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Frank Batten Sr. created the Weather Channel in 1982, despite the ridicule of those who doubted whether a 24-hour weather channel could succeed. The network sold in 2008 for $3.5 billion to NBC Universal. But Batten was also a pioneer in other ways – building a media empire that challenged segregation in the South, among other things. We explore the life of an unusual media mogul.
- Connie Sage Author, "Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was dubbed one of the most preposterous concepts on cable television, a 24-hour station devoted to the weather. Media mogul, Frank Batten, thought it could fly and he launched The Weather Channel in 1982. His own senior managers mocked him. They created a video spoof of a fictional time channel featuring close-up shots of a ticking clock with the slogan, "The Exact Time, Whenever You Want It."
MR. KOJO NNAMDITwenty-six years later, The Weather Channel had evolved into a cultural icon and in 2008, it sold for $3.5 billion. But long before The Weather Channel, Frank Batten owned a string of newspapers in Virginia. And he had, what is, a rare reputation as an ethical media mogul. Joining us to discuss the life of Frank Batten is Connie Sage, author of the book "Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel." Connie Sage, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. CONNIE SAGEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. We don't have major storms every week, why do you think The Weather Channel is so popular, 800-433-8850? Connie, we take it for granted now, of course, there's a 24 hour channel devoted to weather. But 30 years ago, how did people react to this idea?
SAGEOh, 30 years ago, everyone just laughed. Poor Frank Batten, who...
NNAMDIHe's losing it. Frank is finally losing it, huh?
SAGEYes. And, as you pointed out, it was sold for $3.5 billion, almost 30 years later. So I think he got the last laugh.
NNAMDIHow did it come about? How did The Weather Channel come about?
SAGEThe Weather Channel was actually the idea -- the brainchild of John Coleman, who was the weatherman for Good Morning America. And John Coleman went to many, many places, newspapers, TV stations, entrepreneurs like Ted Turner and no one had any interest. But Frank Batten did. Frank Batten was a big sailor. He had been rescued as a boy from a hurricane in the 1930s in Virginia Beach, near where he grew up.
SAGEAnd he thought that this was a wonderful idea because it could save lives. And today, The Weather Channel is the only 24-hour, seven-day-a-week weather station in -- weather network in this country. There is one similar one in Australia, but it's very unique.
NNAMDIThese were -- we're talking about the early days of cable and a world away from the media landscape today. What did cable look like at that time?
SAGEAt the time, there were -- it was -- very few homes had cable TV, only about a quarter of the homes compared to today. And there was HBO and a few other channels and that was about it. So he, Frank Batten, was a real entrepreneur. He saw that this was something that would -- could be very successful.
SAGEHowever, after the first year, it almost folded because there were so many calls to over runs. It was -- he had already spent $15 million. It was costing a million dollars a month and so he actually decided to close it. So most people don't realize that The Weather Channel that we see today almost didn't exist.
NNAMDIIndeed, there were so few cable viewers at the time that I suspect that he was having trouble attracting viewers. So as you pointed out, after a year, The Weather Channel did almost fail, close down. But how did The Weather Channel, then, ultimately survive?
SAGEIt survived because the cable providers, those are things like Time Corners -- Time Warner's, The Comcast, The Cox's, of the network providers actually went to Frank Batten after he'd made the decision to close it and said we will pay you per subscriber if you will stay on the air. And so they decided -- they thought well, if we can get a certain percentage, something like 85 percent to agree to that, other cable providers, then we will continue The Weather Channel, and that's what happened.
NNAMDISo you can argue that, in that situation, even though it started out as a joke, by the time it actually became a reality, the cable providers saw a future in it, they were, in fact, in a way, visionary.
SAGEYes, they were. And certainly Frank Batten was. I mean, last year, The Weather Channel became the first news and information network to reach 100 million subscribers.
NNAMDIAnd it'll probably be reaching close to that number this weekend.
SAGEAbsolutely, and weather.com, certainly.
NNAMDIEven as we speak. Let's go to John in Herndon, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHey, this is John. I just had a quick question about advertising during a storm. I mean, does the -- do you spike up and charge a lot of money because everybody's now looking at The Weather Channel or what's already in the contract? Do you just let it go and that's a lucky break?
