Roland S. Martin Biography
Covered Branch Davidian Standoff, Became Editor at Savoy, Hired to Revitalize Chicago Defender, Selected writings
One of the rising young stars of African-American journalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Roland S. Martin seemed like a whirlwind of activity as his career took off. He worked as a reporter for black-owned and white-owned newspapers; his voice was heard on radio news programs; he held editorial positions at a major magazine and a high-traffic black-oriented Web site; his syndicated column ran in newspapers nationwide; he was a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows of all political stripes; he ran a multimedia company of his own; and he wrote books. In 2004 Martin took on perhaps his greatest challenge: the revitalization of the once-mighty, but increasingly moribund, Chicago Defender.
Born around 1969 in Houston, Texas, Martin was inspired to follow a career in journalism by his father, an avid newspaper reader and fan of television news. In 1987 Martin graduated from Houston's Jack Yates High School in a magnet program devoted to communications. He went on to study journalism at Texas A&M University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1991. Martin landed a job at the Austin American-Statesman and started his journalism career at a basic level, covering county government and neighborhood news. In 1992 he covered the Republican National Convention for the paper and was sent to Louisiana to file reports from the area devastated by Hurricane Andrew.
Covered Branch Davidian Standoff
Moving on to the larger Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Martin helped cover the fatal standoff mounted by the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and the 1995 right-wing terrorist bombing of the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, federal building. His coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing earned him an award from the Managing Editors group of the Texas Associated Press, the first of more than 20 journalism awards he would receive. Martin covered Fort Worth's city hall and began to expand his range as a writer, contributing sports and news columns to the paper.
Martin worked as a morning reporter for all-news radio station KRLD in Dallas and then moved to black-oriented KKDA, where he served for three years, from 1995 to 1998, as news director and morning anchor. He also did sports reporting there, earning a 1997 award from the National Association of Black Journalists. While at KKDA, Martin broke a story involving drug possession charges being leveled against former Dallas Cowboys player Michael Irvin. Martin, KKDA general manager Chuck Smith told the Chicago Tribune, "was like a pit bull. He demanded a lot, but he mainly wanted to see other people succeed."
The chance to revitalize a publication and put his own stamp on it lured Martin back to the world of print journalism. He became managing editor of the black-oriented Dallas Weekly and led the paper's staff to local, state, and national journalism awards. Later Martin served in the same position at the Houston Defender. From there, Martin branched out into an impressive variety of journalistic activities; he seemed to be trying to become black journalism's Renaissance man. He became a founding editor of radio personality Tom Joyner's Black America Web Web site, returned to radio himself as a news correspondent for the American Urban Radio Network and as a sports commentator on Washington, D.C., radio station WOL's "Fifth Quarter Program," and launched the ROMAR Media Group in Dallas as an umbrella company encompassing his various activities, which included marketing consultancies for various media organizations.
Became Editor at Savoy
In the early 2000s, Martin became news editor for the new Savoy magazine, a New York-based publication focusing on African-American lifestyles. That post gave Martin the chance to hone his individual style as a writer; a style that could be pointed and outspoken yet was marked by a twinkle-in-the-eye humor sometimes lacking in the writing of other black commentators. In 2003, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott attempted to save his job by espousing such goals as affirmative action after getting into hot water over comments lauding the past segregationist policies of onetime presidential candidate Strom Thurmond. "Who'd a thunkit?" Martin wrote in Savoy. "Black folks have been clamoring for a comprehensive legislative agenda in the wake of Democratic losses during the midterm election and Trent comes along to lead the charge. Move over, Jesse [Jackson] and Al [Sharpton]–Trent's going to carry black folks to the Promised Land. Can I get an amen?!"
This sort of wit made Martin attractive to hosts of all persuasions in the rapidly growing sphere of political talk. Martin became a familiar face and voice, not only within the sphere of African-American media like National Public Radio's Tavis Smiley Show, but also on the Cable News Network (CNN) and on Fox television's conservative-oriented O'Reilly Factor. In 2002, Martin began writing a column of his own; it was picked up by the nationally distributed Creators Syndicate ran in such major newspapers as the Detroit News, Denver Post, and Indianapolis Star. Martin also found time to write a book, Speak, Brother! A Black Man's View of America.
Married to a minister and author, the Rev. Jacquie Hood Martin, Martin had a strong interest in Christian issues himself. He pursued a master's degree at Louisiana Baptist University and made plans in 2004 to release Yes, God! Listening to the Spirit Within, a collection of his columns on religious themes. Martin experienced a rare taste of failure in 1993 as he purchased a small Christian newspaper in Dallas and tried to turn it around. The paper folded within a year, but Martin gained experience that would help him deal with a much larger turnaround project.
Hired to Revitalize Chicago
In 2004, Martin was hired as a consultant by the Chicago Defender, a 99-year-old daily paper that had played a vital role in the civil rights revolution of the middle twentieth century. Many black Chicagoans remembered the newspaper's contributions positively, but its circulation, long unaudited, had dropped to less than a tenth of its peak of 250,000 and was centered mostly on the South Side's Bronzeville neighborhood. With a 90-day contract, Martin shook things up immediately. Several longtime employees departed, but the paper's owners noticed the Defender's new look, with a focus on a single relevant story of the day. And they were impressed by Martin's streamlining of the paper's accounting practices.
So, at the end of August of 2004, Martin was hired as executive editor of the Defender. Though some doubted the paper's ability to survive as a daily, Martin, variously described (according to the Chicago Tribune) as "brazen, arrogant, and visionary," seemed the right person to give it a chance. Sometimes clad in red pants and a Texas A&M Aggies shirt, he injected a jolt of energy into the staid old paper. Laying plans to raise the Defender's circulation of 18,000 to 60,000 by reaching the city's West Side and suburban black populations, Martin added auto and business sections and revived the paper's Web site. He continued to write prolifically, exhorting black Chicago parents to take an interest in their children's educations. "Whether you like it or not," he wrote in the Defender's pages, "the lack of an education will likely result in your child being incarcerated."
"One of the things that he has is a very great interest in himself," KKDA's Chuck Smith told the Tribune. "That's what egotistical people do, and I don't mean that in a negative way. If you're going to change stuff, you have to have some sense that you're right and you have some higher cause." The higher cause of African-American journalism, it seemed, was being energetically served by the fast-rising Roland S. Martin.
Speak, Brother! A Black Man's View of America, ROMAR Media Group, 2002.
Chicago Defender, September 1, 2004, p. 3; September 7, 2004, p. 2.
Chicago Reader, September 17, 2004.
Chicago Sun-Times, July 29, 2004, p. 63.
Chicago Tribune, September 26, 2004, p. 1.
Crain's Chicago Business, November 1, 2004, p. 56.
Editor & Publisher, August 31, 2004.
Houston Chronicle, September 1, 2004, p. A2.
Savoy, February 2003, p. 82.
"Biography," http://www.rolandsmartin.com (November 24, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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