The Weather Channel in 2010 became the first news and information service to reach 100 million cable subscribers. But 30 years ago, the concept of all weather, all the time was the laughingstock of the broadcasting world.
Were it not for a visionary Virginia businessman named Frank Batten, there would be no "Local on the 8's." According to Batten's biographer, Connie Sage, Batten's role in starting the weather channel has been overlooked by many, even in his home state of Virginia.
"We had stopped … to make a couple of posters and there was a woman and she looked at the book and she said, 'Frank Batten, the same Frank Batten of Batten Arts and Letters? He started the Weather Channel? I didn’t know that,'" Sage says.
Sage worked at Batten's company, later called Landmark Communications, and now has written a biography of Frank Batten titled Frank Batten Sr.: The Untold Story of the Founder of The Weather Channel. She points out that anyone living in Virginia would be hard-pressed not to credit Frank Batten and his company, Landmark Communications, for, at the very least, getting their news to them.
"Whether it was the Virginian Pilot, the Roanoke Times, Annapolis newspapers, TV stations in Vegas and Nashville, 100 small newspapers in communities throughout the country," says Sage of the various media properties owned by Batten at one time or another, "those all had the same values and ethics."
In the early 1980s, Batten and a partner John Coleman, wanted to take that media clout to the next level. They launched The Weather Channel, the first television network devoted solely to news and information about the weather, to groans from those in the media world.
But even though advertisers stayed away from the untested service, The Weather Channel was attracting viewers. One of them was a young Jim Cantore, a student of meteorology in Vermont.
"I mean, I loved it. It was fun. It was great to watch," says Cantore. "To not have to wait for the evening weather report on the news ... as a meteorologist in the making it was like, 'oh, this is heaven, this is great.'"
And it would be that kind of enthusiasm would inspire Batten to keep the Weather Channel going. For in 1983, as Batten contemplated liquidating the struggling business, a call from a cable operator about the popularity of the channel changed his mind. Then he had a thought ... what if he could get the cable companies to pay subscriber fees?
Batten’s company then invested millions of dollars in state-of-the-art technology, new studios, and feature programming. Within a couple of years, almost all the cable companies were not only carrying The Weather Channel, but paying a fee to do so.
The little channel everyone made fun of in 1982 sold for $3.5 billion in 2008. Such a success might suggest the actions of cold, calculating business titans. Not so, says, Jim Cantore , who went to work for The Weather Channel in 1986 and still works there.
"They’re just nice people," he says of the Battens. "You don't have these Gordon Gekko type shrewd business men. Just nice men. And I think that kind of resonated just out through the company."
Few people at the Weather Channel ever mention Frank Batten today, according to Cantore, but Sage has hopes that the civility Batten brought to the workplace endures. "I think there will always be people like the Batten family, who do maintain that same sense of high values," she says. "He trusted his people and you don’t see that much anymore. "