The son of a Ford Motor Co. factory worker, Byron Allen had one ambition growing up: He longed for a lunch pail and a job at a Detroit factory just like his dad.
“That was my dream,” Allen said of his father’s job at Ford’s River Rouge facility. “Then, when I saw Berry Gordy, I saw a different dream.”
Gordy, the famed founder of Motown, had a success that awed Allen, who was a rising comedian when he met Gordy in the 1980s. Gordy inspired Allen “to look at myself differently and to pursue business and ownership.”
Today, Allen, 60, owns a multimedia empire, he has written comedy — starting at age 14 — with David Letterman, Jay Leno and JJ Walker. He was the youngest stand-up comic to do “The Tonight Show” at age 18. He hosted the hit show “Real People” in the early 1980s.
Now the little boy who used to play baseball on the streets of Detroit has his own star on Hollywood’s famous street. On Wednesday, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce will honor Allen with the 2,706th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Vine Street. It’s next to Johnny Carson’s star, the man who gave him his big break.
It all comes in a year that brought big headlines for Allen as he led a group of Black-owned media companies in taking on General Motors for what they said is disproportionately low ad spending with Black-owned media companies, a fight that has expanded to the other two Detroit automakers.
No Black person has done it
The night before the ceremony to receive his star, Allen was sanguine with an edge of giddiness at the thought that his three kids were impressed by it.
Ultimately, he remains humble and close to his Detroit values. He now owns two Lincoln Navigator SUVs: A 2020 and a 2021 model year.
“I am truly blessed,” Allen told the Free Press. “As a young kid growing up in Detroit, in a blue-collar family, I never dreamed I’d go to Los Angeles on a two-week vacation with my mother and end up staying and one day have a star on Hollywood Boulevard next to someone who gave me a break, Johnny Carson.”
Allen said his success is “one of the reasons America is so great. It’s not where you start, because every day you have a new opportunity to make your dreams come true.”
His company, Allen Media Group, is comprised of 32 ABC-NBC-CBS-FOX network affiliate TV stations in 20 U.S. markets, including ABC-affiliate WJRT in Flint. The company also owns The Weather Channel and a dozen other high-definition TV stations that serve 180 million subscribers. Allen Media Group is worth more than $3 billion.
Allen is the largest owner of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox affiliate TV stations in North America that is not a publicly traded company or a multigenerational family owned company, such as Hearst Corporation.
“I own a little less than 5% of the TV stations in the U.S.,” Allen said, adding that, “No Black person in America has ever owned more TV stations than me.”
In the past 18 months, Allen has invested close to $1 billion to acquire top-tier broadcast network affiliates and he said he plans to invest nearly $10 billion to acquire more ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox television stations over the next two years, “with the goal of being the largest broadcast television group in America.”
Negotiating with GM
The drive behind that goal is to grow the financial muscle to fight for economic equality for Black people.
“When I met my wife 20 years ago, she asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am building the world’s biggest media company and as I build it, it will change the world for the better,’ ” Allen said earlier this year.
On March 28, Allen and six other leaders of Black-owned media companies ran a full-page ad in the Detroit Free Press accusing GM and CEO Mary Barra of systemic racism for years of refusing to meet with them. GM had offered its marketing executives, but the group wanted to meet with Barra. They wanted GM to spend a minimum of 5% of its ad budget with Black-owned media.
Barra met via Zoom with Allen on May 6 and GM has vowed to increase its advertising spending with Black-owned media from the current 2% to 8% by 2025.
GM spokesman Pat Morrissey told the Free Press recently that GM is on track to meet or exceed the 2% it promised to spend this year with Black-owned media and the 4% it promises in 2022. GM, like most companies, does not disclose a dollar amount of its advertising spending.
For Allen, the GM promise is empty until he sees economic inclusion for himself. Allen said in the next two weeks, he will know.
“I am talking to GM personally and those conversations and negotiations are going on as we speak,” Allen said. “In the next week or two, we should have clarity of what that economic inclusion looks like.”
Allen said he is negotiating a multi-part deal where GM would advertise on television, cable, digital and other broadcast outlets he owns.
