Billionaire broadcaster, entrepreneur, dealmaker and philanthropist John Kluge died peacefully Tuesday (9/7) night. He was 95 and missed turning 96 later this month (9/21).
Kluge was apparently the first person ever to become a billionaire from owning television stations. A poor German immigrant who first made his fortune with a Fritos snack food franchise, Kluge became the largest shareholder and Chairman of Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation, the local TV station group spun off from the former DuMont network, in the 1950s. He expanded into radio, TV syndication and other ventures, changing the name to Metromedia. In 1984 Kluge stunned Wall Street and the broadcasting industry by taking the company private in a leveraged buyout for the then-shocking price of $1.1 billion.
That proved to be a bargain when the FCC increased station ownership limits. Metromedia’s TV stations were sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 1986 for $2 billion to form the platform for the launch of the Fox network. The 11 radio stations were sold for a total of $290 million, according to the New York Times, and other assets were sold off for hundreds of millions. Rolling in cash, Kluge was listed by Forbes magazine in 1989 as the richest man in America with a net worth of more than $7 billion.
Despite his advanced age, Kluge never retired and never hesitated to seek out new business investments. His ventures in restaurants, media in post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe and such never paid off as well as his US broadcasting empire had, but he always seemed to be more interested in finding another deal than in how much money he had.
He also worked hard at giving his money away. His alma mater, Columbia University, received about a half billion dollars and he also made major gifts to the University of Virginia, having settled in the state’s “horse country” for much of his life. He also gave major gifts to the Ellis Island restoration project and to the Library of Congress, which established the Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanities. Those were public gifts, while Kluge also made many donations which he insisted be kept private.
Despite having given away billions, Forbes still listed Kluge this year as the 35th-richest person in America, with an estimated $6.5 billion.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
RBR-TVBR observation: Over the years we had occasion to speak with numerous broadcasting executives who got their start or a major career advancement working for John Kluge. He was a tough, demanding boss who kept a tight rein on expenses, but those former employees always said working for Kluge was the greatest experience of their professional lives. Many went on to become wealthy station owners themselves (most have done what he never did, retire) and gave Kluge credit for teaching them how to do it.