When Ragan Henry was buying his first radio station in Atlanta, he used all his savings, $28,000, for the deposit, spent his salary to finance the feasibility studies, and lobbied venture capital firms, banks and friends for the $3.5 million balance.
He thought the deal was set, he recalled the other day, not cracking a smile. Then, "The night before we closed the deal, one of our banks almost got cold feet. They took the loan agreements away from a young loan officer and gave it to a senior officer. They didn't know the broadcasting business and they thought we were a business and they thought we were a trifling black company," is Henry's quick recap.
The venture capital companies were so edgy that Henry locked their representatives in a room. "He put a bottle of alcohol on the table - no water, no ice - and let us fight it out," said Shallie Bay, then an investor and now superintendent of the U.S. Mint.
Five years later, Henry, 44, is president of the largest black broadcast group in the country, with six radio stations, and is likely soon to become the first black owner of a commercial station in the continental U.S.
Henry's broadcasting interests have evolved from a successful lawyer's off-hand investment to a power broker position in an industry where black ownership remains a novelty. The manner of this ground-breaker is that of a staid, decisive and meticulous businessman, whose only excess is an occasional lobster doggie-bag from the Palm Restaurant.
"To me, the television deal is just another transaction," says Henry briskly, "I recognize it means something to a lot of people because I'm in an area where black people haven't been considered before. I hope it opens up some access to the financial channels for others."
However nonchalant Henry might sound about the impending purchase of WHEC-TV, a CBS affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., from the Gannett Corp. for $27 million, he recognizes the breakthrough. None of the 755 VHF television stations in the United States is owned by blacks. Sixty-two of the 8,500 radio stations are black-owned, and 16 are Latino-owned.
"My motivations are simple. I enjoy doing things with people. I want to build up an economic entity and serve those communities well where I purchase," says Henry, who operates his mini-empire, Broadcast Enterprises Network Inc., from Philadelphia.
On a recent morning in Washington, Henry was completing other deals with his lawyer. A stocky, bearish man, Henry wears his hair cropped close, his eyeglasses functional and his suits silk-toast-brown. Above his lip is a scar he received from Edward Kennedy, who hit him during a football scrimmage at Harvard College. But that personal fact spills out like all the rest, in a ticker-tape staccato.
His crisp matter-of-factness makes Henry the perfect traliblazer, associates point out. "He's a typical businessman. He's effective, methodical and knowledgeable. So he allays certain fears of the effort to get minorities into the broadcasting business," says Herb Wilkins, president of Syndicated Communications, one of Henry's investors.
In a way, Henry reflects, constantly glancing at his watch, his ambitions coincided with changing social attitudes. "In the last few years, the financial tools, the government policy and industry attitudes have become more conducive to minorities," he says.
Since his first purchase in May 1974, Henry has acquired WGIV-AM, Charlotte, N.C., WTAN-AM and WOKF-FM, Clearwater, Fla., and WCIN-AM, Cincinnati. His company also has a part-interest in WOKV-FM Hamilton, Ohio.
"My views aren't representative of most minority owners. I buy primarily in major markets, where the stations are fairly well established and where nothing existed. We built the Clearwater FM station from the ground up," says Henry.
Perhaps because he didn't plan a broadcasting career, Henry feels free to take the nontraditional route. When he was growing up in Sadieville, Ky. (population 302), Henry didn't have a television set. Even a old Zenith radio was a luxury for his family, tobacco sharecroppers. During World War II, his parents moved from Kentucky to Ohio.
"I always wanted to be a lawyer, I didn't know any. But my grades were good enough for me to go to Harvard," says Henry. After law school, he settled in Philadelphia, where he and his wife, Helen, a former nurse, have four children. He worked largely with financial and business corporations, and did some trial work.
In 1970, a friend, Ronald Davenport, the dean of Duquesne University Law School, asked him to invest in a new venture, Sheridan Broadcasting. Three years after his initial investment, Henry sold his stock and formed his own company. Now his legal work almost has become the past time. "I do not spend more time now on broadcasting," he says.
Though he appears the consummate businessman, Henry does relax. When his vice president bought a condominium in Atlanta, Henry flew plants and flowers down from Philadelphia and landscaped and planted his courtyard. Also he plays tennis and enjoys a good hockey or football game.
In or out of the office, Henry applies the same energies. "Ragan will go from Philadelphia to two Texas cities and then to Tampa all in the same day. And when he gets to Tampa, it's miraculous that he can talk. But he gets the deal closed in 10 minutes," observes Stan Raymond, one of the company executives.
Henry pauses, trying to define his own bargaining style. "All my situations have been fairly atypical. One time the sellers were negotiating with another buyer on the telephone right in front of me. And I was there to close the deal, so I left. But I left the broker and two of my employes there," says Henry, laughing slightly.
There's one thing he doesn't like about the broadcasting business. "The anxieties of the personnel," he says flatly. "People tend to react to you with their worst fear, that you will fire everybody, that you will drastically change the format. I just wish I didn't have to deal with it."