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Journalist, author, TV & radio host Roland Martin on putting in the work to build relationships

Roland S. Martin
Kevin Wolf/AP Images for TV One
FR33460 AP
Roland S. Martin

As Black History Month comes to an end, we’re celebrating the legacy of a living history maker. Roland Martin built his brand as a journalist and TV host for CNN, MSNBC and TV One. He continues to educate, inform and challenge the community and to contribute to the discussion of current issues and events in America and beyond. He joins us today to talk about the achievements he’s most proud of, his Black Media Network , his new book White Fear and his nomination for the 54th NAACP Image Awards in the Outstanding News/Information Series category for his Black Voters Matter 2022 Election Night Coverage of the Midterm elections on #RolandMartinUnfiltered.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: During Black History Month, we so often talk about our Black achievers of years gone by, but this year we thought we’d focus on people like you who have already created history and yet still continue to achieve and to innovate. Congratulations on your recent NAACP Awards nomination. How many of these have you received?

Roland Martin: I appreciate it. I’ve won four. I think I've been nominated 10 or 12 times.

That just shows the consistency in the work that you've been doing. I know your experience is a little bit different from most nominees, because you're there to see if you win, but at the same time you are covering the event, you're working, which of course is the kind of work that got you the nomination in the first place. What's that like doing that double duty?

It is interesting, especially when you arrive there and you're walking the red carpet, and then you turn right around and it's like, “Okay, I got to walk this thing real quickly, I got to go to work.” I try to explain to people, you're not just attending the show. You’re actually working the room while you're doing it. You'll be sitting here and they'll go to commercial break and then I'll hop up and I'm actually connecting with people.

I'm always double checking with people. Look, people change their cell phones real quick, which is a lesson to actually all journalists. Most people say, “Oh, if I get somebody’s cell phone…” No, you get their email, because they rarely change their email. I'm always connecting with people. Even that quick time being able to lock with somebody. No disrespect to publicists or business managers, but for me it's about having the relationships directly with the person. So whether it's a CEO, whether it's an entertainer, whether it's an athlete, I don't like going through people.

Even this week, what I do is with my show Rolling with Roland, I do these series of one-on-one interviews that last about an hour. All the people I connect directly with. I have a list of like 50 people and I hit them direct. Now after they say yes or whatever, then maybe I'm coordinating with their people. Many of them I would coordinate directly. That's the thing that I'm always trying to explain to folks. You don't just get excited about being in the room. It's Issa, it's Beyonce, it's Jay-Z, it's Kerry Washington. No, it's also work. You're double checking, “Yo, is this still your cell phone? Hey, can I still connect with you?” Because that's how you build the relationships. Most people don't understand the art of building relationships, because they only see it as, “Oh, just when I need something.” When Jada Pinkett Smith executive produced the Angela Davis documentary, we were in New York, Will was coming down and I was about to interview him, he turns to the camera, “Lemme tell you about this guy.” You know, he'll just hit you up to wish you a happy birthday or Happy Father's Day, or something along those lines. You have to get people to understand that everything is not transactional. These are also human beings.

It's how do you build and how do you connect with people? Because I tell a lot of young journalists that all the time. They always come to me and they'll say, “Hey, I want to do what you do.” I'm like, “No, do you want to do what I did? Do you want to do what I do?” They look at me like I’m crazy. I explain to them that you still have to put in the work. So when you say, I want to do what you do, what many of them are really saying is, “I want to be recognized in airports, I want to get invited to private parties.” And I'm like, “But you don't understand. Those things don't happen if you don't do the work.” You don’t do the work, then you don't get the awards. And it's not even about the awards. Everything boils down to: Do you do the work? I think the problem today is that we have people today who literally are famous or successful or well known, who literally do nothing.

Yes, we've seen that.

There are people who love that, but that's not most people. It's always a little bit interesting when you are on both sides. Where you're treated as a celebrity, but then you are actually covering it. You got to just understand that at the end of the day, it still boils down to getting the job done.

I think you hit the nail on the head. It's really about relationships. Your whole career is based on the relationships that you've made over the years. It’s not who you know, it's who knows you.

