THE VISION THING

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Is the restructuring at Whittle Communications the "fall" portion of "the rise and fall of Chris Whittle?" Yes and, hopefully, no.

While still a University of Tennessee student, Chris Whittle sold ad space on "things to do" wall posters in on-campus locations. His entrepreneurial drive created other college-crowd ad vehicles for what grew to become 13-30 Corp., named for his target audience.

By 1988, what had evolved into Whittle Communications was sending shock waves through the publishing world with its Special Reports, themed magazines for doctors' waiting rooms. National magazines were taken aback, but major advertisers were taken forward with the idea of place-based media. The thought of captive audiences was attractive at a time when the national mass was dispersing.

Special Reports pulled in $80 million in ad support in its first two years, and soon place-based media were booming-with ad vehicles in health clubs and even public restrooms joining those already in supermarkets. It was said to be nearly a $500 million media category as the '90s dawned.

Hopes were high as Whittle became linked with Time Warner and launched the ambitious "Channel One," offering ad-supported TV programs in high schools. But expectations were inflated and, as the air started to come out, Whittle was forced to apply one financial bandage after another. Today, two years after drastic cutbacks at his elaborate Knoxville headquarters, Mr. Whittle himself must watch as a new CEO makes decisions to save the viable parts of what was to have been a media empire.

He may not have been enough of a numbers man to manage what had been valued as a $700 million enterprise, but Chris Whittle envisioned, created and delivered vehicles to carry advertising into new consumer hiding places. As he struggles to refocus, refinance and restructure, we know he can't be counted out. That's because Chris Whittle has what marketing will always need: Ideas, vision.

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