NNAMDIWell, Connie Sage doesn't actually run The Weather Channel right now, but she is the one who simply wrote a biography of the late Frank Batten. It's called "Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of The Weather Channel." I don't know if, Connie, you're intimately familiar with the advertising rates and policies of The Weather Channel, right?
SAGENo, no, I'm not.
NNAMDIAfraid not, John. We won't be able to figure that one out right now. Thank you very much for your call, however. And as cable grew, so did The Weather Channel from a base of, it's my understanding, 10 million subscribers grew to 50 million by the early 1990s. You say 100 million now. But even when Frank Batten sold off his cable company in 1995, he held onto The Weather Channel, why?
SAGEOh, he loved The Weather Channel. To him, it was his baby. Frank Batten died, it'll be two years ago next month. When he started The Weather Channel, I think what people don't realize, not only did The Weather Channel almost fold, but that Frank Batten had his own issues dealing with starting The Weather Channel. He lost his vocal chords to cancer two years before starting it and at the same time he was teaching himself to speak again, he had a prosthesis which was new at the time.
SAGESo here he was starting The Weather Channel and he was also chairman of the Associated Press which is the largest non-profit news gathering organization in the world. So he had his hands full but he was known and, I think what he would want people to know as his legacy, are his leadership skills. And he said that leadership is the most important quality for business and you have to have the ability and the instinct and the desire to lead and then you have to have the desire to win and do the right thing.
SAGEOne thing I learned writing the biography was that, the late, Kay Graham, I came across a letter in the files from the Washington Post, told Batten that he was -- and she said, probably the best executive in our industry and asked him to merge his company with the Washington Post. And the former chairman of -- and CEO...
NNAMDIWell, did he do it?
SAGENo, he wouldn't. And Knight Ridder also did the same thing and the former CEO of Knight Ridder, Alvah Chapman, also courted Batten and asked him to do likewise and he called it "It would be a dream merger," because Frank Batten had such a presence in the industry and yet so few people have heard of him because he was incredibly self effacing. He believed in training people to run companies, he let them make mistakes. One thing he has done -- and by the way, he -- one of the newspapers he owns locally is the Annapolis Newspaper, used to own Washingtonian magazine and sold that to Phil Merrill (word?) .
NNAMDIWell, you know, the importance of leadership of a company is being underscored today, even as we speak, by the resignation of Steve Jobs as the head of Apple. And you look at what's happening to Apple's stock today, simply because of that resignation. So remind us of when Frank Batten did finally sell The Weather Channel, how much?
NNAMDIStarted out as a joke in 1982 or they thought it was joke. He sold it $3.5 billon.
SAGEAnd even when he sold it, they were still making jokes on late night TV shows saying that, okay, it sold for this much, but it still is as good as watching paint dry, some of them said.
NNAMDIHere is Roger in Fredericksburg, Va. Roger, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROGERThanks, Kojo. I haven't talked to you in years.
NNAMDIGood to hear from you again, Rog.
ROGERI retired from the weather service in '97 and I want to tell you that back in those days when they were starting that up, we had some consignation weather service about, you know, taking over, but because there was a lot of move to contract out everything in the government then and there still is. But one of the things that you might say, the ace in the hole, that we always held was, if they want to take over the service, then they've got to accept the liability and that was something they never could do.
ROGERBut, in hindsight, I applaud what he did because now you see real good coordination between The Weather Service and The Weather Channel and this worked out to be a good thing, I would think.
NNAMDI...the National Weather Service, apparently, felt threatened by the emergence of The Weather Channel, does that surprise you at all?
SAGENo, I think they worked, from what I understand, pretty much hand and glove, but perhaps not early on. But it's amazing, when you go -- travel anywhere in the country and you look at weather forecasting today, as Tom can point out, who was it but The Weather Channel, all the meteorologists in the field, people like Jim Cantore and whenever they see Jim coming, Stephanie Abrams is in the Outer Banks right now. Jim is now in New York City.
SAGEThey kind of, they like to see him but they're like, oh, no, here's Jim Cantore, or there's Stephanie Abrams or Mike Seidel or Jeff Morrow. But how many local people do you see doing weather that have something comparable to local on the 8s or local on the 10s. And they're out there now, hanging onto bushes and shrubs as the wind is blowing them just like they did on The Weather Channel and they're out there with rulers in the snow measuring it which is...
NNAMDIAll of that started with The Weather Channel.
