Moody’s Investors Service recently put Allbritton Communications on its “bottom rung” list and gave its outlook a negative rating.
Concerned? Allbritton makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger. “Zero,” he says. “I am very comfortable that we are not going to default on any of our debt.”
Robert Lewis Allbritton was born in Houston on February 16, 1969.
His father was by then a millionaire many times over. Joe Allbritton grew up in D’Lo, Mississippi, and then moved west to Texas with his family. As a young man, Allbritton bought and sold land. He invested profits in banks, insurance companies, and a chain of mortuaries. He was a millionaire by age 33. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Joe Allbritton was a bachelor into his early forties when he married Barbara Balfanz, the daughter of a pharmacist. Robert is their only child.
When Robert was seven, the Allbrittons pulled up stakes and moved to a house in Georgetown. Joe bought the Washington Star and WMAL-TV, the ABC affiliate, in 1974 for $35 million. Four years later, he sold the newspaper to Time Inc. but kept the television station. Using his initials, he changed the call letters to WJLA. He also bought a horse farm in Upperville, Virginia, and began breeding racehorses. He befriended Presidents.
Young Robert had a front-row seat.
“My dad was one of those guys who always said, ‘C’mon, listen in. Be a part of this. You might learn something.’ He was incredibly inclusive.”
Friends came to sit around the dinner table and learn by Joe Allbritton’s Socratic method. “I learned by osmosis how to deal with people, what was a good risk, what was a bad risk,” Robert says. “I had to pass pop quizzes.”
The Allbrittons sent their only child to the city’s best private schools: Beauvoir, St. Patrick’s, St. Albans.
“Mom carpooled,” he says.
Robert says team sports were not his thing. He was always more interested in technology. As a young teen, he became friends with John Dickerson, whose parents, Nancy and Wyatt, were close with the Allbrittons. “We were into personal computers before personal computers were cool,” Robert says.
John Dickerson, now chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, says he spent hours closeted with Robert in the Allbritton home “buried in our computers, doing parallel programming.”
They were so adept that Atari invited them to join its youth advisory board and flew them to a convention in Los Angeles. The Allbrittons took Dickerson to their ski lodge in Snowmass, Colorado. “They were incredibly generous people,” he says.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Allbritton attended Wesleyan University, known for its liberal activism. Students protested apartheid in South Africa, among other things.
“I was not politically active in college,” Allbritton says. “It was not in my heart.”
When students demonstrated and some were arrested, Allbritton pulled up a lawn chair, popped a beer, and watched.
He graduated from Wesleyan in 1992 and went directly into Riggs Bank’s investment-management side. At 22, he was analyzing deals and helping the bank decide on loans.
“I was bored to tears,” he says. “I spent much of my time watching the sweep hand reach 5 o’clock.”
He called his father, then Riggs’s chairman. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said. “I quit.”
He figured he could live awhile on $9,000 he had saved. He also figured he could make good on a lifelong dream—learning to fly a plane.
From the time he was little, Allbritton had flown in his father’s jet. He remembers standing near the pilot and marveling at the dials and gauges. Finally, he spent two months at the Leesburg Airport getting his pilot’s license.
His father called every day at 6:30 am and asked: “How does it feel to be retired at age 22?”
Allbritton’s retirement lasted less than a year. In February 1993, his father put him to work in Allbritton Communications.
“They called it ‘TV 101,’ ” Robert says.
He spent two years learning the television business. He visited stations, sold ads, studied the technology, worked on programming. “I even did some on-air reporting,” he says.
His “professors” were Allbritton executives. Among them was Jerry Fritz, who is still with the company. Fred Ryan, who would become instrumental in growing Allbritton Communications and creating Politico, arrived in 1995.
“The company’s group head left, and I replaced him,” Allbritton says. It was 1996. He was 25.
In the next years, Allbritton Communications went on a buying binge. The company raised $200 million in the public debt market. It bought two stations and started one from scratch. Robert says he learned the most from buying two stations around Birmingham, Alabama, in 1996 and combining them into the strongest in the area.
“I interviewed the best anchors and on-air talent in the region and cherry-picked the best to create a star staff,” he says. “I learned that if you want to have a successful media property, it’s all about quality and personalities. You can’t skimp on that.”
His father expected him to work for a few years and return to school for an MBA. Robert sought advice from Stephen Trachtenberg, then president of George Washington University, which Robert had attended for a semester.