Lewis, Delano 1938–
Delano Lewis 1938–
Business and broadcasting executive
For more than two decades, National Public Radio (NPR) has been a staple of the American airwaves, providing such daily radio programs as All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Performance Today. The Washington, D.C.-based company, which shows annual revenues of more than $45 million, is the responsibility of Delano Lewis, who was named chief of NPR in 1993.
A former Peace Corps worker and prominent business executive in the District of Columbia, Lewis was chosen to preside over NPR because he was perceived as someone who could lead the enterprise into a new era of enhanced electronic and computer communications, while providing the fund-raising talents needed to generate essential income. Washington Post reporter Jacqueline Trescott described Lewis as “a highly visible player in the world of Washington politics, communications and business” who would help move National Public Radio “into the fast-changing world of high technology.”
Lewis moved to NPR from the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, a subsidiary of the powerful Bell Atlantic telecommunications conglomerate. He had been chief executive officer at Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone and in fact took a pay cut to move to the much smaller NPR. The appointment of a telephone company executive to the offbeat radio network at first seemed an odd pairing, but Lewis told the Christian Science Monitor that NPR offered just the kind of challenge he was seeking. “I’m not a broadcaster, I’m not a journalist, but I do know something about communications, management, and working with organizations to make them more productive,” he said. “Radio needs to be part of the 21st century in the world of telecommunications, and if not, we’re going to be left behind…. I’d like for us to be a player.”
Delano Eugene Lewis was born in 1938 in Arkansas City, Kansas, and was raised in Kansas City, Kansas. His was one of the last of the segregated generations in America— he lived in an all-black neighborhood and attended all-black public schools. Lewis’s father was employed by the Santa Fe Railroad; his mother worked as a domestic while studying to be a beautician. The personable executive
At a Glance…
Born Delano Eugene Lewis, November 12, 1938, in Arkansas City, KS; son of a railroad employee and a beautician; married; wife’s name, Gayle; children: Delano, Jr., Geoffrey, Brian, Phillip. Education: University of Kansas, B. A., 1960; Washburn School of Law, J.D., 1963.
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, attorney, 1963-65; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, DC, attorney in Office of Analysis and Advice; U.S. Peace Corps, volunteer associate director in Nigeria and country director in Uganda, 1966-69; Office of Senator Edward Brooke, Washington, DC, legislative assistant, 1969-71; Office of Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy, Washington, DC, legislative assistant, 1971-73, Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, Washington, DC, began as public affairs manager, 1973, became vice president, 1983, president, 1988, and chief executive officer, 1990. National Public Radio (NPR), Washington, DC, named president and chief executive officer, 1993; assumed office, 1994—. National Information Infrastructure (Nll), member of advisory council, 1994. Has served on numerous boards of directors and in philanthropic organizations, including Greater Washington Board of Trade, Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation, Mainstream, Africare, Washington Performing Arts Society, and D.C Vocational Education and Career Opportunities Commission.
Selected awards: Named a “Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian magazine, 1978; President’s Medal from Catholic University, 1978; named to Sovereign Military Order of Malta, 1987. Honorary degrees from Marymount University, George Washington University, and Bowie State University.
Addresses: Home—Potomac, MD. Office—National Public Radio, 2025 M St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.
recalled in the Washington Post that his parents were supportive and warm, but his mother gave him one bit of advice. She told him: “You can do anything in this world you want to do but sing.” Lewis took the advice to heart, indulging his love of the arts by learning to tap dance and by playing the violin and trumpet. In high school he was drum major for the band.
Lewis attended college at the University of Kansas from 1956 until 1960. After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science and history, he went on to the Washburn School of Law, where he received a law degree in 1963. That same year he left the Midwest behind forever, becoming one of only ten black attorneys in the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He spent two years with the Justice Department and moved on to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an ideal proving ground for young attorneys interested in local and national politics as well as civil rights issues.
Lewis might have continued his career at the EEOC uninterrupted, but he began to show the experimental spirit that has remained a part of his personality to this day. In 1966, as racial tensions exploded in America, he joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer. His three-year stint with that agency sent him to Nigeria and Uganda, where he directed the work of numerous other field volunteers.
Upon his return from Africa, Lewis settled again in Washington, D.C., and began to consider entering local politics. He served as a legislative assistant for Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and later held the same position in the office of Congressman Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia. These appointments—and a wealth of community service on various advisory boards and charities—helped to raise Lewis’s profile in the community. Finally he did run for a seat on the District’s city council, only to be beaten by Marion Barry, who would eventually become mayor of Washington.
In 1973 Lewis left public service for a job with private enterprise. He joined the massive Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company as a public affairs manager. Lewis told the Washington Post that C&P “wanted someone who understood local politics and the community.” He added that his immediate superiors in the company “didn’t particularly look like me … but I listened to them and followed and achieved. I learned the phone company.” The telephone company that Lewis had to “learn” embraces all private and business telecommunications in Washington, D.C.—including most of the massive federal bureaucracy. Traditionally, the large for-profit company has engendered customer antagonism, especially in the residential community, because of rate hikes and other unpopular business decisions. As Lewis rose through the ranks at C&P he addressed not only internal issues of minority hiring and promotion, but the larger public issues of cost-containment, expansion, and upgrading of service.
