Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Amon Carter -- The Texas Visionary in a Cowboy Hat

It's difficult to describe the late Amon Carter in a few words. As owner and publisher, he built the Fort Worth Star-Telegram into a dominating force whose circulation at one time stretched from Where the West Begins to the outer reaches of the Texas plains.

Consummate entrepreneur, flamboyant showman, brillant in business, friend to Presidents, no one who met Amon was ever likely to forget him.

Early in my Star-Telegram career I had the privilege of getting hired by Jerry Flemmons, S-T columnist and author, to edit his book "Amon: The Life of Amon Carter Sr. of Texas." It afforded me an up close and personal view of this extraordinary man.

Originally published in 1978, it was reissued and updated 20 years later as "Amon, The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America." The latter is available on Amazon; the former is out of print.

Recently, in preparation for a panel discussion at an online journalism symposium, I pulled "Amon" off the shelf and re-read it. With the current state of the newspaper industry being what it is, I asked myself, "What would Amon do if he were alive today?" I think I found the answer.

Quoting from the book:

"In 1921, radio was a gadget, a funny little black box that talked. Radio intrigued Amon, the consummate gadgeteer. He wanted one of his own."

Something else spurred his interest. A friend from New York warned Amon "the funny little box would kill newspapers."

That prompted him to assign Star-Telegram circulation manager Harold Hough to learn all about this thing called radio, saying "If this radio thing is going to be a menace to newspapers, maybe we better own the menace."

The result? On May 2, 1922, the first broadcast was aired from two, 70-foot-tall broadcast towers atop the roof of the Star-Telegram building. The station, whose call letters were assigned by Herbert Hoover, was WBAP, short for "We Bring a Program." The Star-Telegram was in the radio business.

By 1938, WBAP was one of only eight national stations broadcasting with 50,000 watts of power. In 1948, WBAP-TV went on the air, the first television station south of St. Louis and east of Los Angeles.

Risk taker, visionary -- I'm fairly confident Amon would have approached the Internet in much the same way he did radio and television. He would turn a "threat" into an opportunity.

While I never had the chance to meet Amon, I did know his son, Amon Carter Jr., who succeeded his father as publisher. Amon Jr. died suddenly of a heart attack in July, 1982, two months after StarText made its debut.