First Lady Of The Airwaves

Lady Bird Johnson's unsung entrepreneurial bent

Lady Bird Johnson was well-known for her love of wildflowers and beautifying America's highways. But the former First Lady, who died July 11, was also an entrepreneur.

In 1942 she used $17,500 from a family inheritance to purchase struggling radio station KTBC in Austin, Tex. Over the next two decades the business grew into a multimillion-dollar enterprise comprising radio and TV. (In 2003 the Johnson family sold those holdings for a reported $105 million.)

Lady Bird managed the station during her husband's congressional years in Washington, making it a CBS affiliate. She wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty, says on-air personality Richard "Cactus" Pryor, her director of programming. "When I first met her, she was sweeping the floors," he says. Former Austin Mayor Roy Butler, who owned competing radio station KVET, says that on visits to the Johnson's Texas Ranch, he saw Lady Bird reading invoices and signing the station's payroll checks. "Very few CEOs have that level of involvement," says Butler.

Only one other 20th century First Lady was active in business: Florence Harding, who helped run Warren Harding's Marion (Ohio) newspaper, says Lewis Gould, a professor emeritus at University of Texas at Austin and a First Lady specialist. Being a powerful politician's wife is undoubtedly good for business, but, says Gould, "Lady Bird was the driving force in making the radio and TV stations attractive to the audience."

Edited by Jeremy Quittner

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