SAGEYes. Yes. Absolutely.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Roger. Have you been watching The Weather Channel this week, call us, 800-433-8850? Do you tune in regularly to the cable channel or weather.com, it's online site, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Connie Sage, she is the author of "Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of The Weather Channel." Here is Mark in Washington, D.C. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKI had a question for the interviewee. And it was, what was the most challenging thing about interviewing Frank Batten?
SAGEThat's a very good question. He -- the most challenging thing he -- I spent about two years interviewing him, by that time, his laryngectomy was -- his stoma in his neck was pretty raw. Sometimes he could only speak for a few minutes at a time, sometimes we would talk for a couple of hours at a time. So it's difficult for him to talk and he had a lot of illnesses in his later years. He fell and he broke his neck one time. He was in a coma for a while. So it was very difficult for him to talk, that was the most challenging.
NNAMDIYou worked for Frank Batten at one point. You were with, I think, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
SAGEYes, I was an editor for the Virginian-Pilot. Then I went up one floor to the corporate staff of Landmark Communications, which was Frank Batten's company. Frank Batten was a Norfolk native and he took over his uncle's newspapers and grew them over a 40-year career. And of course the Weather Channel is what most people know but he also owned the Virginian-Pilot, the Greensboro newspapers, the Roanoke, Va. newspapers, and hundreds of smaller other newspapers everywhere from Annapolis to Las Alamos, N.M.
NNAMDIAnd that's what we'll be talking about after our short break, Frank Batten the newspaper mogul. 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. Ask a question, make a comment. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Connie Sage about her book "Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel." inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question, make a comment. Did, in fact, The Weather Channel help to change the face of media in the 20th Century in your view?
SAGEIt absolutely did. Before The Weather Channel -- cable television was just coming into vogue then. There was very few people watched cable. The Weather Channel changed, as I mentioned earlier, the way people looked at weather. The fact that local weather changed on the broadcast stations and that everybody would tune into The Weather Channel 20 -- you'd go talk to people and you'd tell them your affiliation with The Weather Channel and everybody would say things like, The Weather Channel, oh, I always watch Jim Cantore or whomever. People really love The Weather Channel.
NNAMDIAnd for reasons why, let's go to Jeff in Gaithersburg, Md. Jeff, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFFHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on. I was -- you were wondering why people watch The Weather Channel. I generally watch it for updates on the weather, but I think a lot of people find the world, you know, nature still very fascinating. And people are -- people watch races sometimes for car wrecks. (unintelligible) car wrecks they have. Plus I think people are -- it's kind of a hidden pleasure for some people. There's a lot to learn on The Weather Channel. You know, it may not be considered a cool TV channel, but it's still fascinating enough that people are still watching and notice (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jeff. People don't simply watch it, Connie Sage, for updates on the weather. As Jeff was pointing out, people have an interest in nature and how it affects us. And where you go to find out what nature's doing on a regular basis is The Weather Channel.
SAGEAbsolutely. Storm stories. It's not just the weather but it's local on the 8s. People always tune in for that. I know people who tune in just to have it as background music. They like to hear the music. There was someone who wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal right after Frank Batten died and there was a great quote from that. And he said that when The Weather Channel sold for that -- he said it was perhaps the most vanilla of all cable offerings -- when it sold, it fetched a very un-boring $3.5 billion, which he called an amazing sum for a channel with no sizzle, no personality and no sex.
NNAMDIThe quote I like from the Wall Street obituary is, "Everybody talks about the weather. Frank Batten did something about it."
NNAMDIHere is Jen in Washington, D.C. Jen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENHi, Kojo. I am -- rely heavily on The Weather Channel because -- or actually on weather.com on their interactive radar map because I'm a cyclist. So it's critical for me to know when I'm going to get drenched and how I can find my activities out there. But I also wanted to say that I agree with the previous caller's comment in as much as people really are fascinated by the weather. And in D.C., I got to say that a lot of the television weather that we get here is not very good -- is not very comprehensive. And I watch WGN because their weather coverage is rooted (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDII was about to say, you're watching Chicago weather?
JENYeah, well, I watch their large country radar maps (unintelligible) ...
JEN...what's coming toward us. And they are rooted in agriculture where that's why they rely on it. So there's a very practical application to that. And, you know, in 1996 I predicted that we would have the disaster channel that only shows disasters all over the world. And the weather, in some respects, often covers that base as well. So I really love it and, you know, it takes visionaries like that to make change even in the face of people laughing at them.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jen. Long before The Weather Channel, though, Frank Batten was in newspapers. Can you tell us a little bit about his uncle and how Frank Batten ultimately got involved in the media business?
