Everything you really need to know about Chris Whittle sits in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. There, the media mogul has erected a $55 million headquarters that relentlessly replicates Thomas Jefferson’s spread at Charlottesville. With its red-brick arches, wrought-iron gates, and 120-foot clock tower, it’s a massive, unexpected building—rich, as Whittle has said, in “energy and youthful spirit.”
Big, spirited, and unconventional are precisely what Whittle aims to be, whether the subject is magazines in doctors’ offices or, lately, how Americans educate their kids. With his $3.1 billion Edison Project, Whittle plans to build and operate a huge, perhaps revolutionary, network of for-profit schools by 1996.
That’s got public-school defenders worried. This, after all, is the man who saved Esquire in the early eighties by exploiting untapped advertising possibilities, the guy who invented Channel One for schoolchildren and built himself a media empire before he reached middle age. That glitzy résumé explains why what would be viewed as a doomed venture if proposed by a lesser mortal is being treated as a potential death blow to American public education. Yet what’s overlooked in breathless accounts of the Edison Project is that the great innovator often has trouble following through. It is as an inventor—a maker of images and markets—that Whittle has earned his reputation. But behind much-chronicled “successes” like Channel One, there are folded magazines, discarded “poster media,” and struggling current publications. Whittle has gone from 42 media properties in 1989 to 26 in 1992, and he just laid off 100 of his 1,100 employees.
What is it with Whittle? Perhaps his self-proclaimed “youthful spirit” is a phrase more telling than he realizes. When it comes to conjuring up moneymaking schemes, he’s got as much spunk as a caffeine-wired sophomore. What he doesn’t have is the dedication to the details that turns high concept into real change.
It’s not surprising that Whittle has only a vague sense of what the classrooms of the Edison Project will look like, what will be taught and how, who the students will be, or—perhaps most important from a businessman’s standpoint—how in the world he’s going to pay for it. The numbers don’t add up: He says he can do it for the current per-pupil cost of $5,500 a year, but that’s the barebones cost in schools—public and private—where they already have buildings and desks and books. Hence the widespread speculation that he’s expecting the federal government’s embrace of vouchers to fuel the project.
But the Edison Project isn’t the first time Whittle has ignored the all-important details. Once, years ago, he produced a sports information poster to hang in bars, but in doing so neglected to consider an important fact: Bars are dark. As catchy as the posters may have been, no one could read them and the project, funded by ads, collapsed.
Whittle’s real interest is the big gesture, which explains not just his office building but his joy in luring Yale President Benno Schmidt to Edison. In one blow, Whittle got clout, prestige, and publicity. “[Schmidt] shares our belief that our mission could make a vital difference to our country’s future,” Whittle exulted. “His joining is confirmation of our goals.”
With Whittle, talk of a pending project is always sweeping. Ever since the 44-year-old entrepreneur founded his first company shortly after graduating from the University of Tennessee, he has inaugurated his business ventures with more metaphors than a New Yorker short story: Walls are kicked down, new lands conquered, scouts sent ahead. You’d almost forget, listening to his grand promotional lines, that his fortune has been built on producing arcane media for advertisers to reach captive audiences: Pet Care Report, for instance, or La Familia de Hoy, “a multimedia system in Spanish.” And you’d also have to struggle to remember that the talk doesn’t always match the result. In a 1989 interview with The New York Times,Whittle predicted his revenues would hit $315 million by 1991. He came in at $207 million.
Consider his controversial Channel One, developed to be shown in schools. Introduced in 1989, the daily, 12-minute television program offers a superficial look at current events buttressed by two minutes of ads, usually by corporations like Burger King or Nike, to its captive student audience. Early on, Whittle promised advertisers an audience of 6.6 million teenagers. According to Whittle himself, only 3.8 million actually watch Channel One; the National Education Association says only 2.6 million do. What are the kids getting? A University of Michigan study of Channel One’s first year found that watching the MTV-like show increased students’ knowledge of current events by a not-so-revolutionary 3.3 percent.
Still, Channel One has survived longer than Whittle’s home-state magazine, Tennessee Illustrated, founded in 1988. Whittle was executive editor and chairman; the magazine also included a column under his byline and photo, a Whittle Communications first. And its prepublication publicity offered a sense of the kind of hype Whittle would use on endeavors to come: This was going to be big—really big. It would reach two million Tennesseans by subscription and distribution—in other words, virtually the state’s entire adult population (and, coincidentally, the number of students Whittle says Edison will be serving “shortly after the turn of the century”).
