Barry Mayo Reframed: From Radio Mogul to Photographer and Award Winning Filmmaker Chasing Light

Barry Mayo Reframed:  From Radio Mogul to Photographer and Award Winning Filmmaker Chasing Light
Christine Passarella By

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"Innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo in their given fields, wherever it is needed...they are forever guided by the great and eternal constant—the creative urge. Let us cherish it and give all praise to God."John Coltrane

My friend Barry Mayo, former radio industry mogul and innovator, now an artistic photographer and award-winning documentarian once told me, there are no coincidences in the impactful moments which alter our trajectories. He calls these times in our lives in which we rise with a divine coming together of experiences, Godincidences. This word often got my attention as we discussed the meaning of life over the years. In our most recent conversations, Barry asked me, "What is Nirvana to you?" Meditating on this question changed my life because his question had no room for excuses. I now devote most of my time to writing with a purpose. Barry Mayo also taught me by example the value of practicing meditation with deep conviction. I believe prayer is when we speak to God, and in our meditations, God speaks to us. Barry's example of living a life with purpose is quite exhilarating to behold.

I first encountered Barry Mayo in 2010, while sitting in Manhattan's Penn Station ACELA lounge. I was waiting for my train to arrive while holding a book which focused on saxophonist John Coltrane. "One thought can produce millions of vibrations," John Coltrane once stated. I am drawn to his belief in the vibrations that bring together people who help us rise so we can continue to be a force for good.

While I left that very morning, a feeling came to me to bring a book on my journey when I was leaving my home in Long Beach, New York on the Atlantic Ocean. This is where I was living before Hurricane Sandy shook up the precious barrier island. I literally reversed my steps just as I was about to exit the house. A thought infiltrated my consciousness which had suddenly come over me to take the book. I walked back into my living room and gravitated to my bookcase. Which book? I pondered standing in front of my collection of favorite books then I reached out and my hand landed on Coltrane by Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins.

I remember it was a cold night in November, and I was happy for my excursion to Vermont after a long week teaching in Queens to escape for a few days of respite. I felt someone's energy looking in my direction as I held this book with the cover facing away from me, as if people could notice I had the spirit of John Coltrane accompanying me. Barry Mayo told me after we became friends that it was indeed the book he noticed in my hand while we both waited in the ACELA Amtrak waiting room that made him sit next to me on the train ride up north.

Once on the train, tired and introverted, I did not communicate with the man sitting next to me beyond an initial smile. In fact, I knew my journey was long so I threw my coat over me, and tried to rest. I could hear Barry speaking on his phone about the fascinating industry he was leading at the time. It turns out he was the President of Radio One, a major media company. I had heard bits and pieces of some kind of business discussion that seemed important from his tone. I also remember noticing his voice was soothing and rich. I guess I get credit for noticing the distinguished voice of a professional in radio. By the time Barry was ready to exit the train, I was snacking on some food. He stood up to depart for his upstate New York home. Suddenly he turned back looking at me and asked a question. "You into John Coltrane?" as he pointed to my book which was now resting on top of my luggage in front of me. "I teach elementary school children about the life, music, and message of John Coltrane. Check out my work on kidsforcoltrane.com," I responded with an appreciation for his interest in John Coltrane.

That was over nine years ago. Barry Mayo became one of my Coltranian mentors and a dear friend, who helped guide me and encouraged me as I grew my Kids for Coltrane project which is now all part of my social justice work. Over the years I shared with Barry that my Kids for Coltrane project focuses on jazz to teach children about American history, equality, character education, and the arts. "John Coltrane is a great artistic genius in America who is an example of love and beauty. He inspires us to muster the courage to be the best of who we can be," I expressed to him. Barry appreciated hearing about my passionate calling as he too loved jazz. Barry has made a name for himself mixing different genres of music on the radio, from hip hop, rhythm and blues, slow jams, and disco; with an understanding that jazz is America's classical music. He was heavily involved in trying to establish a Jazz Museum in Chicago and he is close friends with many musicians including Orbert Davis who is the Artistic Director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.

