Cornelius still on track

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If James Brown is the godfather of soul, then Don Cornelius must be the godfather of syndication.

It is going on four decades since the kid from Chicago watched Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," offered up a black version of the dance show and was on his way to syndication history with "Soul Train." Now the longest running first-run show in syndication, "Soul Train" has become an empire unto itself. Running just once a week, the show boasts more than 1.25 million viewers, appears in more than 100 markets and has a bevy of marquee advertisers.

That train might never have left the station had Chicago's WVON, the city's major black radio station in the 1960s, hired Mr. Cornelius to spin tunes rather than read the news. With the boundless energy and enthusiasm that infuse kids at the dawn of their careers, Mr. Cornelius did his regular job of reporting the news but filled in for ailing DJs at every opportunity. When he started wishing one guy would stay gone, he knew it was time to move on.

"I fell in love with working in media starting as a radio newsman," Mr. Cornelius says, "but music was always in the back of [my] head."

Mr. Cornelius started moonlighting at a small Windy City TV station, WCIU. He was asked to think up programs that would fit the station's ethnic programming bent. He'd seen "American Bandstand" and offered up an African-American version. Live dancing, five days per week.

The corner office signed onto "Soul Train," and within a year its producer had shelved the safety of a full-time radio gig for a fledgling dance show that he had no idea how to manage.

"Almost all of what I learned about mounting and hosting a dance show I learned from Dick Clark," Mr. Cornelius says. "Soul Train" premiered Aug. 17, 1970, on WCIU and went into syndication a year later. It has since spun off the "Soul Train Music Awards," "Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards" and "Soul Train Christmas Starfest." Tribune Co.'s Tribune Entertainment has been "Soul Train's" distributor since 1985. The show appears in 105 markets, or about 92% of the country. Advertisers include Coca-Cola Co., Gap, General Motors Corp., McDonald's Corp. and Hershey Foods Corp.

"Nobody knows the African-American audience better than Don Cornelius," says Dick Askin, president-CEO of Tribune Entertainment.

When Mr. Cornelius first peered through a camera lens, blacks were discouraged from voting in some areas of the South, not to mention his hometown of Chicago. Still, he bristles at the notion that minorities have it easier on the business side of entertainment than they did when Dwight Eisenhower was president and schools were still segregated.

"Today, if a black man-or any minority-is not a singer, not a comic and not an actor," the bar is incredibly high, he says. "Nothing has changed."

But launching a TV show is no cakewalk for anyone else either. A good pilot requires that three basic elements dovetail: concept, cash and someone willing to air the show.

"Almost everybody has a TV concept of some kind. Almost nobody has funds, and almost no one has a source to put it on the air," Mr. Cornelius says.

Mr. Cornelius is prickly on the topic of retirement, and he won't give his age or discuss his family (though he eventually mentions a wife and two grown sons). He gives only teasers about his next move. He says he still enjoys producing "Soul Train" and will keep on until it's no longer fun. Nonetheless, he admits he's getting tired and that retirement "could happen at any time."

But the concept of "Soul Train" is far from running out of steam. "We have a tremendous wealth of catalog material-a huge library of programs," Mr. Cornelius notes. "We are living today in a world dominated by content-the Internet, direct broadcast, TV. My sense is that our future is somewhere within that framework."

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