SAGEFrank Batten's uncle was a man named Colonel Samuel Slover, who bought or merged or owned papers, started papers in the Norfolk, Va. area. And he -- Frank Batten was only a year old when his own father died and so he and his mom moved in with the Colonel and his wife. And so Frank Batten grew up at the Colonel's feet. And at the age of 27 after going to Culver Military Academy, University of Virginia and to Harvard Business School he took over his uncle's newspapers at the age of 27. And he also added newspapers onto that after it grew $2 billion companies.
NNAMDIBut before that, he wasn't sure he even wanted to be in the newspaper business, did he?
SAGEHe wasn't sure, but he felt it was too good an opportunity and so he should do it.
NNAMDIWent into the Merchant Marines, went to the University of Virginia, then he started working summers at the newspaper. And that's when he realized that, I could have a career here.
SAGEHe did, he did. But he always felt that he could never live up to his uncle's expectations. And so he -- as one of his uncles said, you know, this young boy could be -- could end up being a spendthrift playboy. And instead, he grew the -- his uncle's businesses.
NNAMDIWhy did he turn down the offer from Katharine Graham to run the Post and the offer from Knight Ridder to run the Knight Ridder newspapers?
SAGEFrank Batten always wanted to keep the company private and he -- and it still is. His son took over in 1998, is still a privately held company. His son would like to sell the company and took the newspapers and the other publications such as the Trader publications, which are now part of Dominion Enterprises, off the market until the economy is better.
SAGEBut one thing Frank Batten did as a 27-year-old publisher with the Virginian-Pilot that was very unusual, he pushed for the end of massive resistance to integration after Board vs. the Brown...
NNAMDI...the Brown vs….
SAGE...excuse me, Brown vs. the Board of Education. And that kept more than 10,000 students locked out of Norfolk public schools in 1958 and '59. And the schools were closed for 141 days. And Frank Batten's Virginian-Pilot was the only paper in Virginia -- the only daily paper to advocate integrating the schools. And before the schools were opened Frank Batten ran a petition of 100 leading business members and ran a full page ad in his newspaper calling for the schools to open, which was very unusual at the time because most people in that area favored segregation because that's what they were used to.
NNAMDIBut here's how dedicated a newsman he apparently was. Even though the Virginian-Pilot was opposing segregation, the other paper he owned, The Ledger-Dispatch on its editorial page was apparently supporting it. And in the interest of freedom of expression he let it.
SAGEHe did. He regretted that later but as something that his uncle had done, they had won a Pulitzer back in the 1920's. And his uncle believed that each -- that the editorial pages should be autonomous. And so when Frank Batten took over he agreed to do so as well. He came to regret that. Some who worked with him thought that had he been a little bit older and more experienced he might not have. And he wrote the editorial reversing that policy from "The Ledger.
NNAMDIAt a time when 80 percent of Virginians supported segregation.
NNAMDIHere is Marshal in Alexandria, Va. Marshal, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARSHALHi. Hello, Kojo. Connie, as someone who grew up in western (word?) in the 1960s and I read the Pilot all the time, I just wanted to comment on pretty much what you were just saying then. I think Frank Batten was very forward thinking. It was quite interesting for me to read the Pilot at the time when I was in high school and some of the stands they were taking. It was very clear you could see the direction that Frank was going in, or the editorial staff.
MARSHALSo I was just curious. Do you think that this sort of thinking, in turn, is what really helped him later on to take the chance with doing The Weather Channel?
SAGEOh, absolutely. He was always forward thinking. He was a real entrepreneur and a philanthropist. One thing we haven't talked about is that in his lifetime he gave away more than $400 million to education and yet no one's heard of him outside of the industry. He would compete sailing here on the Chesapeake Bay with the likes of Ted Turner, who was a colleague and a friend. But where people like Ted Turner were, you know, the mouth of the south, here was Frank Batten who was very low key, really believed in integrity, trusting his people who worked for him. And one of his heroes was Winston Churchill. And...
NNAMDIHe didn't do layoffs, did he?
SAGEHe did not, no.
NNAMDIHe just never laid anybody off?
SAGENo, he did not. He was criticized by some for being -- having a company that was a bit too paternalistic. But he believed in giving everyone an opportunity.