One of Lewis’s most audacious moves at C&P was his 1979 endorsement of Marion Barry for mayor. “Business executives don’t publicly endorse candidates, because if the candidate loses there, you are faced with another candidate and they might not take too kindly to your endorsement,” he told Emerge magazine. “I felt strongly about change and that Marion was the one to forge the change. I took a risk. My boss told me so, but he didn’t stop me. Then, Marion won and people were saying, ’Well he does understand politics, he can get some things done for us and he is now close to the power structure of the city. ’”
Lewis’s growing political clout and desire to master the intricacies of phone company business brought him numerous promotions at C&P. In 1983 he was named vice president, and in 1988 he became president. Two years later he moved right to the top as chief executive officer. James Cullen, president of C&P’s parent company, Bell Atlantic, told the Washington Post that Lewis was “the conscience” of C&P, a principled and charming executive who “brought a sense of corporate responsibility to the corporate boardroom for customers, for the economic development of downtown Washington and for employees.” While Lewis ran C&P, the company generated revenues of a half billion dollars per year. Its 2,700 employees were more than 50 percent female and 50 percent minority.
In addition to his work at C&P, Lewis engaged in numerous philanthropic and developmental activities outside the office. Chief among these were his appointment to the Greater Washington Board of Trade and his efforts to create and implement a home rule charter for the District. He also used his fund-raising skills to promote such charities as the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation, the United Way, the YWCA, and Washington’s Arena Stage. In 1993 Lewis estimated that he had helped generate almost $180 million in charitable donations for these and other foundations.
Lewis’s career was the subject of much speculation in the early 1990s. Most observers assumed that the executive— one of Washington’s most prominent African American businessmen—would either move into the top ranks at Bell Atlantic or perhaps into a position within the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. The October 1993 announcement that Lewis would take over National Public Radio, an enterprise about a tenth the size of Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone, came as a surprise. “Why would a seasoned telephone company executive, former president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, board member extraordinaire, patron of the arts, and an excellent catch for any Fortune 500 company take a smaller office and a pay cut at NPR?” asked Cindy Skrzycki at the Washington Post, “Why go to a place that supplies radio stations with an offbeat collection of programs ranging from news shows such as All Things Considered to [author/commentator] Garrison Keillor’s quirky monologues on Minnesota?” The possibility was raised that Lewis had grown tired of fighting C&P’s regulatory battles with the local government, or that he was not particularly motivated to move further upward into the massive Bell Atlantic corporation.
The new chief of NPR answered these queries simply. “There was no bitterness. No anger,” he told the Washington Post of his decision to leave C&P. “You need to know when it’s time to go.” Lewis preferred to dwell upon the new challenges facing him at NPR. “This is the opportunity to combine a lot of things I have done over my careers…. It is not such a leap. I have run a communications company. The communications war is going to be fought in a very different way, in a very competitive way, over the next decade. We are going to look at the merger of voice, data, information, cable TV and entertainment. The challenge for us is where does radio fit.”
Lewis took the helm of a financially stable network, the largest public broadcasting outfit in radio, early in 1994. A majority of NPR’s operating funds come from fees paid by the 480 radio stations nationwide that air NPR programming. Still, the fees account for only 65 percent of the annual budget. Other sources of revenue include federal grants and the increasingly important donations by private individuals and corporations. Lewis will be expected to use his fund-raising skills—especially in the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C., area—to generate income for the company. A new fund-raising arm, the NPR Foundation, was begun in 1993 to help spread the word about the network’s needs.
Another challenge facing Lewis at NPR is the status of minority employees there. The company has come under criticism by minority workers who feel their talents are undervalued. At the same time, a few NPR-generated news reports were cited as contributing to racial stereotyping, especially of black urban youth. On the other hand, conservative watchdog groups have accused NPR of slanting its news reports to a liberal viewpoint. In the Washington Post, Lewis addressed the criticism. “I know there is room for improvement,” he said of the status of NPR minority employees. “I am one who talks about inclusion, not exclusion.”
As regards editorial policy, he told Emerge: “I don’t think there is any question that diversity is understood at NPR.” He claimed that he had no intentions of changing or interfering with the content of NPR reports. “We have very talented people who can do that,” he said in the Christian Science Monitor, “but I’ll be involved in the content to the extent that we as a team develop our own vision of what we are about.”
Lewis’s knowledge of the expanding horizons of computerization and telecommunications will be essential as NPR prepares for a new century. The executive told Emerge that he wants to see the network grow both in the United States and in global markets in partnership with other communications ventures. Nevertheless, he is dedicated to preserving NPR’s traditional role as a source of information and high-quality cultural entertainment. More than anything, Lewis told the Christian Science Monitor, he wants NPR to stimulate people to think and act.
“Sometimes it makes you angry, but if you heard something that makes you angry, you’ll act,” he said. “I think it has that kind of role in society…. I think [NPR programming] stimulates in ways you don’t get from other media.”
In 1994 the Clinton administration formed the National Information Infrastructure (Nll) advisory council in an effort to sort through the “implications of a changing telecommunications environment,” according to Library Journal. Delano Lewis was among the 27 members appointed to the council, which will help determine the shape and policy of America’s budding information superhighway. U.S. secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, as quoted in Library Journal, stated that the council’s main goal is to build partnerships in communication, thereby ensuring that the United States does not become a society of “information haves and have-nots.”
Black Enterprise, December 1993, p. 26.
Christian Science Monitor, October 7, 1993, p. 12.
Dollars & Sense, March 1994, pp. 23-28.
Emerge, December/January 1994, pp. 67-68.
Library Journal, February 1, 1994, pp. 16-17.
USA Today, September 8, 1993, p. B-1.
Washington Post, August 18, 1993, p. C-1; August 21, 1993, p. C-1; October 25, 1993, p. F-1.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Lewis, Delano 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lewis-delano-1938
"Lewis, Delano 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lewis-delano-1938
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