Ted Turner to Boulder audience: Get out of Iraq and Afghanistan

| Nov 13, 2009

BOULDER — Ted Turner’s been called lots of things in his career – media mogul, entrepreneur, philanthropist, billionaire, rancher, environmentalist, peacenik and “Mouth of the South.”

He brought a little of all of those to a packed room at the University of Colorado Friday, Nov. 13, as part of the Entrepreneurs Unplugged series organized by CU’s Silicon Flatirons Center and the Law School.

Before his interview, Turner was presented with Silicon Flatiron’s inaugural Entrepreneurs for Good Prize, a crystal award that appropriately encased a buffalo.

Ted Turner

Ted Turner

Having just returned from a pheasant hunting trip in South Dakota, home to part of his 2 million acres of ranch land, the founder of CNN and author of “Call Me Ted” told the campus audience that if he were looking for a job today, it would be in “clean, renewable energy.” It will be a growth industry, Turner predicted, because “we’re going to win because we are right.”

Next stop on his travels, in fact, is the nation’s capital, where he’ll be lobbying for a clean energy bill.

Despite the tough odds of overcoming objections of the powerful coal and oil industries, Turner compared his new environmental mission to the’80s when he was trying to convince Congress to open up the nation’s TV airwaves to new satellite technologies.

At the time, he said, all three major TV networks were happy – carving up major sports events like the NFL between them, producing just 2½ hours of live news each day and reaping hefty profits.

“I wasn’t happy,” he said, “because I wasn’t one of them.”

Turner said he knew he was gambling everything on his vision for a 24-hour news channel at CNN, but “I knew with certainty that it was going to work.” Just getting your news at 6 p.m. was “inconvenient” if nothing else.

As a hard-working businessman for all of his life, working for his father’s advertising billboard business when he was 12, Turner admitted that the 1996 merger of Turner Broadcasting System with Time-Warner came about partly because he was just “tired.” As a large Time Warner stockholder, he lost billions when the stock collapsed after Time Warner merged with AOL.

When he owned both the Atlanta Braves and the Hawks, he would leave his TV business offices and head straight to the games, which turned into 18-hour days. “So I got too tired so I said screw it – I’m done!”

Now co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Turner minces no words calling for the United States to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Chairman of Turner Enterprises, which oversees all of his current businesses, including the Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants and ranch land in 12 states, including Colorado, Turner said customers always must be important if you’re running a business for the long term.

“I became a peacenik,” he said, because when he was running CNN and the U.S. started bombing people around the world, they were “bombing my customers.”

The Silicon Flatirons format is an initial interview by Brad Bernthal, entrepreneurship director for the center. And Bernthal had his hands full trying to keep the free-thinking Turner on track with several questions.

At one point, Turner said if the U.S. just has to be at war, why not go with an entrepreneurial spirit and attack Canada. They would surrender quickly, he joked, and double the land mass of the U.S.

To anyone in the media, Turner said, “I really was just joking about attacking Canada.”

Turner reads the Economist every week to stay up on world events, and he likes newspapers. But he also said the newspaper industry model is similar to the polluting coal industry – “it’s an obsolete technology.” He wondered aloud who’ll eventually be able to pay to gather the news. “The bloggers don’t have news organizations,” he said.

In the next 50 years, Turner said, “we have to be smarter than we’ve ever been.

“If we heat up the world seven to eight degrees, we’re toast.”

When it comes to new technologies, Turner drew laughs admitting he’s an old “fuddy-duddy” struggling with too many dials on TV to figure out how to watch it. But at 70 years old, he admits he’s feeling pretty good, running his ranches, fly-fishing and campaigning to protect the environment.

(This article also appeared on Jerry Lewis’s blog, Boulder Report.)