Soul on Thin Ice 

Black media war: Tribune reporter hopes to start a station to compete with Oakland's Soul Beat -- if Comcast doesn't kill it first.

So it ain't exactly Hearst versus Pulitzer, but a local media war is percolating between Soul Beat TV owner Chuck Johnson and his moonlighting ex-news director, Oakland Tribune reporter Chauncey Bailey. The upshot is that there may soon be a new black-oriented cable channel in Oaktown either competing with or replacing the venerable but financially funky KSBT, which calls itself the "only 100 percent African-American-owned network."

The roots of the rhetorical rumble go back a couple of months. Bailey heard that Johnson wanted to unload the 25-year-old station, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year as the IRS sweated it for $391,327 in back taxes.

Johnson's asking price: a cool $2.5 million. Seems like a lot for a station known for its threadbare studios, amateur production (talk show hosts, for example, have been known to eat lunch on the air), hokey commercials, and holy-roller programming. Soul Beat does, however, does maintain a modest but loyal core audience within Oakland's black community.

Bailey didn't have that kind of cash sitting around in his car ashtray, but he did have enough to front Johnson a $15,000 deposit -- a dubious investment that bought him sixty days (ending October 5) to round up willing investors. It proved a tough sell: "I couldn't find folks who thought it was worth $2.5 million," Bailey says.

Big surprise. Johnson nonetheless pocketed his news director's nonrefundable deposit, and that's when things got nasty. About a week after the deal fell through, Bailey announced his resignation on the air. It didn't take long before he was vowing to start another cable station to compete with the 100 percent Chuck-owned channel.

"He's been Soul Beat's biggest asset, but also its biggest liability," Bailey says of Johnson.

The reporter then helped pen an October 12 story for San Francisco-based black newspaper California Voice, detailing Soul Beat's financial woes. The article, which ran without a byline, also modestly noted that Soul Beat's "popular news team has left" and touted "plans for a new Black-owned TV station on Comcast," while never revealing that among the article's authors was the man with the plan. The piece quotes a viewer as saying, "Soul Beat is all we have. ... We need to support Mr. Johnson," and then goes on to say: "But when a new Black station comes on the air, Soul Beat will get what it never had before: competition for Black viewers."

If all this seems a bit suspect, Johnson's main complaint was that Bailey disclosed in the article what the station owner calls private, proprietary information gleaned during Bailey's attempt to buy the station -- specifically, it cited the discounted ad rate paid by an advertiser called Electronix. "I didn't think he was going to take that information and turn it against me," Johnson grouses. "That wasn't ethical or professional."

Bailey says he relied on the station's public bankruptcy filing for the Voice article, and learned of the Electronix ad rate directly from the advertiser, whom he'd contacted about the company's willingness to advertise on a new station he and a business partner hope to get rolling.

Johnson, meanwhile, complains that Bailey is going around town spreading lies by saying Soul Beat is going off the air. The station owner even hosted a special call-in show to address what he dismisses as gossip.

But Bottom Feeder knows gossip, and while it ain't always pretty, it ain't always wrong either. As this column goes to press, Comcast, the conglomerate that controls Oakland's cable franchise, is indeed threatening to pull the plug on Soul Beat.

According to Comcast spokesman Andrew Johnson, Soul Beat owes the cable provider "hundreds of thousands of dollars" and hasn't paid its monthly station-leasing fee since July 1999. The company is sending Soul Beat's Johnson a "final" warning this week to settle the debt or be forced off the air. "We've been more than patient," the spokesman sniffs. "Some people would say absurdly patient."

KSBT's soul proprietor insists he doesn't owe Comcast a dime. Johnson says that under the old provider, AT&T Cable, Soul Beat was given a special community-programming designation, exempting it from the costly station-leasing fees. When Comcast took over, he claims, the paperwork must have been lost in the shuffle.

Au contraire, says the Comcast flak: When his new employer took the helm in Oakland, it had to take on the debt recorded by AT&T Cable, and part of that debt, he says, was Soul Beat's unpaid bills. Those surfaced, he notes, during a routine audit done by AT&T shortly before Comcast took over. Deputy City Attorney Patrick Tang also denies Johnson's claim that Oakland officials endorsed any special Soul Beat fee-free status.

So stay tuned. Citizen Johnson may have to fight just to keep Soul Beat flickering on channels 27 and 29, and then, if he wins that round, fight yet again to fend off the BBC -- Bailey Broadcasting Corporation.

Letterhead of State

This week California will have itself a new governor. Apparently, though, some bureaucrats didn't feel like waiting for the November 17 inauguration. On October 23 -- only two weeks after the recall, and long before the transition of power -- a higher-up in the food and drug branch of the state's Department of Health Services sent out a letter on official stationery on which the name of the governor listed below the state seal was not Gray Davis, but Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Buh-bye, Gray. We could hardly wait to get rid of ya.


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