The other day I was in Salt Lake for the NBA All-Star game. There was a publicist who was nearby. Joakim Noah [former NBA player] came by and I said, “Joakim, how you doing? Roland Martin.” He said, “Hey, man, that was a great question you asked this morning at the newsmakers’ breakfast.” That led to us talking, it led to us exchanging information, right? And she [the publicist] she says, “Wow, you introduce yourself using the full name.” I told her, “Listen, I never make the assumption that [when] I meet somebody, even if they're African American, that they already know who I am.” I always introduce myself with my name. Now here's the thing I need people to understand. And don't introduce myself with something else at the end of my name.

There was a scene in the movie The Insider, which is about the 60 Minutes coverage of the tobacco controversy. Al Pacino is playing a producer named Lowell Bergman, who was Mike Wallace's producer at 60 Minutes. And there's a scene where he says, “Lowell Bergman, 60 Minutes. I wonder if my calls get returned if that's not at the end of my name.” What I tell people is my whole deal is I've never been Roland Martin, CNN. Or Roland Martin, TV One. Or Roland Martin, Houston Defender, Dallas Weekly, Chicago Defender. When I call, I'm me.

I remember my call to the White House the other day, I said, “I'm Roland Martin. I'm looking to speak to so and so.” “Who are you with?” “I'm with Roland Martin.” They were like, “Okay, yeah, but who are you with?? I said, “I'm with Roland Martin. Let them know I'm on the phone and they'll exactly know who's on the phone.” The person was like, “Well, okay, but who are you with?” I said, “Look, I'm a journalist. I have my own network.” “Whoa, that's what I meant.” No, it’s not the same. What that means is that no matter where you go, your calls get returned, your calls get answered, and it doesn't matter who you're with. For a lot of other people though, they need that calling card. That's why I say you have to put in that work to create the relationships where they say, “I trust you. Not because I'm trusting CNN or TV One or Tom Joyner Morning Show. I'm trusting you.” That's something that a lot of people don't really understand.

Well, you have developed a brand which a lot of people do trust. I would like to take some of the time we have left to talk a little bit about some of the history that you have been making. As recently as 2018, you made history when you created the first ever all-digital daily show focused on political news and analysis, entertainment, sports, lifestyle, all of these things. You have such a wide scope of areas that you know about. But you talk specifically from the African American perspective. What was the impetus for Hashtag Roland Martin Unfiltered, which has led to the Black Star Network and all the things that you're doing now?

A lot of people don't realize that when I ran The Chicago Defender, I started the first Black news source audio podcast in 2005. And then I started the first Black news source video podcast in 2006. I know somebody who's listening, they're like, “Wait a minute, this is 2023.” Precisely. I was that far ahead of the game. When I went to a communications high school, I did TV, radio, and newspapers. I've never done one media. I saw where we were going and I embraced it early on. When I was a City Hall reporter for The Star Telegram, a second job out of college, we had something called Star Text. I'll never forget it. You had like 14 discs that you had to load into your computer to load the whole software. It allowed you to see your stories online. And I was one of the first reporters there [to use it. The other reporters, they were like, “Yeah, I don't know what they're doing.” I was like, “No, what are they doing?” I would go with Jerry, I would talk to him. I knew, boom, this is where we're going.

I always knew that the problem in the Black space, whether you're talking Black-owned media, whether you're talking about Black churches, typically they're 10 to 15 years behind in terms of where everyone else is, simply from a technology standpoint. I always knew the technology piece where we were going. I was doing media convergence before there was even a phrase, media convergence, where you would sometimes go to a story and you would shoot the video and then I can strip the audio off of the video, now use the audio for radio, then turn into a written story as well. I was doing it like literally 23 or 25 years ago.

I also understood and studied the business of the business. I was saying, “Yo, we've got to go digital.” With TV One and the cable contracts, we had a limited amount of video we can put online because they wanted you to subscribe to cable to see TV One. But I also knew that's how we are going to be able to grow the audience because the cable television news audience is old. I think we were like 56. Fox News I think is like 65 or 67. I said, “We have to embrace the digital piece.” And I really didn't. One thing if I look back, it was really because we couldn't do it. Looking back, I wish I was even more aggressive with my YouTube channel, even when I was at TV One. But bottom line, we couldn’t.

