Frank Batten Sr., 82

Frank Batten Sr., 82; Media Magnate, Philanthropist Launched the Weather Channel

Frank Batten Sr.'s empire, Landmark Media Enterprises, includes the Virginian-Pilot. He gave $220 million to educational institutions.
Frank Batten Sr.'s empire, Landmark Media Enterprises, includes the Virginian-Pilot. He gave $220 million to educational institutions. (1981 Photo By Marty Lederhandler -- Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

Frank Batten Sr., 82, a Virginia publishing magnate and philanthropist who launched the Weather Channel, which improbably found huge cable television audiences among skywatchers and travelers, died Sept. 10 in Norfolk.

His company, Norfolk-based Landmark Media Enterprises, said he had been in failing health but did not release a cause of death. He had fractured a hip in recent years and in the late 1970s had throat cancer, which led to the removal of his larynx.

Mr. Batten was 27 when he became publisher of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk in 1954, and he led the paper and its sister publication, the Ledger-Star, through decades of steady growth. His publishing empire, known until last year as Landmark Communications, eventually came to include nine daily newspapers and more than 100 other specialty publications.

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Batten began investing in cable television systems and made his shrewdest move in 1982, when he put the Weather Channel on cable TV. The idea was the brainchild of "Good Morning America" meteorologist John Coleman, who was the channel's first chairman but who had an acrimonious split with Mr. Batten and left after a year.

Skeptics in business and broadcasting scoffed at the idea, saying no one would ever watch a nationwide network devoted to 24-hour coverage of the weather. But viewers were drawn to the indispensable information. Within three years, cable systems throughout the country began to consider the Weather Channel as indispensable.

"I was optimistic about it, or, of course, I would not have started it," Mr. Batten told the Virginian-Pilot in 2002. "I'm surprised that it has become as much a part of people's lives as it has become."

Mr. Batten, who inherited a small newspaper company from his uncle, found himself at the helm of one of country's largest privately media conglomerates, with peak annual revenues of $1.75 billion in 2007. His personal net worth reached an estimated $2.3 billion in 2007, placing him at No. 190 on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans. (By March of this year, his fortune had diminished to about $1.7 billion.)

In recent years, Mr. Batten gave away more than $220 million of his fortune to educational institutions, most notably his alma mater, the University of Virginia. He donated $60 million to the university's business school in 1999 and later gave $100 million -- the largest bequest in U-Va. history -- to create the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Its first class graduated this past spring.

He donated $90 million to a military school he attended in Indiana, plus millions more to Harvard Business School, Old Dominion University, Virginia Wesleyan College in Virginia Beach and Hollins University in Roanoke. In 1988, he helped found a scholarship program that has aided more than 70,000 inner-city students in the Tidewater region, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

In his home town of Norfolk, Mr. Batten was seen as the guiding force of the Virginian-Pilot, where he began working as a copy boy. In the late 1950s, after Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closed six schools in Norfolk and other schools throughout the state rather than follow court desegregation orders, the Virginian-Pilot was the only major newspaper in the state to oppose Virginia's official policy of "Massive Resistance" to integration. Under that system, state funds were denied to any school that accepted black and white students.

Encouraged by Mr. Batten, the Pilot's editor, Lenoir Chambers, won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for his editorials protesting the school closings. Norfolk's afternoon paper, the Ledger-Dispatch, stubbornly supported Massive Resistance until Mr. Batten fired the editor.

"While not an ardent integrationist, Batten understood that Massive Resistance was a terribly destructive policy that was ruining Virginia's image, economy and social fabric," University of Virginia politics professor Larry J. Sabato, who grew up in Norfolk, wrote Thursday in an e-mail. "Over the decades, the Virginian-Pilot generally played a moderating role editorially in Virginia. The paper helped to balance the fiercely conservative editorials of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the now-defunct Richmond News-Leader."

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