Whittle wasn’t just market-wise; he was politically savvy. His friend and consultant, Lamar Alexander, had just left the governor’s office, so Whittle scooped him up. Alexander—now Bush’s secretary of education and a potential source of school vouchers for the Whittle schools—would be a stockholder and adviser not only on the magazine but later on Channel One. (Whittle needed political leverage to lobby Channel One through skeptical legislatures and school boards; he’ll need it even more if Edison gets off the ground.) In the case of Tennessee Illustrated, Alexander helped Whittle run a minicampaign for the magazine, barnstorming the state and lunching with mayors and power-structure types to sell the venture.
Tennessee Illustrated, Whittle said, was to be a “new restaurant of words. Expect the unexpected from Tennessee Illustrated. We are going to celebrate the past, clarify the present, and contemplate the future, be intelligent without being overly sophisticated, objective without being cynical, fun without being ribald, and provocative without being antagonistic.” It was hyped as the next Texas Monthly, a dynamic voice for the state.
But Tennessee Illustrated didn’t have time to find that voice. For the 12 issues that comprised its short life, a colorful format featured pieces on the myth of Davy Crockett, a visit with Alex Haley, and a selection of 20 Tennesseans as “Good Folks.” There was little controversy and less hard-hitting politics. Whittle’s most forceful editorial suggested that the state ban billboards in favor of tourist-information radio channels.
Tennessee Illustrated may have made dull reading, but it made decent political sense for the impresario. At the time, it was clear that Whittle had political ambitions, but he had not said which party he favored. Add that to a dependence on ad revenue from utilities and banks—important political players in the state—and there was a clear reason for Whittle to stick to campaigning, as he did in his column, for apple-pie issues: in favor of small towns, against “unsightly” billboards, and for innovative education. Political magazines, he said later, are “a bad business.” Opinions, since they divide, often are.
Helping kill Tennessee Illustrated was not only that uncertain editorial approach but money. Whittle had used his famous “category-specific” advertising approach—selling ads to a single producer of a given product—and four giants in the state bought in: South Central Bell, Baptist Health Care System, First Tennessee Bank, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA invested $750,000, but pulled its ads after a year to cut costs. The loss of the sponsor, coupled with vanishing revenues, drove the magazine from a bimonthly to a quarterly, then out of business altogether.
Yet as Tennessee Illustrated was dying, an undaunted Whittle was making what he called “the most successful magazine launch in history” with six Special Report publications—one on sports, one on health, and the like—blanketing doctors’ offices across the country each quarter. The advertisement-gorged magazines entered the market (Whittle thinks in market terms, not audience) with the understanding that doctors, who’d get the magazines free, would not be allowed to have more than two non-Whittle magazines in their waiting rooms. It was a new idea, and the advertisers loved it. But again, it didn’t necessarily have staying power.
As the years passed, the six quarterly publications dropped to three; now, there is one bimonthly Special Report, and that’s part of what Whittle calls an “interactive multimedia system” of TV shows, magazines, and take-home booklets. That means that while waiting in the doctor’s office, you get to watch Joan Lunden host a 60-minute television show—described by the corporation as “a mix of expert advice, hard-hitting investigations, consumer and health updates, quick quizzes, commentary, comedy, slice-of-life features, and celebrity profiles and interviews.” And here’s the Whittle touch, the innovative, break-the-mold feature: “The system is made unique by its interactivity: Segments on the show frequently refer viewers to complementary or follow-up information in the booklets or magazine.”
A Special Report vice president says the move from print to video in his division of Whittle reflects the companywide trend toward electronics, the more profitable venture of the two. And, lately, profits matter more than ever. This year, Whittle Communications’ have plummeted.
What could be the problem? Whittle has made his fortune by eliminating divisions between public and private, bringing commercialism into contexts that were previously free of such forces. He did it with Channel One in public schools; in his Whittle Books division, he sticks ads from corporations like Federal Express into books by John Kenneth Galbraith and George Plimpton. But Whittle has never demonstrated sustained devotion to any idea except one: that amorphous new “media” are out there waiting for him to exploit.
Schools are about ideas. They’re about books that should be read whether they pay for themselves or not; they’re about rising above market forces, however briefly, and instilling a larger sense of the world. If a magazine fails, you can close it. If a school fails, you have failed students, not customers. Whittle likes the big gesture, and he seems to crave respect. But he is a salesman, and the bottom line always comes first. It came first with Tennessee Illustrated, and it came first with Special Report.
And so, as the romance with Whittle and Schmidt trips along, remember that Whittle has failed in the past for many of the reasons Edison is at risk: raising long-term capital; informing a product with discernible, intelligent content; and sustaining the promise of the pitch. That should be some comfort to those who fear the Whittle plan’s effect on public schools. But only some comfort, since one thing makes the Edison Project more dangerous than the rest. If we keep exaggerating Whittle’s invincibility, people may begin to believe that it’s safe to ignore the public schools—which will leave those schools even worse off if Whittle’s latest brainchild gets abandoned, half-grown, by its impatient father.