The timing couldn’t have been more challenging for Princell Hair.
Last July, he was appointed President and CEO of the Black News Channel, the nation’s first major cable news network with an ambitious mission to provide news and perspective to the country’s Black and brown communities.
After years of planning, the Tallahassee-based network launched that February, just five months before Hair’s arrival under the leadership of its co-founders, former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts and then-CEO Bob Brilliante.
The operation’s primary investor is billionaire Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, among other businesses, who invested millions in the operation, including its gleaming headquarters and production center off Killearn Center Boulevard.
The most significant challenge for Hair was moving the network forward during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced workplaces, including major news operations, to reinvent themselves.
But Hair, a native of Fort Lauderdale and veteran executive at major broadcast operations such as CNN, Comcast, CBS and NBC, has turned Black News Channel into the country’s fastest growing cable news network, increasing its access from an initial reach of 2 million households to now more than 50 million homes and its workforce more than six-fold.
“If you had drawn up a playbook, you probably would not launch a news network at the beginning of a pandemic, however, what we have been able to do and the context we provide is exactly what is needed in the news universe now,” Hair told the Democrat in a recent interview.
BNC’s launch was the culmination of more than a decade of planning, networking, and securing financing.
“I am more bullish on BNC today than I ever have been, and everything that Princell has brought to the network has a lot to do with that,” Watts said.
Since his arrival, Hair and his leadership team have increased the number of employees from 55 to more than 300 and growing. Of those, between 160 to 170 are based in Tallahassee, most of them relocating to Florida’s capital city from across the country.
It is that kind of growth in audience reach, expansion and the network’s need to attract top talent that has prompted Hair to consider moving the headquarters to Atlanta, one of the nation’s media epicenters.
At the same time, Hair cautions any such move is not imminent and even with a headquarters relocation, the network would maintain a presence in Tallahassee.
Hair recently discussed the network’s growth, mission and its valued relationship with Tallahassee.
What attracted you to the CEO post at Black News Channel?
Hair: “It was really the opportunity to really fulfill a mission. As you know, culturally specific news channels don’t really exist and this was an opportunity to really take something that’s s been near and dear to my heart for a long time and that is news coverage, and provide a perspective and context for the Black community that you really didn’t see anywhere else. So, that opportunity, really, was too great to pass up.”
What did you envision when you joined the Black News Channel?
Hair: “When I joined the network, we were available in a little more than 2 million homes, and thanks to a number of agreements we’ve been able to strike with Comcast/Xfinity, Direct TV, Spectrum, DISH, Verizon Fios, we are now available in 50 million homes. The vision for the network is simple – it is to provide a service to Black and brown communities that they couldn’t get anywhere else; to be informative, engaging, to be entertaining on all different platforms, speaking to an audience that’s been underserved.
We certainly have aspirations of expanding internationally, as we believe the stories and the coverage BNC presents is really universal. Many of the issues and challenges in America’s Black and brown communities are experiences taking place in the Caribbean, or South America, in Europe and Africa, all around the world.”
How do you explain the notable growth in viewer access?
Hair: “The 2 million is the number of linear subscribers BNC was available to a year ago. We are now available to 50 million subscribers, 50 million homes. We use the terms interchangeably, but it is a testament to the unbelievable growth we’ve had over the course of the last year, and now we are the fastest growing cable news network in the country.”
What does that growth say about the void Black News Channel fills?
Hair: I think timing has a lot to do with it. There’s certainly been heightened consciousness and awareness of the plight of Black and brown people in the world since the George Floyd incident from over a year ago. There is a desire to learn more about what’s happening in Black and brown communities, so the timing of our launch of the network has really been fortuitous.”
What was your No. 1 goal as far as the programming provided?
Hair: “From a programming perspective, the goal has always been to provide engaging, informative programming from a culturally specific perspective, and I wanted to hire hosts of these programs to help drive the narrative for Black and brown communities. We’ve been able to attract some very prominent personalities within our communities who bring a voice to the broadcast that we really haven’t heard from aside from being the occasional guest on the traditional cable news networks.”
Who are some examples of those hires?
Hair: “Starting with the morning show with Sharon Reed and Mike Hill, ‘Start Your Day.’
‘Prime Time’, with Marc Lamont Hill, (attorney) Yodit Tewolde and Charles Blow. These are all people that have voices in the Black community. Charles is a well-regarded accomplished New York Times columnist/author. Marc Lamont Hill is another author, scholar, someone who can really take a subject and just intellectually deconstruct it and put it back together again with his guests.
We have a show debuting in September with (scholar/activist) Aisha Mills, who as a political activist will deliver her perspective on the stories of the day. We have correspondents in 13 markets that have large Black and brown populations, and it gives us the opportunity to tell stories from their perspectives in those communities.”
What have you learned from viewers as to what they want?
Hair: “When I came in, I commissioned a quantitative and qualitative study on the audience. The thing that we found is there’s this hunger for the truth. The audience really wants truth in their reporting and not just some partisan echo chamber they hear on other networks. So, we have built the brand around truth and factual storytelling.”
Who is your target audience and what would you say about the demographics?
Hair: “We don’t have fall ratings yet, that will happen sometime in September. But the preliminary look is our audience is largely African-American. We want to be an inclusive network. We are targeting African-Americans 25-54, but we also are looking for people who are just curious about the culture and want to learn more about the culture.”
What role does the Tallahassee site play with the Black News Channel?
Hair: “Tallahassee is our headquarters. The city has really welcomed us with open arms and will always have a special place in our history because this is where it started. The city has been a great place to get this network off the ground.”
How many employees do you have working in Tallahassee?
Hair: “When I started, we had 55 full-time employees, with most of them located in Tallahassee. We have onboarded more than 250 employees since I got here. We now have a workforce that is more than 300 people strong, operating in 14 states. The majority are in Tallahassee, anywhere from 160 to 170 employees here, and the rest are remote. That’s the one thing the pandemic has taught us; we can do our jobs remotely and those employees who can, are currently doing their jobs remotely.”
What are you doing to raise the network’s profile in Florida?
Hair: “I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is in my DNA. We have a correspondent in Miami who covers all South Florida. We’re looking at adding resources in Tampa and Orlando next year.”
What do you want BNC to be known for?
Hair: “I want BNC to be an indispensable part of everyone’s day. As we grow this company and grow this brand, that, to me, is what success looks like.”