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Friday, December 17, 2010

Giving it all away

When I entered Georgia Tech in 1972, my view out the window of the dormitory was the tower of TV Channel 17, WTCG. Actually, the tower was owned by a "beautiful music" FM station (remember those?), but everyone referred to it as WTCG's... recently purchased by a young upstart named Ted Turner. WTCG mostly showed old movies that no one liked and hilariously bad, locally produced commercials. Its ratings were dismal.

The next year, however, Turner out-negotiated dominant WSB-TV for rights to broadcast the Atlanta Braves. Several years later he recognized the opportunity that satellites and cable companies were creating, so he took WTCG nationwide. Later renamed WTBS, it was a major success and provided him the base to launch CNN -- another risky but brilliant business decision. Turner went on to make billions (and to start the priceless Turner Classic Movies) before selling his company to Time Warner.

Without a doubt Turner was a provocative and often badly behaving personality in his younger years, although he also demonstrated good common sense by purchasing the failed Progressive Club immediately north of the Georgia Tech campus as the headquarters for his business. (Turner hated air-conditioning and told his employees to open their office windows like he did himself. He also drove an old Toyota sedan to work.) As he aged, he cleaned up his behavior and reduced his provocative pronouncements to a trickle.

What really interests me about Turner, though, was his decision to donate nearly all of his liquid assets while he was still in his prime, such as $1 billion to the United Nations. Many wealthy people give away money or structure their wills to bequeath money to charities or foundations. That's good. Turner, on the other hand, gave away practically all his wealth except for his holdings of land in the west. Recently he said he has only a few million left.

If more people shared Turner's sense of responsibility to humankind, we wouldn't be arguing so much about estate taxes.