As the founder and CEO of Tempo Networks, a six-year-old broadcasting company devoted to the culture and lifestyles of the Caribbean region, Frederick Morton Jr. is a man of contradictions and contrasts. Outwardly, he is a buttoned-down businessman whose downtown Newark office is decorated with awards and honors testifying to his achievements as a corporate lawyer and entrepreneur. But the awards share wall space with pictures of Jamaican reggae pioneer Bob Marley, and reference books sit alongside gift boxes of quality rum. In the center of the beige-and-brown décor, a television screen blazes with color, carrying a Tempo program showcasing Caribbean dance culture in action.
“I was born creative,” says Morton RC’89, NLAW’93. “I went to law school because my parents wanted me to go into business, and I’m thankful they pushed me in that direction. But I’m, at heart, a creative person.”
Born in St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands (his parents were from Nevis), Morton was “a typical Caribbean kid,” and his travels between St. Croix and Nevis fostered a strong sense of the region. At Rutgers, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics and then a degree from the School of Law–Newark. Along the way, he accumulated an impressive number of awards and honors. After some associate work and a brief stint as a member of the legal team of Johnson & Johnson, Morton joined media conglomerate Viacom in 2001 and quickly rose to chief litigation counsel. From there, he headed the legal team of Viacom offshoot MTV Networks and began shaping and promoting his vision of a pan-Caribbean television network that would celebrate the region’s bounty of languages, cuisine, and music.
Morton’s legal skills helped him battle the corporate hierarchy to achieve his vision, but he also benefited from the mentorship of MTV cofounder and CEO Thomas Freston (mastermind of the “I want my MTV!” ad campaign) and gained an unexpected ally in attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr., fabled defender of O.J. Simpson, Abner Louima, and Sean Combs. Cochran was representing filmmaker Spike Lee, who sued Viacom in 2003 over its plan to recast its TNN channel as Spike TV. After the lawsuit was settled, Cochran and Morton stayed in touch.
Morton credits Cochran with much of the advice and encouragement that led to his MTV pitch for Tempo. “He was a great inspiration for following your dream and making things happen,” Morton says.
Under Morton’s leadership, Tempo debuted in November 2005 with a broadcast titled Caribbean Rising, which highlighted the island roots of such notable Americans as singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte; U.S. representative Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African-American presidential contender; former secretary of state Colin Powell; black nationalist speaker Malcolm X; and founding father Alexander Hamilton.
The response was swift and sure: by its second week, Tempo’s audience had grown to 17 islands from an initial six, and the future looked bright. However, Tempo never rested comfortably in the Viacom fold (some MTV executives joked that its name was an abbreviation for “Tempo-rary”), and Morton started looking for backers to buy the network, which Morton viewed as his calling. After considering partnerships with investment banks, which would not have given him enough creative leeway, Morton stitched together enough money from family and friends to buy Tempo from Viacom in 2007 for an undisclosed sum. Tempo today has 3.5 million viewers, from Anguilla and Antigua to Trinidad and Tobago.
“The biggest thing we face right now is preparing for our U.S. debut,” Morton says. “There are 24 Caribbean islands where we are available, but until now, we have not been available in the United States.”
Morton is negotiating with cable carriers to bring Tempo to the Newark area, as well as to New York and Connecticut and a portion of Pennsylvania. Morton then wants to expand by the end of the year into southern Florida and Georgia, following the émigré communities that are Tempo’s target audience.
The bulk of Tempo’s programming is based on music—appropriate for the region that incubated ska, reggae, calypso, soca, and dancehall, which in turn influenced American music styles. (Rapping, for example, is rooted in the Jamaican practice of “toasting,” in which deejays improvised boastful patter between songs at dance parties, brought to the Bronx by Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc.) Morton is also eager to establish a Cuban beachhead for Tempo as U.S.-imposed political and trade barriers slowly crumble.
“This is the least threatening culture you can imagine,” Morton says. “Everybody loves it. You can bottle that and create programs that will excite a lot of people, both the ones who are in the culture and the ones who love it.” • — Steven Hart UCNB’92