Black Voices’ Janet Rollé

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Janet Rollé is the Vice President and General Manager of AOL® Black Voices, a division of America Online, Inc. In this new role, Rollé is responsible for developing the AOL Black Voices service across all AOL platforms and products. In addition, she leads the day-to-day programming activities and sets the editorial tone and direction for the African-American category.

Prior to joining AOL, Rollé was Vice President, Programming Enterprises & Business Development for VH1 and CMT at MTV Networks, where she developed new business opportunities and strategic marketing partnerships for all the VH1 and CMT programming, franchises and brands. And before that, she held several positions at HBO Home Video, including Director of Marketing & New Media, Director of Marketing & Sales Promotions and Director of Marketing.

Rollé, who began her career as Special Assistant to the Chairman at HBO, holds a MBA with a special dual concentration in marketing and film from Columbia Business School and is a recipient of the Harlem YMCA Black Achievers in Industry Award. In addition, she is the Chairperson of the Multicultural Participation Committee for the United States Tennis Association, a member of the Board of Advisors, City at Peace New York, and a Mentor for the Harlem YMCA Mentoring Program.

A native of New Yorker, Rollé currently resides in New Rochelle with her husband and seven year old son.

BSN: How was it making the jump from MTV to AOL?
JR: Making the grand leap into new media here at AOL is a thrill. It’s absolutely the right company and at the right time.

BSN: For Black History Month you featured Barack Obama, Russell Simmons, B.B. King, and others. What are you planning next?
JR: The things that we did for Black History Month are almost a microcosm of the strategy that we’re developing for Black Voices going forward, which is to say that we want to provide obviously the highest quality level of content for our users as is possible. That includes original programming that we develop in-house, strategic partners who can also bring content to us that our audience would be interested in, and it also requires to package and present it in a way that we think is going to be compelling for our users. And I think our Black History Month coverage achieved all three of those things.

BSN: Are you focusing on introducing your innovative ideas to the writing, video or radio end of the website?
JR: Pretty much all of the above. For the video content, we’ve done a strategic partnership with The History Makers, which is a not-for profit organization which is actually in the business of developing oral history. They have an incredibly vast library of high-quality content with subjects who we know of are interest to our audience. So, we thought it would be perfect for us to do a partnership with them which would allow us to utilize the Black Voices platform to bring their content to a wider audience while also providing us with an opportunity to bring something to our user base that we know they would be interested in.

BSN: As a film critic, I noticed that you did a nice job of covering the Sundance Film Festival.
JR: Yes, in addition to having our own celebrity blogger there, kevin Jerome Everson who’s the director of Cinnamon, a film that was being presented at Sundance, we certainly made a very concerted effort to put the BV spin on that film festival, and will be doing so for future festivals as well.

BSN: Isn’t the CEO of AOL black?
JR: The Chairman and CEO of Time Warner, Dick Parsons, yes, is African-American.

BSN: The reason I raise this question is because I’m wondering whether, as a division of a Time Warner, AOL Black Voices would really be allowed to present content which reflects an authentically black perspective. When I think of a media conglomerate, I always expect that heavy-handed corporate pressure from above will result in a watered-down message.
JR: I think that’s an excellent question. First of all, even if there were that heavy-hand here at AOL, I don’t think that it would come from as high as the lofty perch that Dick Parsons sits in, as Chairman of all of Time Warner. More likely, that hand would come from a lot closer distance, if that hand were ever to be laid on us. But from where I sit, as the head of programming for Black Voices, I feel that I have absolutely freedom and support for presenting a true and unique perspective of black people and for black people. Furthermore, not only is my role within the company to program Black Voices, but I am also consulted as an advocate for our other properties on issues which may be of interest to black people. So, not only am I charged with developing our point-of-view for the Black Voices service, but I also serve as an internal advocate for and counsel to other channels around their coverage of our community as well.

BSN: Tell me a little about your career, so folks can see the path you took up the corporate ladder.
JR: In my first career, I was a professional dancer. My undergraduate degree is a BFA in dance, which I got at SUNY-Purchase. I spent five years as a professional dancer, before I made the transition to the business side of entertainment.

BSN: What type of dance did you do?
JR: Ballet, modern and jazz. And I could fake tap, if you forced me.

BSN: What company were you with?
JR: While I was still a student, I was with a small modern company in New York, called the Kevin Wynn Collection. Kevin Wynn is a black choreographer. But I spent most of my professional dance career in London as a free-lancer. I worked with the English National Opera Ballet… I did a musical in the West End for a couple of years… I did a television series... I did music videos… a wide range of things.

BSN: How did you augment your background in the arts to make the transition to the business side?
JR: My dance career had given me a great love for and appreciation of the creative process, but in order to make the transition to the business side I certainly needed the practical business skills that would position me well to succeed in a business-driven environment, and the best and fastest way to achieve that, in my view, was to get an MBA.

BSN: What do you see as the strengths of Black Voices?
JR: Relative to our key competitors, our strategy is slightly different. We are very much a content-driven destination. While it is certainly the case that a lot of our traffic is driven by the activity amongst the community on Black Voices, most of what they’re reacting to is the content that we’re providing them. We believe that as the medium evolves from a mostly information-based medium to an entertainment experience, we’re uniquely positioned to capitalize on that opportunity.

BSN: Where do you expect AOL Black Voices to be five years from now?
JR: I fully expect for AOL Black Voices not only to be the #1 destination on the web for the black audience but, hopefully, a fully conceived media brand, generally. So, I envision that five years from now not only will Black Voices reside on the web, but potentially in products and other media.

BSN: What advice would you have for young girls interested in following in your footsteps?
JR: First and foremost, to pursue something that you are passionate about, because you will succeed at any endeavor to the extent that you are passionate about it. I would also say that the best thing you could possibly do for yourself is to get the best possible education available to you. This is advice that I give to many people who seek my counsel who ask why I went to Columbia, when I decided to go back to business school. My view of that is that once you graduate from a school, you are eternally that school’s graduate. So, if you want to develop the brand that is you, it’s important to align yourself with other brands that matter, even in terms of the schools that you choose to attend, and what that says about you and your capabilities. I think it’s always a matter of being prepared, and flexible, and open when opportunity presents itself, but work also has to be done in order to position yourself correctly to be able to take advantage of that opportunity.

BSN: I think that branding approach is a great advice that I’ll share with my son who’s looking at colleges right now.
JR: When people ask me what school I went to, I’m very proud and happy to say that I went to Columbia Business School and to SUNY-Purchase, which is one of the country’s premier colleges for the arts. Depending on what their passionate interest is, I always advise young people to put themselves to pick a place that is up to standard and which communicates a certain value, and to make that at the highest level that they possibly can.

BSN: One last question, I know that you have a family and also do a tremendous amount of charity work. How are you able to balance all that with a demanding career?
JR: I have an incredible support system, in the form of my husband and my immediate family, which allows me to make more hours in the day. My mother, father and grandfather live only three and one-half miles away from me. So, I have an incredible support system which enables me to maintain that balance. And in terms of my own personal goals and aspirations, I wouldn’t be as satisfied and fulfilled in my career and in other parts of my life, if I didn’t make time to do that volunteer work, and to give back, in some small way.

BSN: Anything else on your plate?
JR: As you know, I joined AOL eight months ago to run Black Voices, but I was recently given an additional role here. I am also now running which, basically, is our destination targeted at women’s and lifestyle programming, where you’ll find each of the different channels organizing food, home, parenting, health, diet and diet, beauty and style, horoscopes, life coaches, books and weddings. Those are all programming areas that I’m now responsible for as well.

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