When he was 12, Bob Johnson tried to run his first business -- a paper route. It was a disaster, and a dejected Johnson ended up stuffing his surplus inventory into trash cans.

Johnson's next business venture came more than 20 years later: A bid to become a major force in the American cable television industry, through ownership of a black-oriented cable network and the franchise rights to wire the District of Columbia for cable.

In the intervening years, Johnson says, he learned a few lessons. Among them: "You make your friends before you need them."

His success in making friends has led investors to plow at least $6 million into his cable network, Black Entertainment Television. Johnson has invested only $15,000, yet says he retains majority control.

But District Cablevision Inc., the firm Johnson formed to win the District's cable television franchise, is in trouble. Johnson has told the City Council he is unable to fulfill many of the promises he made in seeking the franchise, and his company is seriously short of cash. Once again, Johnson is looking to his friends for help.

Whether District Cablevision's bid is ultimately successful -- and whether Washingtonians will get cable anytime soon -- hinges largely on the character and abilities of Robert L. Johnson, a Freeport, Ill., native whose mother says he always wanted "to be his own boss."

Many local business and political leaders are full of praise for Johnson. In 1979, Johnson quit his job at the National Cable Television Association and persuaded his boss, Tom Wheeler, to give him a $15,000 consulting contract. With the contract, he was able to get the $15,000 loan that he used to launch Black Entertainment Television.

"He's one hell of a salesman," said Wheeler. "He is extremely personable and bright, an effective communicator, and very adept at identifying an opportunity and seizing upon it."

On the other hand, Johnson has been evasive and inconsistent when grilled about District Cablevision's efforts to obtain financing and whether the company will guarantee that all homes in the District will be wired for cable -- the major sticking point between him and the City Council, which has insisted on a promise of universal wiring.

Johnson's critics in the cable industry say, moreover, that his success at getting outside funding for his business ventures raises questions about whether he may lose control of them.

Johnson, 39, is a short, slim man with a boyish smile and a low-key style that camouflages his ambition and a burning desire to impress people in high places. "Make them think that you think like they do and share the same sense of values," he says. He avoids Washington's social circles, but has thrown elaborate business-related parties.

Johnson, one of 10 children, grew up in Freeport's small black community, where preachers and teachers were the role models for children. Few blacks owned businesses and there was only one person Johnson really envied, his older brother Billy, who was well-liked by his peers and had a good sense of humor.

"With 10 children it was kind of rough, but we always had food and clothes to go around," said Johnson's mother Edna, who lives in a two-bedroom house that Johnson bought for her when he began Black Entertainment Telvision.

"Bob didn't want to do common labor," she said. "He wanted to be his own boss."

He grew up with former Dallas Cowboys pro football player Preston Pearson, who remains a good friend.

"He has the ability to function in many different groups," Pearson said recently. "He can talk with the president, yet has the ability to walk the ghetto alleys and talk with the winos. He has that kind of versatility."

In high school, Johnson played team sports. Although he was never a star, he developed a taste for competition that carried over to his businesses.

After discarding his childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot -- he got the idea from reading comic books -- Johnson decided he wanted to become an ambassador. He graduated with a history degree from the University of Illinois and has a degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

In the early 1970s he moved to Washington -- the place for a budding ambassador to be -- and quickly took a series of jobs that put him close to people with political or economic power. He was press aide to D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy and former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker, campaign worker for Marion Barry in his first bid for mayor, government lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association.

"The one thing I learned quickly in this town was that there are two types of power: actual power and derivative power," said Johnson. "As Walter's press aide, I would get my calls returned -- not because I was Bob Johnson but because I worked for Walter. People thought it was good to get to know me, and I knew when I could trade my access to Walter for other things."

Before he submitted a bid for the District's cable system, Johnson combined his business and political connections by drawing up a list of 200 potential investors and targeting those who could influence Barry and the City Council. He also sought representatives from diverse groups, including women, blacks, whites and Hispanics, with the idea that an "ecumenical" cable company would impress city officials.

All three companies that bid on the city's cable franchise were politically well-connected, but Johnson's team, by consensus, had more members with blue-chip connections to the mayor's office and the council.

Businessman John W. Hechinger, who has known Johnson since the days when he worked for Fauntroy, invested $100,000 in District Cablevision "based on my respect and friendship with Bob Johnson . . . . It was just a matter of trust."

Stuart Long, a local businessman who has close ties to Barry, said he agreed to invest $10,000 in District Cablevision after a dozen telephone calls from Johnson.

"He has good foresight," said Long. "He's like a good chess player. He's five or six moves ahead of where he is now." Once he became an investor, Long said, he lobbied the council and his friend Barry on behalf of District Cablevision.

"He knows what he wants," said Ed Maddox, a former Black Entertainment Television employe who said he left Johnson's company in search of a more rational work schedule. "Bob has strong survival instincts and he's able to get the maximum effort from those who work from him. Whether he's playing tennis or winning a cable franchise, he keeps his eye on the ball. He is driven by some unseen force, and I would never bet against him."

Those who know Johnson say he wants to be rich -- at least a multimillionaire, said one observer. Johnson will quickly pick up the check for a business lunch, sources said, but often leaves his wallet at home and turns to others to supply cab fare or a quarter for a telephone call.

"I just don't want to have to worry about money and as far as I'm concerned, I'm there now," said Johnson, who lives on Brandywine Street in Northwest Washington with his wife Sheila. The Johnsons have no children.

Black Entertainment Television has not turned a profit, but Paul Kagan Associates, which tracks revenues for cable industry networks, says that it had revenues of $4.4 million in 1984 and projects that the company will have $8 million in revenues by the end of 1985.

Johnson said he has a minimal financial investment in both BET and District Cablevision. After five years, he said, he owns 52 percent of BET and his total investment remains at $15,000. BET is still in business because three major cable industry companies -- Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), Taft Broadcasting and Home Box Office -- own shares in the company and have outstanding loans to BET totaling at least $6 million, Johnson said.

Johnson says he has $100,000 invested in District Cablevsion. TCI, the nation's largest cable operator, has offered to put up at least $30 million in funding to bail Johnson's firm out of its difficulties -- provided that Johnson is able to win substantial concessions from the City Council, including a waiver of the universal wiring requirement.

Critics say that TCI's financial backing for Johnson's projects and Johnson's close relationship with TCI President John Malone -- Johnson calls him his mentor -- makes it appear that Johnson is working for TCI.

"Bob Johnson is trying to make a buck, and I think that is the way he perceives the cable system," said an official close to the city's cable television negotiations. "The perception is that he's going to do it build the system by getting favorable conditions [for TCI] and in return he will be rewarded."

Johnson has a twofold response to the criticism. "If it's coming from blacks, I dismiss it simply as jealousy." If if comes from others, he said, they simply misunderstand and that "John Malone has no interest in controlling District Cablevision or me."

Malone, who characterizes himself as Johnson's friend rather than mentor, said Johnson attracted TCI's attention because he has demonstrated that he can run a cable network where others have failed and that he is a "prudent" manager.

"He could have taken our $2 million [for BET] and lost it and been out of business," said Malone. "But he spent the money wisely, expanded and has a business that is alive and well. The name of the game is to stay alive long enough to become successful."