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Holmes Carves African-American Spot In Late Night


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you're one of the many people who likes to end your day with some thoughtful news analysis, as well as a laugh or two, we wanted to let you know about a new show that hopes to offer both and bring a fresh perspective to late night talk. It's called "Don't Sleep." It's on BET and it debuted earlier this week.

Veteran journalist T.J. Holmes is the host and here's a clip.


T.J. HOLMES: Our community can't go home and turn on the TV at night and see somebody that looks like them and talks like them, talking about a subject that really matters to them.

Nineteen sixty, the KKK. Nineteen ninety, "Boys in the Hood." Today, Trayvon Martin. All hoods are not created equal.

MARTIN: T.J. Holmes spent more than a decade in the media, including five years as an anchor and correspondent for CNN. He's hoping to bring that substance and style to "Don't Sleep" and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us and congratulations on the new show.

HOLMES: Thank you. Always good to talk to you. We usually only get a chance to catch up every now and again in D.C., so it's good to talk to you on your program now.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

HOLMES: Yeah, thank you so much.

MARTIN: Or condolences, is it?

HOLMES: Oh, I'm going to stick with the congratulations.

MARTIN: New is hard. OK. Well, new can be hard. After 30 years as a journalist, why this move to late night talk?

HOLMES: You know, it was an opportunity that I wasn't expecting, so it kind of came out of nowhere. But as I've been saying, it morphed into a responsibility. It felt like a chance to do something that, frankly, we don't have right now and speak to a community that I care about and it's not just a community I care about. It's my community.

I think the ability to speak directly to the community about issues relevant to them - and it comes at a time when I was looking for a new career challenge. I certainly enjoyed my time at CNN and learned so much and grew so much there, but I guess this is just another step in my personal and my professional growth.

MARTIN: I want to dig in more to your statement that you just made, that this is both an opportunity and a responsibility.


MARTIN: Why a responsibility?

HOLMES: Well, I say that to say, where else - what other time - what is the next chance we are going to have? And I say we as the black community. There are just so few - and we know this by just looking - turning on the TV and how many hosts of color do we see on TV, whether it's a news program, whether it's an entertainment program, frankly? But a place where you can hone in on, and focus, strictly, solely and with that intent, on our community. And it is a time that I can use what I have learned, my news chops, even my contacts and use my personality, bring that all to come together on a show like this.

It did. It felt like - OK. If I don't do it, then who? So I did. In that regard, it felt a bit like a responsibility.

MARTIN: The last news program in late night was Nightline, which is now moving to late, late night...


MARTIN: 12:30. The last successful non-white host in late night was a comedian, Arsenio Hall. Your program, as I understand it, is - how would you describe it? It's a melding of the two. Is that right? Like, both pop culture and news talk?

HOLMES: I would say that, for sure. It's a hybrid show of news and information and entertainment, but at the end of the day, I always want people to walk away from it with some information they can use, to have learned something along the way. There will be times, of course, you'll see an entertainer or a celebrity, if you will. But even in that, I still want to get something out of that that our audience can use. I don't want anyone to just come on and they got a movie to promote and we're just going to talk about their movie and go on.

No. There has to be something that they offer to our audience outside of just an entertainment value. That is always the hope and the goal there. You're right. I don't know the last time something like this has been tried to - a show like this.

But it's definitely a hybrid and we understand that nobody wants to see just straight, hard news at 11 o'clock at night, and they don't expect that.

MARTIN: Why do you think this is the right format for BET for right now? And I would say that, if there's somebody who's doing kind of a hybrid model, Jon Stewart comes to mind, as a person who is doing comedy, but the subject is the news. But he's a comedian.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I want to make sure that I am not at all trying to compete or step into that realm. I believe he and Colbert are just masters at what they do, but they always - they know they're there for laughs and they're trying to get those kicks. But - yes - they take on current events and find, often, the humor in those.

That is not exactly what we are trying to do. We are not trying to be a black "Daily Show," but you do have to engage and, to a degree, entertain the audience. So we might take a news topic or a news story. We're putting it through our "Don't Sleep" filter and then we present that to the audience in a way that they can take that information and go use it, to say, hey, you might have heard about this story, but the part that nobody's telling you about that really applies to you is this, this, this or this. And in getting on that - to getting to that point, that goal at the end of the day, we take them on a little journey that you might have to entertain them a little bit. If they laugh, fine but our goal is never for a punch line or a joke. It is never ever the point. But we are. I mean, I'm going to use my personality and get to be more myself on the show in delivering the news. I'm not going to sit up there and read straight news stories. Oh, no, no, no, no. But we are going to take what's happening in the world, put it through our filter, present it back to you in an engaging, entertaining even way. But we always want you to get something out of it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm visiting with T.J. Holmes. He is the host of BET's new late-night program, "Don't Sleep."

T.J., is it your idea or is it BET's idea that viewers need this show - particularly African-American viewers need this show? Or is it that the whole universe of late-night programming needs this show?

