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Robert L. Johnson

Robert L. Johnson
Johnson in 2018
Robert Louis Johnson

(1946-04-08) April 8, 1946 (age 77)
Alma materUniversity of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (BA)
Princeton University (MPA)
Known forCo-founder of BET
(m. 1969; div. 2001)
Lauren Wooden
(m. 2016; div. 2020)
WebsiteOfficial website

Robert Louis Johnson (born April 8, 1946) is an American entrepreneur, media magnate, executive, philanthropist, and investor.[1][2][3][4][5][6] He is the co-founder of BET, which was acquired by Viacom in 2001.[2][3] He also founded RLJ Companies, a holding company that invests in various business sectors.[3][7] Johnson is the former majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.[8] He became the first black American billionaire in 2001.[9][1][10] Johnson's companies have counted among the most prominent black American businesses in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Early life and education

Johnson was born in 1946 in Hickory, Mississippi, the ninth out of ten children to Edna and Archie Johnson.[3][4] His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a farmer.[3] His parents moved the family to Freeport, Illinois, when he was a child.[3] He was an honors student in high school.[3][4] Johnson graduated from the University of Illinois in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in social studies.[3][4] While at the University of Illinois, Johnson became a member of the Beta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.[4] He received a master's degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University in 1972.[3][4]


President George W. Bush sits with Johnson during a meeting to discuss the economy with small business owners and community bankers in 2006

After graduating from Princeton, Johnson found a job in Washington, D.C., which introduced him to the television industry. He served as the public affairs director for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In this position is where he learned of the power and untapped potential of television. Around the same time he also worked as the director of communications for the Washington, D.C. office of the National Urban League.[11] Johnson worked as a press secretary for Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy.[4][12][13] He later became vice president of government relations at the National Cable and Television Association (NCTA).[4][12][13] In 1980, Johnson launched Black Entertainment Television, which became a full-fledged channel in 1983.[4][12]

Johnson left NCTA in 1979 to create Black Entertainment Television, the first cable television network aimed at black Americans.[12][14] When the network launched in 1980, it only aired for two hours on Friday night.[4][12] BET first turned a profit in 1985 and it became the first black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991.[12][14] In 1998, Johnson and Liberty Media bought all outstanding shares of the company.[14][15] This purchase gave Johnson 42% of the company.[14][15] Viacom acquired BET in 2001 for a reported $3 billion; Johnson earned over $1 billion from the sale, making him the first black American billionaire.[3][9][12][14] He remained BET CEO until 2006.[12]

Johnson founded The RLJ Companies, a holding company with a diverse portfolio including hotel real estate investment, private equity, financial services, asset management, automobile dealerships, sports and entertainment, and Video lottery terminal gaming.[3][16] The RLJ Companies is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.[17]

By January 2009, Ion Media had another subchannel network, Urban TV, in the works with him targeted to black Americans.[18] Axiom Bank N.A. Maitland, Florida, was founded by Robert Johnson, who also founded the Black Entertainment Network (BET). As of 2013, Johnson was a member of the board of directors for RLJ Lodging Trust, RLJ Entertainment, Inc., KB Home, Lowe's Companies, Inc., Strayer Education, Think Finance, Inc., NBA Board of Governors, The Business Council, and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.[16][19][20][21] Johnson has also served as a member of the board of directors for several other companies and organizations, including US Airways, Hilton Hotels, General Mills, the United Negro College Fund, and Deutsche Bank's Americas Advisory Board.[16][22][23][24]

Johnson became the first black American majority club owner of a major American sports league team with his 2002 purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats.[8][25][26] In 2010, Johnson sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Bobcats to Michael Jordan.[27]

In 2016, Johnson finalized a partnership agreement with AMC Networks through his RLJ Company after launching his own video on demand streaming service Urban Movie Channel in 2014. According to the agreement, AMC will use its programming and distribution clout to benefit Acorn and UMC. Additionally, the RLJ-AMC partnership will allow for greater investment in content from black American creatives, Johnson emphasized. The agreement called for AMC to provide RLJ with a $60 million loan on a seven-year term and $5 million on a one-year term. AMC has received warrants to purchase at least 20 million shares or the equivalent of 50.1% of the company. The time frame for exercising those warrants is open-ended, AMC said.[28]


In 2011, Johnson worked with Morgan Freeman to raise funds for hurricane preparedness in the Bahamas.[29] Johnson released a neckwear line in coordination with PVH and The Ella Rose Collection, the RLJ Ella Rose Africa Tie Collection, in 2012 to benefit the charitable organization Malaria No More.[30]

In 2007, Johnson created the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund with a $30 million investment.[5][31][32] The fund provides credit for Liberian entrepreneurs.[5]

Political activity

Role in 2008 election

During the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Johnson was a prominent surrogate for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. During the campaign, he was a "HillRaiser", a term for a leading fundraiser for Clinton's campaign.[33] Following her defeat in the primary, Johnson wrote to members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), where he urged representatives to lobby Obama to select Clinton as his running mate.[34]

January 2008 Obama remarks controversy

In January 2008, Johnson attracted controversy over remarks made about Barack Obama, Clinton's primary rival, which were interpreted as a criticism of Obama's admitted use of marijuana in his youth:[35][36]

As an African-American, I'm frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood that I won't say what he was doing, [but] he said it in his book.

