Brunson, Dorothy 1938—
Dorothy Brunson 1938—
Dorothy Brunson is recognized as one of radio’s leading marketing and managerial talents. The owner of three radio stations and developer of the “urban contemporary” radio format, Brunson “is a dynamic entrepreneur whose hard work, persistence, imagination and business acumen have worked to her advantage in the hardball game of broadcasting,” wrote Ken Smikle in Black Enterprise. In 1979 Brunson began a successful career revitalizing black urban radio stations after having previously establishing herself as the savvy manager of New York City’s WBLS-Radio. During her tenure at WBLS Brunson gained renown for transforming it from a failing black-oriented station into the sixth-largest U.S. radio station—black or white. The key to WBLS’s turnaround was Brunson’s innovation of the urban contemporary format, which offers listeners Top Forty pop music mixed with black rhythm and blues. Due to Brunson’s programming brainstorm WBLS’s listener base and advertising revenues greatly increased and Brunson, “one of radio’s true innovators” as Peggy Simpson called her in Working Woman, had initiated a trend that was later emulated by numerous other U.S. stations. According to Dwight Ellis, vice-president of the National Association of Broadcasters, as quoted by Simpson, Brunson’s career is unique in that “she has demonstrated not only great business skill but a great deal of vision.”
Bom in rural Georgia and raised in Harlem, Brunson graduated from college with a business and finance degree and took a job as assistant controller of WWRL-Radio in New York City; after only three months she became controller, and eventually, assistant general manager. Wanting greater challenges, in 1969 she cofounded Howard Sanders Advertising, one of the first black advertising agencies in America. Brunson left with $115,000 in buyout money the following year and, after a dress shop she’d purchased went out of business, was asked by a start-up company, Inner City Broadcasting, to organize investors for its radio stations. After only four months in operation, Inner City—which directed the black community-oriented station, WLIB-AM Radio—was over $1 million in debt and Brunson was hired as general manager. Brunson quickly took steps to turn the station around; in her first year she reduced staff size from 35 to eight, restructured the station’s debt arrangement, and secured a loan to purchase WLIB-FM, the music counterpart of WLIB-AM.
Born March 13, 1938, in Glensville, GA; daughter of Wadis and Naomi (Ross) Edwards; married James Brunson (an electrician), 1964 (divorced c. 1976); children: Edward, Daniel. Education: Empire State College, B.S.
Worked in print communications, 1960-62; VVVVRL-Radio, New York City, 1964-70, began as assistant controller, became controller, assistant general manager, and corporate liaison to company board of directors; Howard Sanders Advertising, Inc., New York City, 1971 -72, co-founder and vice-president; owned retail dress shop, 1972; Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, New York City, 1973-79, began as general manager, became vice-president; owner and president, WEBB-Radio, Baltimore, MD, 1979—, WIGO-Radio, Atlanta, GA, 1981—, and WBMS-Radio, Wilmington, NC, 1984—. Lecturer and speaker. Contributor of articles to Vogue, Black Enterprise, and Newsweek.
Addresses: Home —Baltimore, MD. Office —Brunson Communication, Inc., 6821 Reistertown Rd., Suite 205, Baltimore, MD 21215.
Brunson’s strategy was to operate both stations under one staff and broaden the playlist of the FM station— renamed WBLS—to include not only its established rhythm and blues catalog, but also recordings by white artists with a black audience. Over the next five years this “urban contemporary” format resulted in a tremendous increase in both listeners and advertising revenues. By 1978 Inner City Broadcasting had expanded from a company with $500,000 in annual sales to one that owned seven major-market radio stations, the billing of which exceeded $23 million. Brunson’s urban contemporary sound tapped into a huge and lucrative interracial audience, according to Simpson, “of the very 12- to 39-year-olds advertisers sought.” Brunson commented to Simpson on her objective: “We didn’t design it to pioneer anything. We designed urban contemporary to be competitive. Advertisers were only buying black radio for products specifically geared to blacks. We tried to defy the myth and came up with the concept that people at the same economic levels generally purchase goods in a similar fashion. For example, for a woman to purchase boutique clothing, eat yogurt, be on a diet crossed all ethnic groups.”
After her success at Inner City Broadcasting Brunson was ready to establish her own radio empire. In 1979 she purchased WEBB-Radio in Baltimore, where seven years later she would elevate ratings from the cellar of a thirty-five-station market to Number Ten. The rise of WEBB did not come about, however, without Brunson having to overcome tremendous difficulties: Shortly after she purchased the station Brunson learned of the large back taxes owed and 600 FCC violations amassed by WEBB. “I was naive,” she told Simpson. Complicating her position further, local stations fiercely opposed Brunson’s efforts to establish what they claimed was an unnecessary additional station serving the black community. Neighborhood groups meanwhile protested Brunson’s construction of radio towers in a section of the city where it was believed they would interfere with radio and television reception. WEBB operated in the red its first four years; the first year Brunson took no salary. Confident in her ability and proven track record in revitalizing radio stations, however, investors supplied Brunson with the capital she needed to transform the station. Greg Forest, vice-president of the firm investing in Brunson, told Simpson: “We didn’t invest in Dorothy because she was a woman or because she was black but because we thought she knew what she was doing and could make a profit for her and for us…. She’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met.”
By 1986 Brunson had succeeded in transforming WEBB into a profitable black community-oriented station. She went on to purchase two more stations, WIGO-AM in Atlanta and WBMS-AM in Wilmington, North Carolina, which became part of her burgeoning company, Brunson Communications. She commented to Lloyd Gite in Essence of her intent to use the stations “as a propaganda tool, if you will, to enlighten and inform the Black community.” She told Simpson that WEBB is known in Baltimore as “the community voice. We do a lot of very positive things like have basketball teams for little kids, a concert, Father’s Day awards to highlight the importance of the father.” Positive sales figures helped Brunson fulfill these community roles; after six years of operation WEBB increased its advertising billing from $100,000 to over $800,000, while WIGO more than doubled revenues in its first few years of operation.
Brunson described herself to Gite as someone who considers “power… part of my motivation.” Revealing her entrepreneurial spirit, she told Smikle that “there’s a subliminal comfort in knowing the buck stops with you. You’ve got to make it or break it.” She disclosed to Smikle another motivation: “I want to leave my children and grandchildren with a mentality that says, I can fight to get a piece of the American pie.’”
Black Enterprise, April 1987.
Ebony, December 1985.
Essence, June 1984.
Working Woman, August 1986; November 1986.
—Michael E. Mueller
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