NNAMDIOn to -- and Marshal, thank you for your call. On to Terry in Westminster, Md. Terry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TERRYHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me on. I'm a big fan of The Weather Channel. I think it's entertaining, it's been informative, it's truly educational. I know my kids growing up today watching it know a lot more about tornadoes and hurricanes than I ever did. And, you know, I think some of these severe weather events that are brought right into your living room, they've probably helped save some lives with their warnings. And I know now I have a healthy respect for Mother Nature, I'll tell you that.
NNAMDIYou know, it's interesting, Terry, because just yesterday we were having a conversation, which I remembered in my own youth, that the only reference you got to the weather was maybe two lines, and when I started in broadcasting in the 1970's, the same thing. The Associated Press or UPI would give you three or four lines, you would read that on the air and that would be it for the weather. But today's young people clearly know a lot more about the science behind the weather than we did. Do you think The Weather Channel had something to do with that, Connie?
SAGEOh, Frank Batten would be so pleased to hear what you said because he really believed that The Weather Channel could save lives, and it has. I mean, a lot of people now have so much advance warning thanks to The Weather Channel, thanks to all the people out there like Jim Cantore and the others who are in the field saying, look, this is the time to leave. And they do.
NNAMDITerry, thank you for your call. On to Sharon in Anne Arundel City (sic) , Md. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHARONHi, Kojo my friend. Thank you for taking the call. You know, I agree with the last caller. As someone who only recently started watching The Weather Channel, and mostly I listen to it, I go around the house doing things and just having it on. But when I do watch it, it's not so much for the temperatures and the barometric pressure. It's for the stories, the stories and the education and the information. It has become a wonderful resource for me. So I thank Mr. Batten for that and I would like to think that at some point perhaps the weather station will put a biography or something on for this very forward-thinking gentleman.
SHARONAnd, Kojo, lastly, just to have you be part of the weather station. It's raining like a son-of-a-gun in Anne Arundel County, Md. Thank you.
NNAMDIYes and you can be looking forward to more of the same during the course of the weekend as Hurricane Irene makes her way in this general direction. Care to comment on anything Sharon just said, Connie?
SAGENo, but it would be nice if The Weather Channel, now that it's owned by a consortium with NBC Universal, if they would take the biography and make a video out of it for the air that would be lovely.
NNAMDIWhat prompted you to write it? Because I know he wrote an autobiography himself. What prompted you to write this biography of Frank Batten?
SAGENothing had ever been written about Frank Batten himself. And again because he was just this low key person who would always give credit to others. And as I was getting ready to retire early to write another book someone came to me and said, would you be interested in doing this? And it was a real honor because this man is so -- was so principled and he was so passion about what he did including the Weather Channel. That was his baby. And he just exemplified so much not only integrity, but courage. I mean, all his life not being -- I mean, here's a communications person, a media person not being able to speak the way you and I speak.
NNAMDIOn to Palmer in Hillsboro, Va. Palmer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PALMERHello. Hello, Kojo and thank you so much for taking my call. I was wondering about the connection between a public service and this one individual. You were saying earlier that he had a newspaper -- a large newspaper holdings. And I was wondering, did his -- after acquiring a large amount of business revenue, did his acquiring a public service sort of domain, did that have affects in the business community as a whole? And do you think that has affects today? And if so, I was just wondering if they were positive or negative, as it could be very easy for one person to invest in a public service and not be such a philanthropist as he was. Thank you.
SAGEHe was -- not only did he donate money of his own, those 400 - that $400 million, but the -- his company Landmark Communications had the Landmark Foundation. And every one of the major business units donated money throughout their own communities. So he believed very strongly in philanthropy and as did his senior executives. The ones that are -- were there when he was still alive and now under his son are major -- on boards and commissions throughout the country and are also major contributors.
NNAMDIConnie Sage is the author of "Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel." Connie Batten (sic) , I know you have to make your way back to North -- Connie Sage, I know you have to make your way back to North Carolina this weekend. Good luck.
NNAMDIYou may need The Weather Channel.
SAGEAbsolutely. I'll be tuned to it and weather.com.
NNAMDIThe Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with help from Kathy Goldgeir and Elizabeth Weinstein. The Managing Producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer is Andrew Chadwick. A.C. Valdez has been on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website kojoshow.org. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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