John Kluge, the entrepreneur who built the Metromedia stations into one of the strongest independent broadcast groups in the country and then sold them to Rupert Murdoch to form the backbone of the Fox network, died Tuesday in Charlottesville, Va., according to the John Kluge Foundation. He was 95.
Kluge pioneered the art of leveraged buyouts, using borrowed money for most of his ventures from broadcasting to food franchises. He leveraged his money from a Fritos franchise to establish the Metropolitan Broadcasting Co. in 1958 after swooping in to buy stations from the Dumont network as it was collapsing. He set up one of the first media congloms owning radio and TV stations, magazines and pagers and mobile phones. He was an early pioneer in wireless communications.
An immigrant from Germany, Kluge served in Army intelligence during WWII. When he was demobilized, Kluge set up radio station WGAY in Silver Spring, Md., in 1946, buying the license for $90,000 he and his partner rounded up from various investors. From there they expanded to other radio stations in Buffalo, N.Y.; Dallas-Fort Worth; Orlando, Fla.; Nashville; Pittsburgh; and Tulsa, Okla.
Kluge merged his two Gotham radio stations with Metropolitan Broadcasting and began buying up radio and TV stations across the country, including KTTV-TV Los Angeles and what is now WNYW-TV New York. Over the years his conglom would expand to include seven TV and 14 radio stations, outdoor advertising, Playbill magazine, pagers and mobile phones plus the Harlem Globetrotters and Ice Capades. He also owned a controlling stake in Orion Pictures.
Metromedia expanded into TV production and distribution, making gameshows like “Truth or Consequences” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” He also spent big for off-network rights such as “MASH,” which helped his independent TV stations boost ratings during early fringe against the broadcast stations. Numerous prominent broadcast and network TV execs got their start at Metromedia in the 1970s and early ’80s.
From 1969-74 Metromedia also dabbled in the music biz with Metromedia Records, whose biggest star was teen idol Bobby Sherman.
A frugal man, he set up his headquarters in New Jersey because rents were cheaper than in New York.
Kluge took the conglom private in 1984, buying out Metromedia’s shareholders. There were complaints from some quarters that the shareholders were not paid enough, but he defended the price.
A private person, he preferred not to publicize himself or keep any praisers on his staff.
Two years after taking Metromedia private, Kluge sold the TV stations and Metromedia Producers Corp. to Murdoch’s News Corp. and 20th Century Fox for $2 billion. At the time he said presciently that TV was going to become much more competititve. “I didn’t feel I could take that risk, to go on and develop a fourth network,” Forbes magazine quoted him as saying.
The other entities, including the Harlem Globetrotters, the radio stations and Ice Capades, were sold elsewhere in the 1990s. Still, he did lose a lot of money from his stake in Orion Pictures and the Ponderosa restaurant chain.
After divesting himself of Metromedia, Kluge spent his later years in telecom, radio and cable ventures in Eastern Europe and China. He also ventured into philanthropy, including donating to his alma mater Columbia U. and the Library of Congress, where he set up the Kluge Center.
Survivors include his wife, Maria; a son, a daughter and a stepson; and four grandchildren.