Dorothy E. Brunson, radio station owner, dies

She was the first African-American woman in the nation to own a radio and TV station

  • Dorothy Brunson at WEBB Radio Station in 1986.
Dorothy Brunson at WEBB Radio Station in 1986. (Baltimore Sun Staff File…)
August 04, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Dorothy E. Brunson, who became the first African-American woman in the nation to own a radio station when she bought WEBB-AM in Baltimore, died Sunday of complications from ovarian cancer at Mercy Medical Center.

The Northwest Baltimore resident was 72.

"Thanks to the pioneering work of Ms. Brunson, the world of broadcast media was opened up to African-American entrepreneurs and business leaders," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "Her vision and commitment to excellence at every level of the business led to her success and paved the way for others to find success in cities across America."

"Baltimore is proud to be the place where Ms. Brunson led the way as a true pioneer in radio broadcasting," she said.

Ms. Brunson was also the first African-American woman to own and operate a television station, with her purchase of WGTW-TV Channel 48 in Philadelphia in 1986.

Dorothy Edwards was born in Georgia and raised in Harlem, N.Y.

A graduate of New York City public schools, she hoped for a career in the arts and studied drama, fashion, photography and advertising.

"But I needed something more," she told The Baltimore Sun in a 1986 profile.

She returned to college and earned a bachelor's degree in finance and accounting in 1960 from the State University of New York Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, and went to work in 1962 as assistant controller of WWRL-Radio in New York City.

Ms. Brunson advanced very quickly and within three months became controller. Before she left in 1969, she was the station's assistant general manager and corporate liaison.

"When I first came to WWRL, yearly advertising billings were around $700,000. By the time I left, they had grown to nearly $5 million," Ms. Brunson said in the 1986 Sun article.

In New York City, she co-founded Howard Sanders Advertising, which was one of the first African-American advertising agencies in the U.S., and Madison Avenue's first.

The next year, with $115,000 in buyout money, she was hired by Inner City Broadcasting to assist black investors purchasing WLIB-AM Radio, New York's first station focused on the African-American community.

Within four months, the station was reeling, with more than $1 million in debt, and Ms. Brunson was hired as its general manager.

She turned the station's operation around, reducing staff and debt, and eventually expanded its ownership to include WLIB-FM, which was renamed WBLS, and six other stations.

By 1978, annual sales rose from $500,000 to more than $23 million, and as manager of WBLS, Ms. Brunson had turned the failing operation into the sixth-largest radio station in the nation.

She gained listeners by initiating a Top 40 format that also leaned heavily on rhythm and blues.

Ms. Brunson turned her attention to Baltimore after leaving the New York station in 1979, when she established Brunson Communications Inc. and purchased WEBB for $485,000. WEBB was established in 1955 and named for the legendary Baltimore-born and raised swing-era musician, William Henry "Chick" Webb.

The station, which was in bankruptcy, had previously been owned by James Brown, the American singer who was known as "The Godfather of Soul."

With the purchase of WEBB, Ms. Brunson became the first African-American woman to own a radio station in the United States.

In addition to the station being in deteriorating condition, owing back taxes and being mired in bankruptcy, Ms. Brunson also had to deal with some 600 violations that had been filed against WEBB by the Federal Communications Commission.

"I was naïve," she told Working Woman magazine in an interview some years later.

"I realized I had my work cut out for me," she said in a 1986 interview. "I had to build an image, gain credibility and make it a strong voice in the black community."

The station operated in the red for the first four years of her ownership. She took no salary for two years, living on previous earnings.

When Ms. Brunson assumed ownership of WEBB, the station operated only during daylight hours, and in order to expand to a more profitable 24-hour format, required the construction of two 350-foot towers.

After a protracted five-year legislative struggle with the Baltimore City Council, approval was finally granted for tower construction, and in 1986, the station was able to inaugurate its 24-hour format.

She bought WGTW-TV Channel 48 in Philadelphia in 1986.

She explained in a 1987 interview with The Baltimore Sun why she wanted to expand into TV.

"We all have a bit of fantasy in projecting where we want to be. Going into television at almost 50 — that's crazy," she said. "I'm secure, I'm safe. Why take on another $10 million worth of debt? Because I'm a dreamer. The great fantasy. The impossible, the impractical. Not to be caught up in the boredom trail."

She added, "The ultimate challenge is to be the great entrepreneur. The great businesswoman. I want to be a great businesswoman. It's a dream."

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