The Billion Dollar Brains Behind BET: Robert Johnson is Born

“We sort of lived paycheck to paycheck, like a lot of African-American families do,” says Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, “still do.”

From his humble beginnings in Mississippi to becoming the first self-made black billionaire in the world, Johnson has made a name for himself by focusing on an untapped market. With no prior business experience, he was able to turn $15,000 into a media empire. Today, BET, the world’s first black-oriented cable channel that Johnson founded in 1980, can be seen in almost 80 percent of American homes.

Johnson was born on April 18, 1946 in Hickory, Mississippi. He was the ninth of ten children to Edna and Archie Johnson, who worked at a local battery factory. “We weren't a welfare family, but we knew that if I wanted a bicycle it meant that somebody else wasn't going to get something else,” recalls Johnson. “Or if you wanted to go to college, you knew your parents couldn't pay your way to college.”

When Johnson was still young, his family moved to Freeport, Illinois so his father could find better work opportunities. It was in Freeport where Johnson, too, found a better job – his first job, in fact. Johnson began delivering the Rockford Morning Star when he was ten years old. It was, however, not the right job for him. “I failed miserably,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get up in the morning. Still can’t.”

He might not have learned anything from the job, but living in a large family still taught Johnson important lessons, he says. “I knew that if we had a box of cookies in the house, you made sure you got yours fast,” he jokes. “It made you make decisions quick…If you talk to anyone from a large family, the tendency is you want to chart your own course, because otherwise how would you get recognized?”

After graduating from Freeport High School in 1964, Johnson became the first member of his family to go to college when he enrolled in the University of Illinois. He graduated four years later with a bachelor’s degree in social studies. He followed that up with a master’s degree in International Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in 1972.

With his degrees in hand, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C. He had planned to start a government career, and got this first job working as a press secretary for Walter Fauntroy, the Congressional Delegate for the District of Columbia. Those plans changed, however, when the National Cable and Telecommunications Association hired Johnson as a lobbyist for the nascent cable industry.

From 1976 to 1979, Johnson worked as the vice president of government relations for the NCTA. It was during that stint that Johnson met a businessman who had a plan to start a channel geared solely towards the elderly. That was a wake up call for Johnson. He began to think about his own opportunity to create a channel just for African-Americans.

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