A year before they ended the show, we were doing more stuff. I kept saying, “Yo, we have to go digital to build our audience.” When Alfred Liggins said that “We're gonna cancel the show,” I wasn't angry, I wasn't upset, I wasn't mad. Literally I'm sitting in his office and he's telling me my show's getting canceled and I'm sitting there going, “When I walk outta him, I'm calling this person, this person, this person. I'm launching this show.” It's exactly what happened. The last day of our show, an hour after the show was over, I was sitting in my first sponsor's office. And 24 hours later, I had the first quarter of a million dollars advertising up for the show. The key is you don't wait until something ends to then go, “Okay, let's start.” No, I was actually purchasing equipment. When the show ended, I was sitting on almost a hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment so I could just easily transition. I didn't need them for my infrastructure because I already owned it. I had already invested in myself. Plus, it's all a tax write off. It's preparing for the moment. Not waiting until, “Oh, I got to do it now.” And then you do it.

It's true. These relationships have really worked out for you. Also your vision, thinking ahead and being prepared for what's coming I think are part of the secret to your success. We're excited about all the great things that are happening for you right now, including your deal with Amazon News. We'll be able to see your content there very soon. In the time that we have left, I just want toa ask you one other question. All these things that you're doing, I think the importance of them are really underscored by the attack on truth that we've seen going on in this country in recent years. I want you to just address that. As average people, finding someone who we can trust I think is really important. That goes back to those relationships that you talked about and your years and years of being on the air and knowing that we can depend on you to call it like it is. I think those things are great, but let's end with that, talking about truth.

It is the most fundamental and important thing. I've had a lot of videos that have gone viral, but recently I've had a couple of videos that have gone viral where I just tore apart two Black Republicans, but I wasn't tearing them apart because of Black Republican. It was because they were feeding me BS. I called them out on the BS and people. I have a very simple philosophy. I don't care if you have a different opinion, you're not gonna come on my show and live. The reason being, if you're listening and you're watching and I don't even know who you are, and if someone says something and you don't hear me say anything, what then happens is you go, “Well, that must be true, Roland said nothing, there was no pushback.” And so for me, I can't let a lie stand. What I'm not gonna do is let you lie.

And that to me, I think is the biggest problem I have with mainstream media. I'm gonna go ahead and say it. Most of these TV anchors you're watching, they are not well-read people. They're not knowledgeable. For me, I'm fact checking you in real time. I don't have a producer in my ear feeding information. It's not like we're gonna come back tomorrow and then tell you, “Well, we interviewed so-and-so yesterday and this was a half truth.” No, I'm gonna fact check you in real time because I can't let the lie stand. What people have to understand is that when something also happens, yes, you gotta say that person has a track record of being right, so therefore I'm gonna listen to them. And so that's where the work comes in.

When Newsweek did a cover story that Biden cut $35 billion from HBCUs, it was a lie, and people were posting that. I actually called two prominent activists. I said, “Take that crap down. You are posting a lie.” I said, “Don't you post anything dealing with HBCUs again from somebody else unless you call me first.” I can't give names, but there are Black people who are in the activist world, who are in the entertainment world, who are in the business world, they will see something and they'll be like, “Yo, Ro, I saw this. Is this true? I’m running it by you before I say something.”

In fact, it was funny, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and I had a conversation a few years ago, and he said that a lot of NBA players call him and they want advice on a lot of these social issues. He’s like, “I really can't give it to them. So, Roland could I give them your number if they call?” Absolutely. And that's actually what happens. There are people who will hit me up and say, “Hey man, we're gonna say something. We want to make sure that we're right.” They'll call me and I'll be like, “Yo, bro, that's wrong.” Or, “Yes, let me give you the backstory. Let me connect you with somebody else.” They say, “Man, look, I trust you.” I'll get a phone call and they'll be like, “Hey, Ro, this is pissing me off, but man, I don't know what's up. Lead me down the right path.” Again, that's where the personal integrity comes in, when people trust you. These are people who are very prominent people. “I trust you and I trust if you are gonna give it to me straight.” That's the work. You don't get that because I got some followers. No, you get it because you've been right a lot.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.