It was a grey, cloudy day when "Sunday Morning' correspondent Lee Cowan visited the Weather Channel in Atlanta, but inside, the network's new owner, Byron Allen, was beaming as bright as the sun. "I bounce outta bed, Let's go! Let's go, let's play this game!" he said. "Because it's nothing more than, it's just a game! Let's have it!"
"High stakes, though," said Cowan.
"High stakes? Look, business is a contact sport."
Allen seemingly came out of nowhere back in 2018 with an all-cash offer for the Weather Channel (which has provided content to CBS News, among others. He paid $310 million, making him the first Black American to own a 24-hour mainstream cable news network.
And then, Allen announced this past week that he's also putting in a bid to buy the Denver Broncos, which – if that goes through – would also make history, making him the NFL's first Black owner.
Cowan said, "You're like a great white shark, you're just swimming around …"
"I'm a great Black shark!" Allen laughed. "I don't sleep. I'm just always on the hunt."
"When is enough enough, when it comes to buying things?"
"When we're the biggest company in the world and there is no close second. That's it."
"That's the goal?"
"That's the goal."
The Broncos purchase would top off a media portfolio that includes 36 TV stations, 12 cable networks, six streaming platforms and several distribution companies, all under the banner of the Allen Media Group.
Allen said, "There are kids out there that look like me that, when they see that, it's gonna change their perspective of themselves."
He started changing perspectives in front of the camera. In 1979, he became the youngest stand-up comic ever to get one of those coveted slots on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." He was only 18.
"My best friend is like half-Black, half-Jewish: Abdullah Steinberg. He buys Afro Sheen wholesale."
While still attending film school at USC, Allen was picked to be one of the hosts for NBC's "Real People."
But Byron Allen wanted more. "When you learn the business side of show business, you can do, and own and have all the shows you want," he said.
He's been around Hollywood a long time, but he's not of Hollywood. His roots were planted a long way away. Byron Allen Folks grew up in Detroit. He wasn't poor, but he wasn't rich, either. Outside what used to be his grandmother's house, he showed Cowan a fire hydrant: "That was my swimming pool."
His mother, Carolyn Folks, said, "I can remember he was playing executive when he was, like, five and six years old. He had an office. And this office was in the basement."
"I sat at the desk and I just talked to imaginary executives," said Allen.
"I don't know where that came from," she said.
As a kid, Allen had an exhaustive reservoir of ideas to make money, like collecting wayward shopping carts and returning them for cash. "I was the king of collecting grocery carts. I dominated that business!"
His mom remembers another: "Have you forgotten about the worm farm?"
"Oh boy," he laughed. "Yeah, I had a few businesses that didn't go the way of the business plan … it looked good on paper!"
"It's tough being the mother of a worm entrepreneur," said Folks.
His first shot at earning real money came at the RollerCade roller rink. Allen's grandparents built it in 1955, back when a Black-owned business didn't interest many banks. "My grandfather, he couldn't get a loan. He literally built this place brick-by-brick. It's exactly what I had to do with my business: I had to build it myself, brick-by-brick. Even today, African Americans do not have access to capital that's not predatory so you can be in business."
Even as a boy, almost every Black family he knew, he said, worked for someone else – what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr famously called it "The Other America." In a speech at Stanford University in 1967, Dr. King said, "It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. The fact is that millions of Negroes, as a result of centuries of denial and neglect, have been left bootless."
That injustice got wound pretty tightly into Allen's DNA. King was assassinated just a year after making that speech. His mom says, even at seven, Allen took it hard.
Cowan asked, "How as a mom do you explain that to a son?"
"There are no words to explain," she replied, "because you're trying to wrap your brain around it yourself."
The need for equal financial footing for everyone grew more and more obvious for both of them the older they got, even after watching prominent Black Americans make it all the way to the top.
Allen said, "When Berry Gordy sold Motown – and I understand why he sold Motown – I was in the back of the room. And I started crying. I started crying because I felt like we, as African Americans, we have to own something. We don't own anything."
Which is why, in the early '90s, Allen and his mom joined forces to own their own entertainment show, "Entertainers with Byron Allen," and even syndicate it themselves – no more middlemen.
"I literally sat at my dining room table, and I called all 1,300 television stations," Allen said.
Every single one? "Every single one of 'em, probably 50 times each. And literally after about 40,000 or 50,000 no's, I was able to squeeze out 150 yeses."
Folks said, "There was no other way to go at that point in our lives. It's about taking risk and just moving forward and seeing if something will work. And we didn't see that it wouldn't work."
Bit by bit, he ended up in nearly every market in the country.
Cowan asked, "This might be an indelicate question, but how much is it worth now, the company?"
"It's definitely worth billions," said Allen. "It's definitely worth billions. I wouldn't sell it. I wouldn't sell it."
"You wouldn't sell it?"
"No. No. No. I don't wanna sell it."
That's because he sees it as leverage, not only to increase Black targeted programming, but to demand a seat at the table for Black-owned programming, too. He said, "Do we or do we not have economic inclusion? And the answer is 'No.' We have to correct the greatest trade deficit in America, which is the trade deficit between white corporate America and Black America."
When media giants like Comcast, ATT and what is now Charter Communications refused to take his channels, he filed multi-billion-dollar lawsuits against them alleging racial discrimination. In the end, all the suits were settled, and several of Allen's channels were indeed added to their lineups.
"I used the Civil Rights Act of 1866 Section 1981," he said. "It was put on the books to protect the newly-freed slaves, to make sure that we, as African Americans, we had economic inclusion."
"There's some people who say that that's sort of bullying, that that's a bit of a bullying tactic, to get your product out there," said Cowan. "What do you say to that?"
"Ya' know, it's real simple: If it's okay that we don't have economic inclusion, then you're the problem. You call me the bully? I call you the racist perpetuating economic genocide."
Last October, at the age of 60, with his wife Jennifer Lucas and three children by his side, Byron Allen finally got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It's fitting, in a way; he's spent years trying to break down barriers to equality that were in fact just as hard as concrete, and now, there he is, in concrete – right next to another titan, Johnny Carson.
Allen said, "This is one America. This is, everybody must succeed: Black, white, Asian, Hispanic. Everybody must succeed, without exception. No exception."
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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Mike Levine.
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