Earl Graves on the Importance of Black-Owned Media

The Newest Member of the Advertising Hall of Fame on the 'Paucity of Publications' Reaching an Audience Hungry for Information

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

There are definite advantages to publishing a magazine aimed at a black audience.

That's the opinion of Earl G. Graves Sr., the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise and one of this year's inductees into the Advertising Hall of Fame .

"Because there's such a paucity of African-American magazines that are out there, I don't think we are going to have the diminution that some of our fellow publishers might have," Mr. Graves told me in a video interview. There's Ebony and Jet, Black Enterprises and Essence (no longer African-American-owned).

"And so there's a paucity of publications that are really first class that are reaching an audience more and more hungry for information." But, he added, that audience wasn't always appreciated.

"When I was first out selling Black Enterprise, I had people that would ask me, 'What black business class?' and they would ask me, 'What black professionals?' And I actually had people tell me in the very beginning that they didn't want to associate their brand with the African-American market."

But some advertisers signed up. Mr. Graves told Fortune Small Business in 2003 that Black Enterprise's first long-term advertiser, Carter Products, wrote a check for a full year of ads before the magazine hit newsstands. Carter's Little Liver Pills, Mr. Graves said, "were supposed to be so effective that even after you died your liver would still be flapping around and you'd have to beat it to death with a stick. In that first year we had $900,000 in ad revenues, and the magazine was profitable by its tenth issue."

Earl Graves
Earl Graves

And on the race-relations front, progress was being made. At the Hall of Fame dinner, Bill Cosby was presented the President's Award for Special Lifetime Contributions to Advertising. "What Bill Cosby did was to convince all of America to like Jell-O. And now we have an African-American president. And that 's not to say that Jell-O had anything to do with making Mr. Obama president, but the environment was there in order to let that happen," Mr. Graves observed.

So compared to what he encountered back in the '70s, when he started Black Enterprise, "we're making enormous progress in this country. ... I never really, quite honestly, thought that we would see an African-American president in my lifetime. I was thrilled to be able to contribute to his campaign," he said.

Mr. Graves has built an impressive media operation. In addition to the magazine, the family business includes a book-publishing house (he wrote the best-seller "How to Succeed in Business Without Being White"), two syndicated TV shows and business and lifestyle events. He also co-founded a private-equity fund with Citigroup to invest in minority businesses.

So does he see the day when he would align himself with a larger publisher? "Not at this time. These are very tough times, I want to be very clear. And were it not for the other entities we're involved in, it would be difficult. The events that we have. The internet, which obviously is a big thing and which my son is still explaining to me how it works, in terms of why it will make the money that he thinks it will." (Mr. Graves has three sons in the business.)

He added that "there's something to be said for an entity which is owned by people who don't look like everybody else. ... I want my grandchildren to tell their children about what we did at Black Enterprise and how we brought people together at conferences, and how our Women of Power conference, which we have every year, is probably one of our most dynamic. You know, black and white women, when they decide to do something, they get on with it."

Mr. Graves said he "married over my head. My wife, Barbara, is my partner. She has made an enormous difference in my life. I love her more each day." He and his wife "are set back with cancer right now," and she is undergoing radiation treatment. But "she gets up every morning, she's out the door by the time I get out of bed, going right over to get the treatment, and then coming right back. You wouldn't know -- you might think she went down to the laundromat."

Mr. Graves doesn't think now is the best time to start a new magazine. "We're bringing along a generation that doesn't want to cuddle up in bed with a magazine -- they want everything that 's quick. And I think that 's unfortunate. I don't think they have a chance to relax and see life a little bit slower. And my sense is the country's not going to be the better for it. They're not going to enjoy the kind of things that my wife and I did growing up."

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