The Clinton campaign denied that Johnson was referring to Obama's past use of marijuana, stating that his comments were referring to Obama's work as a community organizer.[37] Critics accused Johnson of hypocrisy, given that BET has prominently featured artists that glorify drug use and distribution.[38] On January 17, 2008, Johnson sent Obama the following apology:[39]

I'm writing to apologize to you and your family personally for the un-called-for comments I made at a recent Clinton event. In my zeal to support Senator Clinton, I made some very inappropriate remarks for which I am truly sorry. I hope that you will accept this apology. Good luck on the campaign trail.

On April 14, 2008, Johnson made comments to the effect that Obama would not be the Democratic Party's leading candidate if he were not black, in defense of a similar comment made by Geraldine Ferraro. He also went on to say "I make a joke about Obama doing drugs [and it's] 'Oh my God, a black man tearing down another black man.'"[40]

Political activity since 2016

Johnson speaking at a signing ceremony for an executive order by President Donald Trump on December 12, 2018

Following Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election, Johnson met with the then-president-elect for a meeting at Trump International Golf Club. Johnson stated in a CNBC interview that he had known Trump personally for years, and urged Black Americans to give Trump a chance.[41] Johnson argued that Black voters should not be wedded to either party in the American two-party system, stating that overwhelming Black support for the Democratic Party means "we are locked into one party which undoubtedly limits and dilutes our voting power".[41] In 2018, he stated that he declined an unspecified position in the Trump Administration.[42]

In 2019, Johnson praised Trump's economic policies, stating that he "[gives] the president a lot of credit for moving the economy in a positive direction that’s benefiting a large amount of Americans". He argued that tax cuts implemented under Trump helped stimulate the economy and inspire confidence among businesspeople. He stated that the Democratic Party moved too far to the left, and indicated he did not have a "particular candidate" he supported in the 2020 Democratic primary.[43]

In September 2020, during the 2020 general election, Johnson made comments that were interpreted as him indicating a preference for Trump's reelection candidacy over Joe Biden's campaign. However, CNBC noted that "Johnson, when pressed, refused to outright endorse Trump". During the interview, Johnson stated that "[w]here I come out as a businessman, I will take the devil I know over the devil I don't know anytime of the week."[44]

Personal life

Johnson married Sheila Johnson in 1969.[3] They divorced in 2001 and have two children. She is CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts and owner of Salamander Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor. [45] Johnson began dating Lauren Wooden, who is 33 years his junior, in 2010. As of 2016, Wooden was pursuing an international business-management doctorate in Paris.[46] They married in May 2016; Greg Mathis officiated,[47] and divorced in 2020.

