booking guests, but Martin says he has a “very scrappy, aggressive team.”
“We don’t operate as though we’re less than,” he said.
Filling a gap in coverage
The simplest way to put it: Other Sunday morning shows feature America’s governors; on Martin’s show viewers get to hear from the country’s mayors.
But “Washington Watch” isn’t just a political show. Martin also covers cultural and social issues and he invites guests who represent varying walks of life. Martin’s show doesn’t operate from an ideological stance the way news programs on other cable channels do. On any given Sunday viewers hear from conservative pundits like Republican and conservative columnist Armstrong Williams to progressives like Sirius/XM Radio host Joe Madison.
Viewers also get to see other leading voices often overlooked by the networks and mainstream cable channels. Dutton, who was in the studio the day Poynter visited, talked with Martin about a film he produced called “The Obama Effect.” Sonya Ross, a former White House correspondent and now race, ethnicity and demographics editor in the Associated Press’ Washington, D.C. bureau, is a frequent guest on the show. Democratic strategist and Obama 2012 pollster Cornell Belcher is also a regular. In fact, just two weeks before the election, Belcher talked with Martin about Obama’s ground game, critical in the president’s re-election, which took challengers and much of the media by surprise.
Perhaps if the other broadcast and cable networks like CNN had more diverse voices and experts on air during the election as Martin did, they would have been more accurate with their own polling and would not have been taken aback by minority voter turnout, Ross said.
“If Roland didn’t have a show, would you have seen any real analysis about minority voter participation? That’s something Roland talked about throughout this election cycle,” Ross told Poynter by phone. “Networks are only now talking about it. Pundits are sitting around navel gazing trying to figure out why the vote went down the way it did. So perhaps the better question is if we didn’t have Roland’s show, what would we have seen? I would love to see this show not only continue but to grow. It’s a discussion we should have daily instead of once a week.”