For the better part of three decades, Don Cornelius has straddled the worlds of popular music and broadcasting. During that time, both businesses have changed almost beyond recognition.
In response, Mr. Cornelius, the creator, executive producer and former host of the syndicated television program "Soul Train," has changed course very little. He has clung steadfastly to his niche audience, and in return much of that audience has remained loyal. The heaviest concentration of "Soul Train" viewers is in urban markets with large black communities, like Baltimore, New York and Charleston, S.C.
Many less-than-with-it baby boomers have mistakenly consigned "Soul Train" to the Afro- and platform shoe-friendly 1970s, but -- surprise -- the series is about to enter its 25th season, making it the longest-lasting program in first-run syndication.
"Soul Train," which was designed to spotlight black music and conceived in an era well before cable television, CDs, MTV, rap music or music videos, has depended on a tried-and-true formula for its longevity. The show is a weekly teen-age "dance party" in which lithe young amateur dancers try out their newest steps to recorded hits or lip-synched performances by visiting performers. Unlike the neo-dance shows currently running on MTV, it does not incorporate music videos.
"When you come up with a good idea, you don't have to do a whole lot," Mr. Cornelius said recently, sitting in the crowded Hollywood office of Don Cornelius Productions Inc. "The idea does it for you."
Clearly the idea is still doing it for Mr. Cornelius. With the demise of "American Bandstand" in 1989, "Soul Train" is the last remaining dance show on broadcast television.
"Soul Train," which is broadcast on weekends, usually in midmorning or late at night, is currently carried by 58 stations nationwide, according to figures from the A.C. Nielsen Co. It is distributed by Tribune Entertainment, a unit of the Chicago-based Tribune Co., which says the show reaches 90 percent of television households and averages a 2 rating. (Each rating point represents 954,000 homes.)
While never a big hit by "Oprah" or even "Hee Haw" standards, the train still runs, and Mr. Cornelius, undaunted by either trends or nostalgia, intends to keep it running.
A tall, powerfully built man, Mr. Cornelius speaks in the same basso profundo that was his unmistakable on-air trademark. He freely admits that the format of "Soul Train" is old-fashioned.
"We've always realized that we were doing 'American Bandstand' or whoever did this thing before us," he said. "We've always done it with our personality, our character, our style." But, he added, "It was really the same show. A dance show is a dance show is a dance show."
Although the O'Jays and the Jackson Five no longer make guest appearances (and though Mr. Cornelius no longer wears wide neckties and Day-Glo suits) the show's rigid format, animated-locomotive logo and upbeat blend of rhythm-and-blues and tamer rap music would still be recognizable to 1970s viewers.
Mr. Cornelius said one reason for the endurance of "Soul Train" was that the music video revolution was very late in reaching most black recording artists.
"One of the things that music videos did was obviate the need for a white pop star to go and do a dance show," he said. "But black stars did not turn away en masse. At the same time this was happening, black artists not only didn't have other media to turn to, they were not given decent video budgets and for a long time -- at least under the regime of Robert Pittman at MTV -- they could not get air play."
The other major factor, he said, is the dearth of mainstream programs that cater unreservedly to black tastes. "Blacks -- male and female, 70- and 60-year-olds as well as teen-agers -- watch 'Soul Train' because there is an inner craving among us all, within us all, for television that we can personally connect to."
Richard Kurlander, vice president and director of programming for Petry Television, a consulting company in New York that advises local television stations, said: "From a national perspective, the show's performance is mediocre. But in selected markets -- say New York, where it has a 5 rating among women 18 to 34 at 11 a.m. Saturday mornings, which is spectacular -- it does well enough to keep it going."
Rick Jacobson, president of Tribune Entertainment, said, "It does very well for us, because it reaches a targeted audience, and we can charge a premium price for advertisers who want to reach that audience." According to Mr. Jacobson, Tribune will shortly renew "Soul Train" through the 1996-97 season.
Mr. Cornelius, who declined to give his age, started "Soul Train" in 1970 at WCIU, a small UHF station in Chicago. He stepped down as host two years ago. "I took myself off because I just felt that 22 years was enough and that the audience was changing and I wasn't," he said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Cornelius says he remains comfortable incorporating most contemporary black music into his long-running franchise.
On this subject, Mr. Cornelius chose his words carefully: "Our responsibility, as we see it, is to present to the black market visually what they've been hearing on the radio. And to give exposure to those artists that don't get invited to do any other free television."