This was about six on a cool clear night in Manhattan. I was ambling west toward the huge neon sign and shabby gentility of the Empire Hotel, a vast old pile located at Lincoln Center, where I was to attend an alumni reunion of people who at some point or other worked for Capital Cities Broadcasting (as it used to be called), the simply marvelous little company from upstate New York that just about turned American media on its ear over the past half century.
I was only briefly a part of the adventure but I knew the story. How a guy named Frank Smith ("Smitty" to all) founded the company and, even though he was afraid of elevators and always took the stairs, got Cap Cities and its first small-town radio stations off the ground floor. And in the doing, hired a young fellow named Tom Murphy, a Harvard B School graduate with a couple of years at (I think) Procter & Gamble, to take it the rest of the way to the top. The "top" including a takeover of ABC and a merger with Michael Eisner's Disney. Lowell Thomas? Well, he was maybe the most famous broadcaster of the time as well as Cap Cities' earliest booster and high profile adviser. And Warren Buffett?
Well, Warren was smart enough to buy the stock.
Smitty died before I ever got to know him. But Murph was there at the Empire the other evening, looking much as he did nearly 30 years ago when his company bought my employer, Fairchild Publications. But then a guy who didn't have any hair in his 30s doesn't look much different in his 60s.
Don Pels came as well, Murph's longtime No. 2 who took over LIN Broadcasting and in the process earned himself a half billion or so. And there was Dan Burke, who succeeded Don and who, now that he's retired, has an amusing little hobby: He owns a minor league baseball team.
And here we were, maybe 75 men and women, at a first-ever reunion. Perhaps the barons at Runnymede had squires and more splendid armor; they weren't as rich as this bunch!
Phil Beuth got me there. Phil, who began life selling time on upstate radio stations and ended up supervising ABC day parts including "Good Morning America." And when I arrived someone gave me a name tag slugged, "partnerstogether." One word, like that, from Murphy's genial greeting as he pumped your hand, "Partner, we're gonna get rich together."
Well, some of us did. Others didn't. But I don't think any of us would have missed the ride.
Jim Quello was GM of Detroit's WJR and then, when his figures were slightly off and the FCC had an opening, calls were made and strings pulled and off went Quello to Washington. He was still taking bows after retiring last month after 30 years as a commissioner. John Sias didn't show; he was out running the Chronicle Publishing Co. in San Francisco. But he sent along a tearsheet with an "amusing" off-color typo from a Texas newspaper which Phil Meek was showing around. Bill James, who runs cable systems now, flew in from Detroit. Steve Stoneburn, who has some medical magazines, Michael Coady, now president of Fairchild Publications, and Dick Rakovan of the Radio Advertising Bureau all arrived.
Someone said to Mr. Buffett, "Warren, do you know Jim Brady?" Said Mr. Buffett, "Yes, and I read him every week." Being a nimble, and (occasionally) self-serving sort, I said, "May I use that endorsement, Warren?" And the great man, with that generosity of spirit of which surely you are aware, nodded his blessing. I realized giddily that although I was probably the poorest man in the room, I was having enormous fun. It was like being a kid again on Christmas morning and I found myself bantering away over a chilled refreshment with a few people I didn't even like.
But where was John Fairchild, whose family sold its great company to Murphy and Pels in the late '60s and laid the foundation for Cap Cities to get into print? Well, let's put it this way: John is not a joiner or much of a goer to reunions. But his absence did provide the excuse for many John Fairchild stories, some of which also involved his cousin Edgar. Dan Newman was on hand, the former Chicago topper for Fairchild who would later become president. Dan lives in Naples, Fla., these days, golfing and playing the organ! So naturally I had to tell of the time John Fairchild called in Bill Dwyer over some problem and to announce, "Dan is a bleep. He's just a bleep. And I want you to tell him so."
So Dwyer, then a senior VP (he's now president of Moody's), took a cab to LaGuardia, a plane to O'Hare, a taxi to the Fairchild offices, went upstairs to inform a startled Dan Newman, "Dan, John says you're a bleep," and went downstairs to a waiting cab and back out to O'Hare.