HOLMES: I think the need part you talk about is when people just turn on the TV - and we get it to some degree in talk radio, with certain what the morning guys, with Joyner, oh, you have Baisden as well, you have Steve Harvey. But you don't have it on television. And even though people will say that people getting their news from different places, whether it's online and social media, and so on and so forth, television is still a very powerful tool and BET has the eyeballs, they have the reach to get a message out to a wide African-American audience. So...

MARTIN: But let me ask you this. Let me ask you this. You said in some of the promotional materials for the program, you talk about the fact that in your career you never had an African-American boss. But you said that you've had bosses who told you what African-Americans think. Well, you know, an interesting point there, but the mainstream media does cover a lot of the stories that you mentioned in the setup piece that we did. I mean, the mainstream media did cover the Trayvon Martin story heavily. What is it that's going to be different here? Is it going to be your filter, the BET filter, as opposed to other people's filter, or what?

HOLMES: Well, absolutely. Those stories are covered, but those networks, as we know, are set up not necessarily to speak directly and always to the black community. When a big story happens that involves black America, yes, you have seen those networks often cover. But in a day in, day out basis, for us to be able to hone in on the issue and the crisis of young black boys not graduating from high school; to hone in day in day out about, yes, the unemployment rate, but the high black unemployment rate; and for us to offer resources day in day out for people who are watching us to find those jobs. There are so many issues that are yes, relevant to us, but also those topics that we might be talking about around the kitchen table, we have a wider platform and audience now and venue to have those broader discussions. So yes, stories may be covered here and there but that's not what CNN or MSNBC is set up to do. We can be set up now solely to speak to those things and do it day in and day out and not just when a big story happens in the country that most media happens to pick up on and it just happens to be a "black story," quote/unquote, if you will.

MARTIN: You have any ongoing features that you can talk about?

HOLMES: We will have - one thing that we will be focusing that we'll get to, actually this is the way we hope to get young people engaged is, we'll offer them a number every night and we offer it at the top of the show and then allow hints and allow for them to engage hopefully on social media with their own guesses, then we will reveal what that number actually stands for. But it will always be something that's relevant to them and to the black community, and then give them a way going forward to be empowered, to use that number to bring something to their attention - whether it's an unemployment rate number, whether that's household income for black America compared to white America. I mean, numbers like that don't seem like much just when you say a simple number, but when you dig into what's behind it, it's incredibly relevant.

MARTIN: You know, the news, journalism and entertainment have always been bedfellows. People forget now that Mike Wallace, the veteran, you know, CBS news man started out as a game show host. You know, Walter Winchell, the, you know, famous, you know, radio news man started out as a vaudevillian. Anderson Cooper had a game show for a while, that kind of thing. I mean, so journalism and entertainment are often connected.

But as a journalist, are you at all worried that your news chops will be compromised by having to compete for that entertainment audience?

HOLMES: Absolutely. That was no doubt a huge concern initially. In my opinion, at least, and what makes me feel better is I'm not going for laughs. It's never the point to get the joke across. It's never the point to make sure that people are laughing. It's to make sure they take the message away and take something from the show that they can use in their lives. How we get them to that point, entertain them a bit, you know, make them laugh a little bit. That's one thing, but the goal is always the same. So it was a concern no doubt for me, but I think I can walk that fine line and do that delicate balance if I have to.

MARTIN: And again, before I let you go; there are those who argue - this is not something we've heard lately but - during the early stages of the presidential campaign, you know, when there were a lot more candidates in the field and people are articulating lots of different points of view, you did hear people like Tom Tancredo for example, former member of Congress, expressing the idea that kind of this market-segmented approach to the audience, the electorate is just wrong. I mean, that having these sort of ethnically-oriented pitches to people is divisive - this is a word you sometimes hear people toward the president, conservative critics, saying that he is divisive when he focuses on ethnicity. What would you say to people who would argue that, you know, that it's one audience and that there shouldn't be a kind of an ethnically targeted approach to issues? How would you answer that?

HOLMES: You know, we've even talked about this in Charlotte. There are was some criticism of even the Democratic National Convention, and has I believe is what, 14 different caucuses? And someone was making the argument, I mean, where is there space for just the average ole white guy, if he doesn't fit in with the youth caucuses or the women caucus or the black caucus? There are so many of these. What I feel about it? It sometimes feels a bit offensive. We are all one country. We all are Americans and we all have so many of the same problems and we are in this thing together. But the country is made up of a lot of different segments and ethnicities and different groups. And for those groups to speak to each other or speak directly to their own issue, we should never be threatened by that or find that offensive. Nobody's trying to separate; nobody's trying to segregate, if you will. But I do, I find it offensive sometimes when someone can say that and oftentimes it's white guys saying, well, why are you all over there talking to each other? Why don't you come over here with the rest of group or with the rest of us white people, if you will, as if that's a bad thing for us to speak to our issues directly. So I do. I find it offensive sometimes but, no, I think there is a need and a desire for it and I think you can do that and still be American.

MARTIN: T.J. Holmes is a veteran journalist. He's host of BET's new late-night series "Don't Sleep." It premiered earlier this week. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

T.J. Holmes, thanks so much for joining us.

HOLMES: Thank you, as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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