"On Second Thought" host Virginia Prescott speaks with Lisa Napoli.

On the left, a cover of Lisa Napoli's book "Up All Night," which features multicolored pixelated background over the text "Up All Night: CNN and the Birth of 24-Hour News." On the right, a photo of author Lisa Napoli.
Caption
Lisa Napoli's book "Up All Night: CNN and the Birth of 24-Hour News" chronicles Ted Turner's moonshot to launch CNN in 1980.
Credit: Abrams Press/Preston Wiles

The CNN Center in downtown Atlanta is up for sale. WarnerMedia announced in late June plans to sell the landmark news hub and consolidate staff to their Techwood campus — built on the site where Ted Turner first launched the network on June 1st, 1980.

The maverick businessman assembled a scrappy team for his wildly improbable bid to turn a small cable station into an all news network. His story is captured in the new book, Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News by Lisa Napoli.

Napoli joined On Second Thought host Virginia Prescott to discuss the book as part of one of the Atlanta History Center's virtual author talks. Napoli shed light on the story behind the man that reshaped television news, as well as some of her personal motivations for writing the book. 

This audio is an edited version of the conversation, but you can hear (and watch) the full interview here. The virtual author talks, which are free events, resume on Tues., July 21 at 7 p.m. with Bruce Feiler. For a full schedule and Zoom links, visit the Atlanta History Center’s website.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On Ted Turner’s early days in the television business

From the very beginning, he was theatrical. He saw grandeur in even a billboard. The first thing he did really in any measure was steal the Braves’ telecasts from WSB by coming in and just overbidding. He didn't have the money really; he certainly didn't have the audience, but he stole it from the vaunted WSB. [...] I've heard from a number of people that he would stomp on people's desks and say, “Buy ad time from me!” even though they had no idea who he was or why they should spend money on ad time from him. He didn't let anything defeat him — even the fact that nobody was watching his television station that he spent money that he really didn't have on.

He didn't let anything defeat him — even the fact that nobody was watching his television station that he spent money that he really didn't have on.

On preparing a headquarters and workforce in Atlanta 

Ted found a location, or his people found an old left-for-dead country club at 10th and Techwood. And they had to retrofit this old club with rats in it pretty quickly in order to have it ready. He was going to have the largest array of satellite dishes ever installed at that point, but also beside the equipment was the human resources. Convincing people to move to Atlanta for not too much money — for something that might not work — was not a foregone conclusion. Reese [Schonfeld] and his folks, they decided that what they needed to do was just get cheap labor. The tried-and-true was to go out and find young people who were willing to work for less than minimum wage.

And meanwhile, hundreds of tapes were streaming into the makeshift quarters on West Peachtree Street, because there were people in local news who were dying to have the chance to be on the air or to produce network news. There were people who were willing to put their life on hold. And the other thing that happened that was also incredibly unusual at the time: hiring couples was verboten. Or keeping couples: if you'd met your husband or a guy at the television station you worked at, one of you would have to leave. So if Reese could get a two-for-one, a couple — maybe one was a camera person and one was an anchorwoman — he went for it. It was cheaper to move them, and of course, they were invested in the place. Because everybody was marching toward this deadline of June 1st, 1980, and pitching in — wiring the Techwood Drive facility if they needed to, helping the techs and basically making it all up.

On CNN’s coverage of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan and the fallout

It was a day that put CNN on the map in the minds of the press corps. And that helped make them aware that there was not just a zest for the news, but the dangers that were introduced because of 24-hour news — because of the immediacy of news — that we had not really seen in measurable form since President Kennedy had been shot. That day that President Reagan was shot in 1981 really was people's worst fears about news, and news being reported like a sporting event as it was unfolding, and all the attendant issues and inaccuracies that could happen as a result, and the cascading effect of bad news being delivered instantly. We live it all everyday now, constantly to our peril and detriment.

That day that President Reagan was shot in 1981 really was people's worst fears about news, and news being reported like a sporting event as it was unfolding, and all the attendant issues and inaccuracies that could happen as a result, and the cascading effect of bad news being delivered instantly. We live it all everyday now, constantly to our peril and detriment.

On Napoli's reflections and motivations for writing Up All Night

I think it's super important for people to have the dialogue. And we don't have dialogues anymore — we shout at each other. That's why I welcome this conversation with you, because news has deteriorated and debilitated our society, and I'm very sad about it. I struggle with its impact enormously, which is why I think I enjoy writing the history of it. Because I think it's only if we study the history of it, if we just shut down the polarization, or trace back the polarization that we have in our society today to the news business, pre-CNN — because certainly President Nixon railed against the press as much as the president today does in a different way, and the press was different. But we've been seeing a societal breakdown because of television since television's inception. And before that we saw it because of radio's inception.

And I think, you know, my last book was about the creation of fast-food and the woman who took that money and gave it all away. I would say the same thing back then: you know, I can't solve why we became enamored of eating food out of packages as we ran around. But I can explain how it happened. And understanding it makes me a smarter and more thoughtful, hopefully, human and consumer. And I say the same thing about news.

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