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Book Review: Call Me Ted by Ted Turner (with Bill Burke)

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Probably everyone has an opinion about Ted Turner, even if its only a vague opinion – you either like the persona or you don't. But you're probably not on the fence. He's a straight shooter who likes to talk and doesn't seem to mind if people don't like the things he says. Over the years, either because of this style or despite it, Turner has led an incredible life, with enough highs and lows packed in for several lifetimes. In his new autobiography Call Me Ted, Turner (along with Bill Burke) recounts this life, from taking over his father's billboard business after the elder Turner's suicide to buying and turning around the last-place Atlanta Braves to winning the America's Cup yacht race to starting the first "Super Station" to CNN to Jane Fonda to… it's almost never-ending. With so much material to work with, and a style that's anything but boring, Call Me Ted is a fun, easy read that's also pretty inspiring.

Turner spends much of the early book discussing an unusual and somewhat rough childhood that included being left behind by his immediate family on a couple of occasions and an ongoing, difficult relationship with his father. Turner chalks up his need for attention to the feeling of childhood abandonment, although it's hard to believe his personality can be explained so easily.

After his father unexpectedly kills himself, Turner has the choice to sell out and take a nice chunk of change (Turner's father was a self-made millionaire by means of his billboard company) or try to run the business himself. He chooses the latter option, and embarks on a dizzying mission to grow the business to new heights, mainly via his goal of diversifying into radio and television. It's somewhat breathtaking to read about the non-stop acquisitions and how Turner folds them into the company while working under a mountain of debt and still seeking more. Turner wanted to be big, and he was willing to take the terrifying risks that most of us would never do once, let alone repeatedly. 

Perhaps most amazing is that while trying to grow his far-flung company by any means necessary, Turner would leave regularly to race his boats, eventually leading to a win in the America's Cup. And all of this while Turner was still in his 30s! As Turner says, he has energy to burn.

Call Me Ted also offers sidebar insights from a range of personal and professional contacts from throughout his life (including Bill Gates, Jane Fonda, and more), something I can't remember having seen in an autobiography before. These are fun to read, because Turner's take on his life and behavior can come across as somewhat low key, with only the occasional "maybe I behaved a little poorly that time" confession. His colleagues, on the other hand, regularly show up to say how crazy they thought he was, and give examples to prove it, including Turner crawling on the floor in a meeting, saying "Whose shoes do I have to kiss?"

While Turner's life story is amazing and inspiring in many ways, one aspect is a little disconcerting – how little time and attention he gave his family along the way. Married twice with five kids, Turner is a rare presence in their lives, between the business and the sailing. While he offers some regret about this, you don't get the feeling he would do it any differently if he had it to do over again. Maybe his kids (and former wives) don't hold it against him these days, but it's hardly a badge of honor. To his credit, Turner is at least honest about it.

So, while I wouldn't suggest emulating Ted Turner to the letter, if you want an entertaining story, as well as one that will inspire you to "go for it" in your own life, Call Me Ted is a great read.

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About Justin McHenry