BET Spotlights the Election at the Apollo Theater

by Chanel Cathey, Viacom

Today may be National Voter Registration Day, but BET has been gearing up its audience to vote for months now – not just on-air and online, but in person, too, with events like its “Vote Like Your Life Depends on It” town hall, which took place at the Apollo Theater last week.

Hundreds waited in line to snag a seat in the historic Harlem theater for the free forum which brought political newsmakers, including civil rights leader and radio personality Rev. Al Sharpton, face-to-face with the community for a discussion moderated by T.J. Holmes, host of BET’s upcoming late night show Don’t Sleep! In line with the goals of the forum, the show will offer social commentary on issues important to African-Americans, as well as election coverage.

The town hall boasted an impressive panel of political thinkers, academics and journalists, who led a critical dialogue around the issues impacting this year’s presidential election. The town hall panel included: author and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, The New York Amsterdam News publisher Elinor Tatum, Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis, political analyst Keli Goff, James Braxton Peterson, Associate Professor at Lehigh University, and noted journalist Jonathan Hicks. Panelists raised concerns about Supreme Court nominations, voter suppression through Voter ID Laws, education reform, the teacher’s strike in Chicago to the need for a Black political agenda.

But through the multitude of outspoken voices, one message resounded clearly: get out to the polls and vote.

“There are a lot of people at this point who are not excited about this election and may stay home, but the fact is we need to show them what the repercussions of staying home would mean,” Tatum said.

An engaged audience scribbled down notes on thought-provoking points and cheered in support of some of the humorous exchanges between Sharpton and Dyson in particular.

Tatum, along with Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis, who is on the front line fighting Voter ID laws and protecting the right to vote for all on Election Day, were at least encouraged by the turnout in the at-capacity venue.

“The turnout here is showing people are excited, they are ready to go, they know what’s at stake and it is dispelling this story about the enthusiasm gap,” Dianis said. “We know that African-Americans in particular know that there’s a lot at stake with regard to the Supreme Court with regard to healthcare all of the things that are starting to make our lives better are on the line.”

Or, as Sharpton put it, “’08 was historic, but ’12 is personal.”

While BET is working across platforms to communicate voter registration information, information on voter ID laws and voter suppression (from daily PSAs on-air, the debut of BET News election docu-series, The Second Coming, on Oct. 19 and 26, a dedicated election microsite and social media accounts, including its @BETVote Twitter handle), its town halls are an important in-person outreach tool for BET’s audience, according to Jonelle Procope, President and CEO of the Apollo Theater.

“I think it’s important to bring news to people in a way that they are comfortable with receiving it,” Procope said of how the Apollo’s collaboration with BET’s “Vote Like Your Life Depends on It” came about. “Some of us like looking at the news and listening to the pundits, others are totally involved in social media. We find that our community here likes live – they like to be up close and personal.”

BET will head to Ohio for its next town hall on Oct. 6.

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