See also


  1. ^ a b Miller, Matthew (May 6, 2009). "The Wealthiest Black Americans". Forbes Magazine. Archived from the original on December 15, 2019. Retrieved September 21, 2013. ... Robert Johnson became the first African American billionaire in 2000 after he sold the network to Viacom for $3 billion in stock and assumed swag. Since then, sagging Viacom and CBS stock, plus investments in real estate, hotels and banks ... have dragged Johnson's net worth to $550 million, we estimate.
  2. ^ a b Bryant, Adam (November 12, 2011). "No Ranting and Raving Is Permitted". The New York Times. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Eng, Dinah (November 9, 2012). "Bob Johnson moves way beyond BET". Fortune. Archived from the original on September 21, 2013. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Perl, Peter (December 14, 1997). "His Way". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  5. ^ a b c Johnson, Robert (May 13, 2007). "Liberia's Moment of Opportunity". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  6. ^ "Business' Most Notoroius". USA Today. June 30, 2007. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  7. ^ Benjamin, Scott (February 11, 2009). "Second Act for Robert Johnson". CBS News. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  8. ^ a b Rhoden, William C. (June 21, 2004). "Sports of The Times; First Item for the Bobcats: Win Over the Community". The New York Times. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  9. ^ a b "Robert L. Johnson". Biography. Retrieved November 13, 2020.
  10. ^ Olson, Elizabeth (July 15, 2006). "He's Keeping Fingers in Many Pots". The New York Times. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  11. ^ "The Million Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the inside story of the Black Entertainment Television by Brett Pulley
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h Dumaine, Brian (October 1, 2002). "The Market Nobody Wanted". CNN Money. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  13. ^ a b Stodghill, Ron (February 18, 2007). "A Media Mogul Tries Remote Control". The New York Times. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  14. ^ a b c d e Nycz-Conner, Jennifer (May 29, 2012). "30 Years: Black Entertainment Television goes public (October 30, 1991)". Washington Business Journal. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  15. ^ a b "COMPANY NEWS; BLACK ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION TO BE SOLD". The New York Times. March 17, 1998. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  16. ^ a b c "African-American Empowerment". Leaders Magazine. January 2012. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  17. ^ "RLJ Companies About". Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  18. ^ Romano, Allison (January 19, 2009). "Cutting Bait On Subchannels". Broadcasting & Cable. Retrieved March 8, 2018.
  19. ^ "RLJ ENTERTAINMENT, INC. Form 10-K Annual Report Filed 2013-04-10". Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  20. ^ "LOWES COMPANIES INC Form 10-K Annual Report Filed 2013-04-02". Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  21. ^ "Company Overview of Think Finance Inc". Bloomberg Businessweek. Archived from the original on September 22, 2013. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  22. ^ Gilpin, Kenneth L. (August 15, 2001). "US Air, Denied United Merger, to Sketch New Strategy". The New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  23. ^ "General Mills, Inc. Form 8-K (2-11-04)". Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  24. ^ "Hilton Hotels, Corp. Form 10-K, Filed March 30, 1999". Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  25. ^ "PRO BASKETBALL; BET's Founder Wins Franchise". The New York Times. December 18, 2002. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  26. ^ "BET founder Johnson awarded Charlotte franchise". December 18, 2002. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  27. ^ "Sale of Charlotte Bobcats to Michael Jordan approved by NBA Board of Governors". Associated Press. December 18, 2002. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  28. ^ "AMC Networks Invests in Robert Johnson's Streaming TV and Film Company". Variety. October 17, 2016. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
  29. ^ Desmond-Harris, Jenee (June 21, 2011). "Morgan Freeman and Bob Johnson: Fundraising Team". The Root. Archived from the original on September 15, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  30. ^ Rowley, Dorothy (November 9, 2012). "Bob Johnson Launches Neck Tie Collection to Help Fight Malaria". The Washington Informer. Archived from the original on September 23, 2013. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  31. ^ Holder, Christina (July 14, 2009). "Americans lend a hand to new Liberia". USA Today. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  32. ^ Adler, Niel (February 12, 2007). "RLJ Cos., partners create $30 million Liberia fund". Washington Business Journal. Retrieved September 21, 2013.
  33. ^ Suarez, Fernando (January 13, 2008). "Clinton Supporters Come Out Swinging - CBS News". CBS News. Retrieved January 12, 2024.
  34. ^ MacAskill, Ewen (June 4, 2008). "Obama resists pressure from Clinton for vice president role". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved January 12, 2024. Another supporter, Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, said he wrote to the Congressional Black Caucus urging members to push Obama to choose Clinton. He said he had spoken with her on Tuesday and she was "absolutely ready" to become vice-president.
  35. ^ Drugs, Race Raised in Clinton-Obama Fight", CNN, 13 January 2008.
  36. ^ Smith, Ben (January 13, 2008). "Bob Johnson on President Obama's past". Politico. Retrieved February 12, 2012.
  37. ^ "Drugs, Race Raised in Clinton-Obama Fight", CNN, 13 January 2008.
  38. ^ "The Hypocrisy of BET's Bob Johnson's Obama Smears". AlterNet. January 24, 2008. Archived from the original on March 14, 2008. Retrieved January 11, 2024.
  39. ^ RLJ Development, LLC January 17, 2008
  40. ^ Johnson cites race in President Obama's surge Archived April 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  41. ^ a b Braun, Aryn (November 22, 2016). "BET Founder Says African-Americans Should Give Trump a Shot". Roll Call. Retrieved January 12, 2024.
  42. ^ Lovelace Jr, Berkeley (April 6, 2018). "BET founder: Trump's economy is bringing black workers back into the labor force". CNBC. Retrieved January 12, 2024.
  43. ^ Ellyatt, Holly (July 9, 2019). "Democrats have moved 'too far to the left,' says BET network founder Bob Johnson". CNBC. Retrieved January 12, 2024.
  44. ^ Stankiewicz, Kevin (September 30, 2020). "BET founder Robert Johnson says 'I will take the devil I know,' adding he doesn't know what Biden will do". CNBC. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  45. ^ "Sheila Johnson, Marrying Very Well". The Washington Post. 2005. Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  46. ^ Heil, Emily; Roberts, Roxanne (January 5, 2016). "BET founder Bob Johnson engaged to Lauren Wooden". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved April 15, 2016.
  47. ^ Heil, Emily (May 10, 2016). "BET founder Bob Johnson weds Lauren Wooden at Napa Valley ceremony". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 14, 2016.
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Robert L. Johnson
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