The story of the making of the Johnson family fortune has often been cast as an example of LBJ’s ability to manipulate others for his own advancement in business as well as politics. Yet Lady Bird’s role was equally important: He had the influence, but she had the cash. From 1937 to 1942 she used $41,000 inherited from her mother’s estate to lay the foundation for their fledgling media company, which she ran as president and later as chairman of the board. In time she became a multimillionaire in her own right, the only first lady in history to do so.
While LBJ—then a U.S. congressman—kept his eye on political prizes, Lady Bird focused on the accumulation of wealth. Privately, he sometimes complained that she cared too much about money. “She has the first nickel she ever had tucked in her bra,” he told his closest aides. The view of Lady Bird as tightfisted was also advanced by historian J. Evetts Haley, who wrote in his 1964 anti-Johnson tract, A Texan Looks at Lyndon, that money was one of her “obsessions” like Lady Macbeth, Haley argued, she was a schemer who manipulated her powerful husband as a way to acquire power for herself. Others saw a woman who had gravitated toward strong men, including her father, her husband, Sam Rayburn, and John Connally. In business and politics, the theory went, she formed key alliances that gave her the means to compete in a male-dominated world.
Even in the initial stages of the business, Lady Bird had her own ideas. She suggested that she and Lyndon buy a newspaper, not a radio station. “Newspapers were what I knew,” she explained. “Radio was unfamiliar to me. I was more comfortable with the written word.” She made inquiries about the newspaper in Jefferson, not far from her hometown of Karnack, but realized it was so small that “it would never satisfy our ambitions.” Lyndon then tried to buy the Waco News-Tribune, but a combination of factors killed the deal, including Lady Bird’s unwillingness to pay the asking price.
Ultimately she reversed herself, and she and Lyndon soon set their sights on KTBC, a small radio station in Austin that had lost about $7,500 in 1941 and had liabilities of roughly $19,000. KTBC had operational problems as well: It had a mere 250 watts of power and only broadcast during daytime hours. At night a college station used its frequency to broadcast agricultural news and weather reports. “The management was inept,” recalled Lady Bird. “It had no network affiliation. The only thing of real value was the license.”
In December 1942 Lady Bird paid $17,500 to the station’s owners; soon after, an application was submitted to the Federal Communications Commission. To avoid charges of conflict of interest, Lyndon did not put his name on it; Lady Bird was listed as the sole purchaser. For qualifications, she listed her time running her husband’s office and the management of her own inheritance. In the document on file with the commission Lady Bird was described as follows: “She is the wife of Lyndon B, Johnson, congressmen from Austin, Texas, and she has recently served approximately a year as the secretary for the congressman. She is widely and favorable acquainted with the business of civic interests of the Austin congressional district, and the area of the district is almost identical with the primary service are of KTBC.”
On February 16, 1943, the FCC approved the sale. “Lyndon and I then talked about what to do next,” Lady Bird recalled. “He told me I needed to get down there to Austin and learn all about the station—to familiarize myself with the staff, the market, and the accounts. I understood that we couldn’t make a cusses of it and be running the station from Washington, so I went to work full-time,” For seven months she commuted between Austin and Washington, D.C. During the week, she stayed with her mother-in-law in Austin and flew home to Washington for the weekend. As Lady Bird has often told the story over the years, the first thing she did was clean up the place—literally. “I got a bucket, a mop, and a pail and started to work on it,” she remembered.
This story and others were designed to depict Lady Bird as the “little woman at the radio station,” part of the mythology that the Johnsons were creating, which portrayed Lady Bird as a wife and home-maker who just happened to have a Midas touch in business. The truth was that she knew how to read a balance sheet better than LBJ. She had learned bookkeeping techniques from her father and also from he uncle Claude Patillo, who ran a general story in Billingsley, Alabama. She started from the basic premise that, no matter what, she needed to keep her debt low—a lesson she imparted with authority to her employees. Working with a female secretary, she pored over the books and discovered that the station was losing $600 a month. “The more I looked, the more I realized what a failure we were,” she said. “There was nothing but red ink.” For instance, while the Kellogg Company had contracted for five ads per week, the station was running six and sometimes seven. Kellogg was sent invoices for the ads that ran but was paying for only five, so the company was listed as one of KTBC’s bad debts. “That kind of sloppiness was the routine,” Lady Bird recalled.
In those first few months, she put in long days. At LBJ’s suggestion and to relieve the pressure on herself, Lady Bird hired Harfield Weedin, a Texas radio and advertising executive, as her first general manager. Lyndon made the initial telephone call to Weedin, who had helped him in his 1941 Senate campaign. Weedin had the impression that the station was a partnership. “Lyndon was just as interested as [Lady Bird] and just as active as she,” he said. “The two of them did it together.” At first Weeding wasn’t sure he wanted the job. The station, which operated out of two old studios, was, in his eyes, “very run-down.” Weedin insisted as a condition of his employment agreement that the station be moved to larger quarters. The move—to the Brown Building in downtown Austin, owned by Herman and George Brown—took place on May 17, 1943. Once on board, Weedin learned that Lady Bird wanted to clean house, and she gave him the authority to fire most of the original employees and hire new ones. “I gave her a report on everything,” he recalled. “She knew everything that went on. I recognized from the beginning that she was smart. She was not just a satellite of Lyndon. In her own mind she was very strong.”
With Weedin in Austin, Lady Bird spent more and more time in Washington and tackled the bureaucratic obstacles that crippled the station. In June 1943 Mrs. Johnson asked the FCC to boost her station’s power, increase its frequency, and grant unlimited broadcasting hours. The following month, the FCC approved her application, amid speculation that Johnson had arranged the prompt and favorable ruling. By August, six months after buying KTBC, Lady Bird showed here first monthly profit: $18.
In late summer Weedin pressed both Lady Bird and LBJ to seek a network affiliation with CBS. At the time, WOAI—a 50m000-watt radio station in San Antonio that boomed in to Austin—had an affiliation with NBC. Without such a relationship, KTBC could not carry network news or programming and had no ability to attract major advertisers. In September LBJ went to New York to see William Paley, the president of CBS. Paley told him that because CBS already had affiliates in Dallas and San Antonio, he didn’t think they needed one in Austin, but he referred him to Frank Stanton, then the manager of network affiliations, Stanton signed a contract with KTBC for at least 35 hours per week of network programming.
With the CBS affiliation in place, KTBC’s audience grew, as did its ability to sell ads. Lady Bird issued orders to Weedin for each salesman to write her a daily report that included a list of all the sales calls he had made that day, with a description of his pitch and the response he had received. Weedin sent the daily reports in a large manila envelope from Austin to Washington. Lady Bird had no role whatsoever in the programming, however. It was Weedin who established the straight-forward format of the station: music and news. He avoided country and western (or “hillbilly” music) and brought new records from wholesale distributors in Dallas. He and another announcer, John Hicks, delivered the newscasts and also sold ads. Lady Bird paid Weedin a salary of $265 a month plus 10 percent of any profits he generated. Hicks was paid $50 a week. “When I first took over the station, I presumed she had a heck of a lot of money,” said Weedin. “But I soon found out that I’d better make money or we were going to be in deep trouble.”
Over the next two years, Lady Bird’s station prospered. In the fall of 1945 the FCC increased its power to 5,000 watts, and that year it showed an after-tax profit of $40,000 and had an audience of 2.5 million people. Lady Bird received at least one offer to sell the business, but she refused. By then she saw it as her hedge against financial instability. Not matter what happened to Lyndon politically, she would always have KTBC.