- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

FRANK BATTEN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE FOUNDER OF THE WEATHER CHANNEL
By Connie Sage
University of Virginia Press, $27.95, 191 pages

Be honest. At some point during or after the recent earthquake, storms and floods (depending on power availability), didn’t you consult the Weather Channel for updates?

An information staple that launched on May 30, 1984 when it broadcast a live shot of a solar eclipse, the Weather Channel (and later its companion website, Weather.com) became the largest private weather company in the world. However, that didn’t insulate it from skeptics and comedians. As Connie Sage writes, from the start it was an “easy target for jokes. David Letterman jested that it was reassuring to know that you can wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and find out the relative humidity in Manila.”

Even when the Weather Channel was sold in September, 2008 for $3.5 billion to a consortium that included NBC, Bain Capital and the Blackstone Group, it was “still teased for broadcasting weather twenty-four hours a day. The motive behind its sale had been to ‘create the dullest business partnership in history,’ joked NBC’s Jay Leno on the ‘Tonight Show.’ The Weather Channel was not NBC’s first choice, Leno quipped, but apparently the ‘Waiting for paint to dry’ channel was already taken.’ “

Nevertheless, there is no denying the phenomenal success of the network, and that is a result of the singular vision and leadership of Frank Batten, someone most people have never heard of. This book changes all that, introducing readers to an uncommonly farsighted and decent man who happened to make a lot of money.

Let me say at the outset that “Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel” devotes considerably more time to the man than to the network, and this is not surprising. During his lifetime, Batten (who died in 2009) assumed leadership of the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star and grew Landmark Communications into a media powerhouse. He created two billion-dollar businesses and gave away more than $400 million to charity, nearly all of it to education. As chairman of the Associated Press from 1982 to 1987, he helped guide the news agency back to sound financial footing.

However, as Ms. Sage writes, “Batten’s is not a rags-to-riches story. Born into a life of privilege, he inherited the controlling interest of his uncle Samuel Slover’s privately held newspaper company in Norfolk, Va. In a career that spanned nearly a half century, Batten not only created the Weather Channel, but started TeleCable, one of the country’s early cable television groups, which he later sold for $1.5 billion.

“Landmark Communications also owned more than 100 daily, community and special interest newspapers in 16 states and two major broadcast television stations, bought and sold the Travel Channel, and co-owned the nation’s largest publishers of classified magazines.”

In 2008, Forbes ranked Batten the 190th wealthiest man in the country and described Batten as “a low-profile media maven.”

One can span the pages of this gracefully written book to find the source of Batten’s strength and not come up short. Surely his close relationship with his uncle was a factor. (Batten’s father died of pneumonia a year after Frank’s birth.) A somewhat wayward youth, he was brought into line at Culver Military Academy, the military prep school that introduced Frank to discipline and was later rewarded with millions in charitable donations. From Culver, there was the two-year stint in the Merchant Marines then off to the University of Virginia, where Frank enrolled in ROTC.

After college, a tour of Europe brought the young Batten into contact with an 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, newly married to Nicky Hilton, and a considerably older Lady Astor. Harvard Business School came next, and Ms. Sage writes, “If Batten’s character was developed at Culver Military Academy, it was Harvard Business School that taught him how to be a business leader. In 2003, Batten donated $32 million to support the ongoing development of the school’s residential campus. In recognition of his generosity, the southern, main entrance to the campus was named Batten Way.”

Two years before starting the Weather Channel and two and a half years before being elected chairman of the 1500-member Associated Press, Batten faced a profound personal challenge that would have derailed a lesser man: he lost his vocal cords to cancer. Those who heard him speak remember a gruff voice matched by unflagging determination.

Others remember his philanthropy. “Batten made a difference in countless thousands of lives, through the Weather Channel, Landmark’s newspapers and TV stations, the Associated Press, the cable industry, and colleges and universities, as well as those he helped directly or indirectly.”

The story of Frank Batten’s life is one worth knowing.

Carol Herman is the books editor at The Washington Times.