Frank Batten Sr. dies at 82; executive who founded Weather Channel
Batten, the retired chairman of Landmark Communications, launched the 24-hour cable weather network in 1982. It was sold in 2008 for $3.5 billion.
Frank Batten, left, introduces the Weather Channel with ABC-TV weatherman John Coleman. In 2008, Batten's firm sold the channel for $3.5 billion. (Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press)
Batten, the retired chairman of privately held Landmark Communications and a former chairman of the board of the Associated Press, died Thursday in Norfolk, Va., after a prolonged illness, Landmark Vice Chairman Richard F. Barry III said.
A non-smoker, Batten suffered from throat cancer in 1979 and underwent surgery to remove his larynx.
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.
With a fortune estimated at $2.3 billion, 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," Batten said in a 2005 Associated Press oral history interview.
Batten was born Oct. 27, 1927, in Norfolk, where his uncle, Samuel L. Slover, had sowed the seeds of Landmark in the early 1900s by acquiring a succession of local newspapers. Slover also helped raise Batten after Batten's father died when he was 1.
Batten served as a merchant marine during World War II and later as a Navy reserve officer. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1950 and a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University two years later.
He 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, Batten and other community leaders ran a full-page newspaper ad 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 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 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.
Batten also served as chairman of the Associated Press board from 1982 to 1987.
But he 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, Batten donated more than $223 million to schools and other educational organizations.
In addition to his son, Batten is survived by his wife, Jane, and two daughters.