Christopher Whittle, the flamboyant founder of the Channel One classroom news show and the Edison Project school-reform venture, comes under the spotlight in a new biography.
In An Empire Undone: The Wild Rise and Hard Fall of Chris Whittle, published last week by by Birch Lane Press, Vance H. Trimble details Mr. Whittle's rise from a publisher of college guidebooks to the head of a multimillion-dollar media and marketing concern. Mr. Trimble's treatment is largely sympathetic to Mr. Whittle, who was promised an advance look at the manuscript in exchange for an interview. But, Mr. Trimble maintains, Mr. Whittle was not allowed to make any changes.
The author concludes that Mr. Whittle is a superb salesman. But his management miscues, lavish spending, and rapid overexpansion led to the downfall of Whittle Communications, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company that created Channel One and has since sold it to K-III Communications.
Readers can learn in new detail just how perilously close the for-profit Edison Project came to being killed earlier this year.
Late last year, as Edison was desperately seeking an infusion of capital so schools could open this fall, the Sprout Group, a New York City-based investment firm, expressed interest. But Sprout officials were shocked by the salaries of top Edison officials.
According to the book, Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the former Yale University president and the chief executive officer of Edison, was being paid $1 million annually, while other top Edison officials were receiving $400,000. Mr. Schmidt agreed to take more equity in the company and reduce his salary to the $200,000 range, the book reports, and Sprout made the investment.
Long before Whittle Communications started Channel One or the Edison Project, the company produced advertising-supported posters for school lunchrooms and hallways. According to An Empire Undone, one particularly profitable wall poster was labeled "GO! Girls Only," which included ads targeted at high school girls. But when the company developed a counterpart product for boys, it created a blooper.
Mr. Whittle's company in 1990 tested a similar poster aimed at boys that said "BANG!" It was subtitled "Boys and Not Girls." But when the posters were put up at an Iowa high school, many students read the titles as one sentence.
"Bang boys and not girls?" one student is quoted as saying in the book. "I don't think the principal would OK that."