In the early 1980s, my father flew to Atlanta to meet with CNN executives about a possible collaboration between the network and magazines he published in the hospital and health care field. Nothing came of those conversations, but afterward he wrote me a letter, saying how impressed he was by the energy in the newsroom and how he could envision me working in such an environment.
That meeting took place at CNN’s starter home, a 92,000-square foot, red brick mansion with white columns and a fountain out front, at 1050 Techwood Drive. For several decades, that had been the address of the Progressive Club, established in 1913 by Jews of Russian descent, who felt unwelcome at the Standard Club, whose membership predominantly was of German Jewish lineage. The 21-acre property sat idle for some time before Ted Turner paid $4.2 million for it in the fall of 1979.
CNN debuted 11 months later, at 6 p.m., on June 1, 1980.
In her book, “Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News,” Lisa Napoli recounted how “New hires cheekily referred to this building as the ‘news kibbutz’ and ‘Kosher Kolumns’ — and were quickly admonished by Ted’s assistant to stop.”
In the summer of 1987, CNN moved from the burgeoning Turner Broadcasting System campus to the downtown Atlanta intersection of Marietta Street and Techwood Drive. The building that became CNN Center had featured the World of Sid and Marty Krofft indoor amusement park and an ice-skating rink in the atrium.
CNN’s move coincided with our return after nearly two years in Israel.
We had enrolled in a program for post-graduate young adults in the Negev desert town of Arad. I was older than most, having worked for several years as a newspaper reporter and news assignment manager at two television stations.
Through a set of fortuitous circumstances, I left the program and was hired (technically by an Israeli subcontractor) as CNN’s Jerusalem bureau producer. A couple of months later, Audrey, who had been a local television reporter, also came on as a producer.
Once back in the United States, CNN hired Audrey as a writer for newscasts. Soon after, I joined the national news desk staff. We relocated to Atlanta, not imagining that we would still be here 36 years later. Like a fair number of our colleagues, we were the parents of “CNN babies,” children who were dressed from infancy in clothing displaying the CNN logo and occasionally paraded through the newsroom.
The enormous red CNN letters outside the main entrance in downtown Atlanta became one of the city’s iconic symbols and a magnet for protests by people of various political stripes and nationalities, all hoping that the location would bring their cause extra attention. Over the years, these included demonstrations backing Israel or in support of Palestinian Arabs.
The presence of CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta may have saved the Israeli consulate in the early 1990s. That was strongly intimated by Benjamin Netanyahu — then a Knesset member, after serving as Israel’s U.N. ambassador — as he was driven to the airport after one of his periodic visits to Atlanta, which often included meetings with CNN executives and an off-the-record editorial board session (during which a diplomat could speak less diplomatically).
At the time (and not for the last time), the consulate was rumored to be on the chopping block. During that ride, I suggested that this would be a mistake, if only because it provided Israel the opportunity for face-to-face contact with CNN executives.
That CNN’s headquarters was in Atlanta, rather than in New York or Washington, differentiated the network from the older broadcast channels and the cable competitors that rose up in the late 1990s. It enhanced Atlanta’s credibility as an international city. However, as Turner Broadcasting was subsumed by larger and larger corporate conglomerations (currently Warner Bros. Discovery), the network’s power base migrated to New York.
This year, CNN will be going “back to the future,” vacating its downtown digs and returning to 1050 Techwood, now a 30-acre campus of offices and studios that dwarfs the one-time home of the Progressive Club. CNN Center has been sold to Florida-based real estate companies, but for now, at least, the big red CNN letters remain anchored to the sidewalk out front.