Soon after our meeting on the train, I discovered that Barry Mayo had made a decision to leave his distinguished career in radio to pursue his other passions. I pondered what kind of man would achieve such heights so young, and let it go to follow another passion reframing his life. I discovered he is an extraordinary man, a seeker and chaser of light who also sees the influence of shadows.

Childhood Impact

Barry Mayo grew up in the South Bronx during the 1960s and in the third grade was the first African American student to integrate his elementary school. The year was 1960 and busing had started, the world was changing. It was during this experience that Barry learned how negative words from a teacher could impact the mind forever. His white teacher reprimanded him because he touched the tape on the student art that was hanging on the wall. "Remember Barry, you are only a visitor here." Harsh and ignorant racist words from a school teacher taught him a lesson that no child should ever have to learn. "I can't remember the name of any other teacher in that school, but I remember her name. She was essentially saying to me you are not part of us," he told me.

Battling racism would be part of his life story and he does it with knowledge, clarity, and determination from his confident core beliefs. Barry states that race is the single biggest issue in this country now. Living in the South Bronx and later in Harlem, for the most part, he commuted to white schools. Mayo had one foot in both worlds and wrestled with his own identity. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School in which he excelled as a top student commuting from his home in Harlem. Through these experiences, he developed great friendships with people from different races, but never really felt comfortable in his own skin until he was in his 40's. These feelings would be the genesis of his interest in race and specifically in how people who were mixed-race identified. Although he is African American, he related to trying to navigate both the black and white worlds.

College and Career Path

Before entering college, Barry Mayo learned some important business skills working for Holiday Magic Cosmetics in sales. He was motivated and worked very hard. Selling the cosmetics brought him to Chicago, a city he has come to deeply love. During this time, he got turned onto the work of Napoleon Hill author of Think and Grow Rich who wrote, "Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve." The selling gig dissipated, but the lessons which he learned at that time stayed with him.

Barry left for Washington DC where he attended Howard University. His radio career would ignite as a student. Barry's journey in radio is legendary. He became Program Director of Howard University's college station. He was an integral part of creating and building the station which was broadcast in the residence halls. Barry took this role very seriously along with his full schedule of classes while working the night shift at Union Train Station as a train car cleaner to pay for his education. While still in his junior year, he was offered a position in middle-level management at a radio station in Little Rock, Arkansas. Barry would make a decision that year to leave school and dive deeper into the world of radio. With only 20 credits left to receive his degree, it was an emotional decision, as it is not in his nature to leave things undone. Years later, he would finish that degree and officially graduate from Howard University. A feeling that still makes him well up in tears as it would serve as an example to his children. Barry came to understand he primarily had to graduate for himself and his parents.

Another fateful opportunity came to him while finishing up his degree requirements which he was able to do in Chicago at Columbia College. Having risen in the radio industry and now working in his adopted beloved Chicago running a radio station, he also took the opportunity to teach a course in which the college gave him credit along with taking five more classes to finish his degree. One of the classes he took brought him deep into a love for photography which would be a window into his future. Barry Mayo's radio career spanned thirty-five years and it included being President of Radio One, President of Broadcasting Partners Incorporated from 1988 through 2015, overseeing nine radio properties, being Program Director for major stations throughout America, and General Manager of Kiss FM, and VP/Market Manager of Emmis NY at Emmis Communication. When first at Kiss and a Program Director, Barry would make radio history when he included Hip hop in the lineup and also transformed the station to a Black Top 40 station. Hip hop was still underground at that time, but through airing the music its commercial value would soon shine brightly.

After leaving New York and Kiss FM, Barry and Lee Simonson, his dear friend and radio executive, became close business partners. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lee, and it was clear to me that the two men are more like brothers than friends. Together they had bought and sold radio stations, eventually leaving the world of radio ownership behind when they decided to sell their then public company which was doing extremely well financially. Barry Mayo walked the line as a gifted man with an artistic side and an entrepreneurial side. As his journey matured the next phase of his life appeared and the artistic passionate side of him brought him into the immersion of the world of photography.


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