NetWorks Sports Spotlight Interview with Curtis Symonds, CEO of The HBCU Network (@HBCUNetwork)

NetWorks Sports Spotlight Interview with….Curtis Symonds, CEO – The HBCU Network
By Tracey Savell Reavis

Curtis Symonds (foreground), CEO of The HBCU Network

Are you ready for some football? SWAC or MEAC Conference football? Then get ready for blanketed coverage, as the new HBCU Network, set to launch later this month, will air a full slate of games such as the Howard vs. Morehouse rivalry, and more. And we have network CEO Curtis Symonds to thank for it.

Symonds is a cable-broadcasting and marketing veteran, who has been an executive producer, a VP and a COO for such companies as BET, ESPN and the WNBA, in a career that spans more than 25 years. He wants to bring attention to the 105 historically Black colleges and universities situated in 20 states mostly across the mid-Atlantic and south. He’s hoping to capitalize on the fact that no one else is providing programming on HBCUs for an HBCU audience. Aimed at African American students, young adults and HBCU alumni, the 24-hour cable channel will provide sports, entertainment and original programming, and help create awareness of the culture of HBCUs. In addition, the schools themselves will hold a 20 percent interest in the channel, providing incentive for its success. Symonds, an Oberlin, Ohio, native hopes with this month’s ‘soft launch’, and some much-needed grassroots support and word of mouth, the channel can count 10 million subscribers by the Feb. 2012 official launch.

We caught up with the busy executive, who’s been collecting a ton of frequent-flyer miles traveling between his home in Fairfax, Va., and Atlanta, Ga. where the cable channel is based. Symonds talked about how passion, sweat equity and confidence led him to this opportunity at this point of his career.

What are we going to see when the HBCU Network launches?
Sports will make up about 28 percent, with live game coverage. But it won’t be just sports. There will also be entertainment programs, lifestyle programming. We want to create more exposure for historical Black colleges. We want a platform of programming that really focuses on the history, the legacy, the lifestyle, the culture of historically Black colleges. We want to be authentic, we want to be aggressive, and we want to be audacious in our programming.

Why is it so important that there be an HBCU Network?
Because there is a lot of heritage there. This is our heritage. We feel that the fact that no one is really doing anything on historically Black colleges and universities, that we have a big window here.

And would you say not enough is being shown now, or is it that it’s not being shown in the right way?
I don’t think it’s being done at all. Right now ESPN does some Black college football and basketball games. But sports is only one element of historical Black colleges. There’s so much more than that. With this network and the programming, we want to expose why it makes sense to go to a North Carolina A&T, which has one of the best engineering divisions, or a Hampton, which has one of the best NASA programs in the country. We want people to become more aware of how great these places really are.

So your research has showed there is an audience for this?
No question. I think what is overlooked is how really big that audience is. The cable operators don’t understand how big the alumni base is across the country. I think this channel has the opportunity to be one of the biggest history makers in cable television that there has ever been.

What’s the vision of the HBCU Network, and what do you want to accomplish with the channel?
Really, we want to create more exposure for historical Black colleges. We want to showcase the 174-year history and heritage of HBCUs. We want to increase distribution, and drive more revenue to the colleges.

You sound pretty passionate about what you’re doing? Why do you believe so strongly in this channel, and why this project now?
The reason I believe in it is because I’m a baby of HBCUs. My mother taught at Central State University for 40 years, I graduated from Central State.  I’ve always believed in historically Black colleges.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in trying to launch this and how have you been successful in overcoming them?
The challenges have really been educating white cable operators on the value of this network and why this product makes sense. Many of them are not willing to take a chance, or they’re not willing to put themselves out there politically. It amazes me that in today’s world of cable television, no one has a problem with multiple Hispanic channels. And yet they want to limit the African-American channels to single digits.

What, if anything, would you say has been a key to your successful career?
There’s one thing that I can point to over my lifetime, one thing that has driven me. Back when I was in high school, I didn’t make the basketball team. And I told the coach then that was not going to stop me from playing college basketball. And it didn’t. I played four years. And that just told me that if I really want to do something, if I really put my mind to it, I can do it. That’s the same objective that I have for my life. I don’t stop striving because no one can tell me no.

What advice do you give young people starting out about how to reach their career goals?
First of all, today’s kids feel a certain sense of entitlement. They don’t understand sweat equity. But that’s what it’s about. I worked my ass off to be where I am today. No one gave me anything. I had to earn it. Today’s kids think, “I got a four-year degree, you owe it to me.” No I don’t. I don’t owe you shit. At the end of the day, you have to show me why I should hire you.

What do you think young people needed to focus on most starting out in their careers?
I tell kids to connect with people who can help you down the road on your career path. And sometimes that means stepping out of your comfort zone. Building your network is key. And investment. At the end of day it’s about ownership. Instead of dumping a million dollars on that house, invest in our community. We have to start thinking ownership.

You’ve worked for BET, ESPN, the WNBA, and I’m sure had a number of accomplishments along the way that you are proud of. What would you say has been the highlight of your career?
Well a highlight certainly was what I was able to do at BET. But I’d have to say this is it. This is what I’m proud of. To be able to run my own cable network … this is lager than life. I don’t think there’s a better opportunity out there. This is history making.

Daily Newspaper: Washington Post & USA Today
Top Vacation Spot: Hawaii
Favorite Place to Visit: Chicago
Favorite Sport(s): Football and Basketball
Favorite Type of Music: Jazz
Favorite Musician: Grover Washington, Jr.
Favorite Movie: Remember the Titans

Follow The HBCU Network on Twitter @HBCUNetwork and find out more about what he’s doing on his website You can show your support for The HBCU Network by Signing the Roll!

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