Name: Melody Spann-Cooper
Business: Midway Broadcasting Corporation
Tanya: What was your path to entrepreneurship? How does one become the CEO of owning a media empire?
Melody: So first, everybody’s journey is different. So, I don’t have a formula other than, for me, I’m a second-generation owner and my bar really would’ve had to have been set very low from me to mess this up, Tanya. So, my dad was a legendary disc jockey in Chicago who went on to own the company he worked for.
Melody: He came here from Mississippi and back in the late forties, and he would listen to the radio as most people would. He was always interested in the entertainment field. My dad became a disc jockey not for the love of the game, but because he was an entrepreneur, and he knew he could draw audiences from being on the radio.
A lot eventually transpired, but he ended up owning a station. And I was a rambunctious teenager. So, my dad thought I might be getting into a little pretty tough crowd. So, he put me to work. I’d be at the radio on Saturday nights from 8:30 to one o’clock in the morning. (Laughing) I mean, is that cruel? Is that the most cruel thing you could do to a teenager?
Tanya: (Laughing) it REALLY is!
Melody: I used to host a show on Saturday nights and I did that from the time I was 14, 15 until I was 19 years old and I went away to college and I never missed a night. So, he established a work ethic for me, very young, and I’ve been here all of my life. I’ve only had one other job. I’ve done everything at this station, changed light bulbs, I’ve been a janitor. I’ve done everything. I know this place back and forth and up and down.
Tanya: I honestly could just leave it there. I love that story so much. What is your boldest business move to date? I’m sure there are so many in the history of your ownership of this, but it could just be the passing of the torch, or was it something that you, your father always wanted to try and implement, but was never able to?
Melody: It’s back in the sixties, and my dad and another gentleman joined forces to start Midway Broadcasting Corporation. But watch this, Tanya, they could not stand one another. They could not, it was oil and water. They literally, they were in court and people don’t realize this, they were in court for at least seven to eight years. Fighting over shareholders and ownerships. The courts were fed up and appointed me the receiver and what was so cool about that is I wasn’t under anybody’s restrictions or reigns anymore. I could run it the way I wanted to run it.
For the next three years, we had our largest growth because I was doing all the things, I was creating different things and connecting with corporate and throwing community events and just doing what young… I just turned the lights on in an old station.
My dad and this individual were in court so long, the judge retired. So, in comes this young new judge named and she’s got a case file now about this being on this station and I’m running it. She is looking at my dad who was then in his late seventies and this other individual who was almost 90 and they’re still fighting. And so, she was like, “Look, I’m not doing this.” And she says, “I tell you what, Melody’s been running the station so well. Why don’t you all just sell it to her?”
“Melody,” it cost $400,000. Can you come up with it?” I said, “Absolutely.” Tanya, I didn’t know how I was going to come up with that in 30 days mind you.
But guess what? I did it.
Tanya: More people need to know your story. This is incredible! Do you have a book?
Melody: I do actually. It’s called The Girlfriend’s Guide to Closing the Deal.
Tanya: Because you had said that when you took it over the first three years was your largest space of growth, what was the biggest financial turning point for the station when your ‘I made it’ moment?
Melody: Early in my tenure there I pitched something called the Financial Seminar to Harris Bank (note now BMO Harris Bank). And my goal, all I could think about Tanya is wow, would Black folks come out here to an all-day seminar about wealth building and about finances? And I knew they would because who doesn’t want to? You can sell being a millionaire. You can sell being rich. You can sell running about the stock market to people and guess what?
The bank gave me $5,000. And I’m like, “Okay, what am I going to do with $5,000?” But it’s okay because it’s the start of a partnership. Harris Bank showed up thinking there were going to be maybe 40 or 50 people. 700 people showed up to this event. And from that point on for probably the next seven or eight years, they were partners of mine.
Tanya: So. I’m really interested in this one. In terms of the lens of being a woman in your industry, I’m sure that in terms of radio station owners and even practitioners, high level inside the radio industry, I’m sure there’s a growth of women. So, can you speak to how that has affected your ability to grow your career?
Melody: I just took over the Illinois Broadcasters Association and I’ve been at that table so long with mostly white men. This is my second or third rodeo with the Illinois Broadcasters Association. Because you rotate off, but it’s my first time ever becoming President. My first time, I think I might have been in my thirties and I tell you, Tanya, I sat there so insecure, so not feeling like I deserve to be there, intimidated. I couldn’t find my voice. And so, imagine being that lonely at a table with all of these powerful men and them feeling like I don’t belong, but I’m owning that I don’t belong.
