Frank Batten Sr. / Media executive, founder of The Weather Channel

posted 2009-09-11 16:14:32 by grendel

Frank Batten Sr., who built a communications empire that spanned newspapers and cable television and created The Weather Channel, died yesterday. He was 82.

Mr. Batten, the retired chairman of privately held Landmark Communications and a former chairman of the board of The Associated Press, died in Norfolk, Va., after a prolonged illness, Landmark Vice Chairman Richard F. Barry III said.

A visionary executive who earned a reputation for spotting media trends, Mr. Batten was at the forefront of development of cable television in the 1960s.

He developed The Weather Channel in the 1980s while other media leaders scoffed at the idea that people would watch programming devoted solely to weather. In 2008, Landmark sold the channel to NBC Universal and two private equity firms for $3.5 billion.

The company had put its other businesses up for sale but suspended those plans amid the faltering economic conditions.

With a fortune estimated at $2.3 billion, Mr. Batten ranked 190th on Forbes magazine's 2008 list of the 400 richest Americans.

"I think that most accomplishments in organizations are officially the result of teamwork rather than a brilliant performance by one person," Mr. Batten said in a 2005 Associated Press oral history interview.

"Accomplishing teamwork is another matter," he added. "That's not easy, I think. And again it gets down to creating an environment in which people work successfully in teams, and are recognized for it."

He served as AP board chairman from 1982-87.

"Frank was both an inspirational and innovative leader, who was a willing mentor to many," said AP President and CEO Tom Curley.

"He played a pivotal role in helping AP transition to a modern organization for a more competitive, global era of news-gathering."

Mr. Batten's uncle, Samuel L. Slover, had sowed the seeds of Norfolk-based Landmark in the early 1900s by acquiring a succession of local newspapers.

Slover helped raise Mr. Batten after Mr. Batten's father died when he was 1. Mr. Batten began his career as a reporter and advertising salesman for the Norfolk newspapers.

In 1954, the 27-year-old Batten was appointed publisher of the now-defunct Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch and The Virginian-Pilot. The company consisted of the two newspapers and a radio and TV station.

In the late 1950s, when Norfolk closed its schools rather than integrate them, Mr. Batten and other community leaders ran a full-page newspaper advertisement urging city officials to reopen them. Virginian-Pilot editor Lenoir Chambers won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for a series of editorials on the situation.

Slover died in 1959, and in 1964 Mr. Batten launched TeleCable and expanded in North Carolina and West Virginia with the first of 20 cable television systems in 15 states. TeleCable was sold to Tele-Communications Inc. in 1995 for $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Norfolk Newspapers Inc. became Landmark Communications Inc. in 1967, and Mr. Batten became chairman. He turned over that position to his son, Frank Batten Jr., in 1998.

Landmark now owns three metro daily newspapers -- The Virginian-Pilot, the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and The Roanoke Times -- plus more than 50 smaller community papers, free newspapers and specialty classified publications. It also owns television stations KLAS-TV in Las Vegas and NewsChannel 5 Network in Nashville, both CBS affiliates.

But Mr. Batten was always especially proud of The Weather Channel, launched in 1982.

"It was Landmark's first national venture, with all the complexities of marketing and distribution a national enterprise must consider," he said. "The staff prevailed over a chorus from skeptics in the press and trade to build one of the most loyal consumer audiences in television."

Over the years, Mr. Batten donated more than $223 million to schools and other educational organizations. They included a 2007 gift of $100 million to his alma mater, the University of Virginia, to establish the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and a $60 million gift in 1999 to the university's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.

Mr. Batten had cancer that required removal of his larynx in 1979. The surgery forced him to learn a new way of speaking that left his voice gravelly, but it didn't keep him from working and speaking in public.

Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of The Oregonian who worked on The Virginian-Pilot, Landmark's flagship newspaper, from 1970 to 1993, recalled the first Landmark annual meeting after the surgery. Ms. Rowe said Mr. Batten began the meeting as always, by introducing every executive without notes, and didn't miss a name or title.

"Everyone cheered but some of us wept," Ms. Rowe said.