A Host Looks to Heaven
Monday, April 6, 2009; 10:28 AM
Ten minutes before his debut as a CNN host last Monday, Roland Martin called his pastor back in Chicago. They proceeded to pray.
His divine hope, says Martin, who has repeated the ritual each evening, is "that God uses me as an instrument for his will to provide insight to those who are listening."
As Martin speaks, in great cascades of words that flow by like a rushing river, it is clear this is no garden-variety pundit. He is African American, the first to host a prime-time cable news program since Alan Keyes's brief run on MSNBC seven years ago. He is ubiquitous, holding forth in venues as varied as morning radio, syndicated column, an Essence magazine blog and a forthcoming book. And he is a take-charge family man, insisting that four nieces who he felt had a poor home environment move in with him and his wife, an ordained minister.
Martin is filling in for Campbell Brown, whose second child is due this week, and after her two-month leave he will anchor a CNN nighttime program on the weekend. If the past is any guide, his ambitions are larger than that. When a CNN recruiter first asked him to appear on a program in 2002, Martin recalls responding: "You might think this is an arrogant statement, but you book me one time, trust me, you're going to book me again."
CNN President Jon Klein says Martin "had a quality about him that made you stop and listen to what he had to say. I think it's because he's a professional journalist wrapped in a bundle of energy. . . . He lets you know how much he cares."
Still, the 40-year-old Houston native might seem an odd choice to host Brown's "No Bias, No Bull." During the campaign, CNN used him as a liberal commentator who backed Barack Obama, regularly pairing him with a conservative. But Martin balks at being pigeonholed.
"When you create these boxes, frankly, people only look at the boxes," he says. "We have to open up our boxes and realize there are actually people out there who refuse to be driven by ideology or party labels."
Martin says he isn't a party-line liberal. He is opposed to abortion and backs the death penalty. He criticized the Obama administration for opposing school vouchers for poor students. He cast his first presidential vote for George H.W. Bush.
Klein says Martin's left-leaning stance is not a problem because "now we're asking him not to express his point of view but to host interesting conversations among a range of people."
The son of an Amtrak employee and an insurance adjuster, Martin graduated from Texas A&M University, later working as a reporter and editor for two black newspapers in Texas and for Savoy magazine. In 2004 he became executive editor of the Chicago Defender, a struggling black weekly. Melody Spann-Cooper, chairman of Midway Broadcasting, gave him a morning show on Chicago's WVON.
"He has one of those personalities that is in your face," she says. "Roland is not afraid to buck the system. He gives it to you straight, no chaser."
Martin took on Chicago's Democratic machine over patronage and what he considered a paucity of contracts for minorities. "A lot of people did not take to Roland right away," Spann-Cooper says.