Women, we think differently. And so, my executive coach says that we multiply, we’re multipliers. And because we do, we’re always in that vein of thinking multiple thoughts around how to get to the finish line, right?
Cathy Hughes who owns Urban One is a dear sister of mine. And I’m so honored to sit with her at any time. I can call her right now. Because she understands it, because she paved this road I’m driving down. The lens is different and how we approach what we do has to be different in order for us to stay in business.
Tanya: Are you seeing more women come up now because they have you and Cathy to look to be like, “Okay, they’re doing it, they’ve done it, they’re killing the game.”
Melody: Yeah. I am. I’m in the radio business, but that’s not what I do. I see so many of these podcasters and women who are doing their thing at their own level, where it may not be in this traditional sense, but it’s powerful because at the end of the day, we have to move our people to a higher ground, to a higher level. Right? And so, we meet them where they are and whatever place that we could meet them at.
Tanya: And I think that’s the beauty of us, especially as black women, especially when a black woman says to you, “I see you sis.” There’s so much in that.
Melody: I didn’t have a lot of that. You can’t do this by yourself and it’s too lonely. It’s so lonely. Think about it. When you put the piece together with these women, you probably had ideas, you can’t share your dreams with everybody, because they are going to talk you out of it, steal it or try to anyway, can’t nobody steal your stuff. But you need somebody that can feed into you and say, “Hey Tanya, look at it this way. That’s what I love about this generation that’s coming up now.
Tanya: That’s so beautiful. I love that you take so much time and intention to pour into others and that the legacy of you will live on through your mentees. Next question, and you can pick either/or, it’s up to you, how has the global health or the racial epidemics affected your business?
Melody: I’m going to tell you both of them. I’m going to mix them up.
Another sign of a serial entrepreneur. Love disruption. Love it. Powerful. Powerful girl. Best thing could ever happen. Now you may think I’m crazy, but I’ve gone through enough to realize that you will get over the lows. You need the lows. Think about it. In your personal life, if you’re a spiritual person, your most growth comes to when you’re broken hearted or when something is just devastating. That’s where God does his work, when you’re in the valley, right? Nothing is the same after COVID. So, it’s time to get creative.
As for the social justice side, I’ve been in the business of Black people all of my life. So, I didn’t just get in style, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been in style. What becomes important is that we make this a movement and not a moment, because the powers that be often want to fix this, “Okay, let’s fix this so we can get back to normal.” And I’m like, “Hell no, foul on the play.” This is your new norm. My business has probably grown by about 35% since this is happening. I’m starting to get business from companies I couldn’t even get a call back from.
What we have to do as Black people is keep the spotlight on us. We have to keep challenging the status quo to have us at the table in an equitable position.
Tanya: I didn’t realize I was going to be taken to church today. There’s no money for the collection plate, but I will figure it out.
Melody: You’re so funny.
Tanya: So, I keep this question in here on purpose to constantly remind folks that this is a question that is always top of mind for us, even regardless of what our personal lives look like. How do you strike a balance?
Melody: I don’t. I’ll be honest. I fail. So, I’m married to a guy that I know God just made for me to put up with because he’s had to live with disappointment. I’m not going to come home, I’m not rushing home to cook. I’m not that girl. Right? We don’t have children. We got a dog and a cat. And so, I think if I’m allowed to be my authentic self.
What I want us all to do is to learn to play as hard as we work. Got to give yourself a break. You got to nurture yourself, take a trip with your girlfriends. Go to the movie in the middle of the day one time. Don’t get the routine down on the road to success and conquer the world so much that you stroke out. I’ve had friends who died because of stress related to their jobs. It is just not worth it. So, get in touch with yourself and give yourself a break and know that you still going to kill the game, you still going to make it to the top of the mountain if you take this vacation or if you take off a month or maybe you want to take off a year, a gap year, why can’t adults have gap years?
Tanya: That’s a GREAT question! Why can’t we? Melody. This poured into me, I feel like I just got a mentorship session. Thank you.
Bold & Black is a monthly interview series conducted by entrepreneur and Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence Honouree, Tanya Hayles. Tanya is the founder of Black Moms Connection, an online global village of almost 20,000 and a non-profit providing programs and financial tools through grant programs generously supported by BMO.