GM did not give specifics about those negotiations but Morrissey said Wednesday afternoon: “As part of our effort to transform our approach to diverse-owned media relationships, we are in the process of discussing multiyear contracts with some of our Black-owned media partners. The discussions are underway right now as we review our spending plans for 2022 and beyond. The Allen Media Group and others are part of that process.”
Ford and Stellantis
Allen is in active talks with GM’s crosstown rivals Ford and Stellantis, too.
“With Ford, we’re having very healthy conversations and negotiations and I have a call with the COO Mark Stewart of Stellantis later this month,” Allen said. “The reason we have that call is that Stellantis has to do better than what they initially put out there. I am disappointed with Stellantis in their initial offer and position, they need to lean in.”
In response, Stellantis spokeswoman Shawn Morgan said the automaker has a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion with one of the most progressive programs to promote economic growth and development for minority-owned suppliers.
“The focus and intent of this award-winning effort is building a diverse supply base throughout the value chain, helping create wealth for diverse businesses and communities,” Morgan said in an email. “Another example of our commitment is our recently launched program with the National Business League to develop Black businesses for future contracting opportunities in the U.S. and abroad.”
Morgan said the company realizes that supporting “diverse communities is a continuous journey. In this spirit, we look forward to our future discussions with these business leaders.”
‘Paint your own masterpiece’
Allen is prepared to persevere with the auto companies, he is used to overcoming obstacles.
He started his company from his dining room table in 1993. He called over 1,300 TV stations before he finally got 150 of them to agree to air his show “Entertainers with Byron Allen.”
His house went in and out of foreclosure 14 times during that period. There were days when he did not eat and his phone was turned off, forcing him to do business on a pay phone. But on Tuesday night, he told the Free Press that he wouldn’t trade any of his struggles in Hollywood for the easy route.
“I wanted to express myself creatively, so I didn’t mind going through the sales process to get there,” Allen said.
Besides, he doesn’t consider any aspect of his life to be “hard” work.
“I grew up seeing all those people clock into factories and very rarely did they call in sick, if ever,” Allen said, noting his mother’s father worked 30 years on the assembly line at Great Lakes Steel. “They worked hard. They provided the cars for the world. They made the steel. I discovered comedy and I haven’t worked a day since. If you do what you love, it’s not work.”
A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame gives him a stage to encourage others who come from blue-collar beginnings that anything is possible, he said.
“You have an opportunity to paint your own masterpiece and it’s so important that you dream and that you pursue your dreams and never give up,” Allen said. “Me seeing Berry Gordy helped me dream differently and dream bigger dreams. I am here to confirm. Never wonder, it’s confirmed. It’s available.”
Becoming the machine
During Wednesday’s ceremony in Los Angeles to unveil Allen’s star, his longtime friend, sportscaster Jon Kelley, talked about Allen’s tenacity as a businessman. Kelley recalled a story about 15 years ago when he was at Allen’s house for the 1-year birthday party for Allen’s daughter.
Allen pulled Kelley aside to tell Kelley that he was getting ready to launch six new networks. Kelley was in shock and Allen explained to him, “I’m no longer going to be a cog in the machine, I am going to be the machine.”
Allen is a “force of nature,” Kelley said, adding that Allen is more than a good businessman, he’s a good person.
“Caring about equality, economic inclusion and education … he wants to make the world a better place for people who don’t get chances,” Kelley said.
Keven Frazier, the co-host of “Entertainment Tonight,” said one day they will teach a “Byron Allen Class” at Harvard because of how Allen has changed the world for Black-owned business.
“He changed the way business was done so that these multicultural and Black-owned businesses would get a chance,” Frazier said. “One day somebody is going to fight to put their star next to Byron Allen’s star because he has changed Hollywood forever.”
In his speech, Allen said that he is a “blessed human being.”
“I have such a phenomenal family and friends,” Allen said. “I was blessed to be born to my mother and father. We lost him recently and he was a great guy, kind and a great sense of humor.”
Allen said he shares the star with his mother because she moved him, when he was a child, from Detroit to Los Angeles and exposed him to show business, teaching him how to pursue his dreams.
Finally, Allen told his three children, “Everything I do, I do it for you. Never give up your dreams.”
Content in this story was added and edited after publishing.