Frank Batten Sr.'s fascination with weather dawned at age 8, when he rode out a hurricane in a seaside cottage; it deepened after he took up competitive sailing. Recognizing that the forecast is the kind of news people use -- and use every day -- Batten in 1982 launched the Weather Channel, among the most successful and idiosyncratic of cable networks. He died on September 10 at 82.
An infant when his father died, Batten grew up in the grand home of his uncle, Samuel Slover. The house was just a few blocks from the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, the newspaper Slover owned and at which Batten earned his journalism chops during summers home from the University of Virginia. He became publisher in 1954, after completing his M.B.A. at Harvard, and eventually took the helm of his uncle's publishing company, which became known as Landmark Media Enterprises. Batten amassed newspapers and television and radio stations in several southern states. In 1964, he launched an early cable company.
Batten's business ventures thrived, but his health did not. In 1977, he was found to have throat cancer, and two years later, he had his larynx removed. The cancer interrupted Batten's cherished plan to launch a cable news network, and by the time he recovered, Ted Turner had beaten him to it. In 1981, John Coleman, weathercaster for Good Morning America, approached Landmark with the idea for the Weather Channel. (Coleman would run the channel for a year and then leave.) Batten knew that viewers of his TV stations often sat through newscasts for the weather at the end. When power went out on his cable systems, customers complained most loudly about missing the forecast.
"When we started, the only two people who believed in it were Frank and me," says John Wynne, the Weather Channel's former chairman. "The joke was that the next channel we'd create would be the Time Channel. We'd show clocks ticking around the world."
Batten felt strongly that the new channel must include local forecasts -- about one minute out of 10. Technicians from his cable company made that happen. Still, the Weather Channel flirted with bankruptcy until Batten and Wynne hit on the idea of supplementing the traditional advertising model with subscriber fees from the cable companies.
Batten retired in 1998 but remained a constant presence at Landmark until his death. (Last year, Landmark sold the Weather Channel to NBC Universal for a reported $3.5 billion.) "Frank was a newsman, but he wasn't in it for the breathless 'Oh, we just avoided the storm of the century' story," says Howard Stevenson, a professor at Harvard Business School who served on Landmark's board. "He said people turned to us for the quality of the forecasting. And that's what he gave them."
Last updated: Dec 1, 2009
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan