Sam Zell, the real estate billionaire who was a financial backer of 1990s radio owner Jacor Communications, died Thursday (May 18) due to complications from a recent illness. He was 81.
The self-titled “Grave Dancer” for his willingness to take a chance on distressed companies, Zell found his way into radio in 1992. That’s when his Zell/Chilmark Fund connected with Jacor Communications COO/VP of Programming Randy Michaels to take over the company when founder Terry Jacobs exited. With Zell as its Executive Chairman, Jacor grew as the Federal Communication Commission in 1992 increased the number of stations a company could own to three AMs and three FMs in a city. Then in 1996, after the Telecom Act became law, Jacor gobbled up companies whole, including Noble Broadcast Group and Citicasters. It also built the syndication company Premiere Radio Network, which was home to personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and Art Bell.
By 1999, as radio’s consolidation frenzy began to slow, Zell exited the business with a $3.4 billion deal to sell what had become Jacor’s 230-station portfolio to Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia).
"Sam rescued Jacor," Michaels said Thursday. "He gave us much more than financing. He gave us a lot of rope, a lot of encouragement, and a lot of support. Radio would be different without Sam. Radio was more creative and more successful when Sam was involved," he said of his longtime business partner.
Zell and Michaels would reunite just a few years later when the billionaire bought Tribune Media in 2007, whose assets included not only WGN Chicago (720) but also the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. But a year later the Tribune was hit by the Great Recession and it filed what at the time was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. media history. When the tumultuous reorganization was over four years later, a group of investment firms became Tribune’s owner and Zell’s venture into media ownership had come to an end.
Zell was born in Chicago in 1941 to Polish refugees, four months after they arrived in the U.S. following their escape from Poland during the German invasion. Being the child of immigrants provided him with what associates say was a deep appreciation for America, a heightened awareness of risk, and an exceptional work ethic. He entered the real estate business by managing student housing apartments as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He eventually built a fortune that is estimated at $5.9 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
But Zell – or “chief” as he was affectionately called at his investment firm Equity Group Investments – was also known for its contrarian strategies, calculated risk-taking, and innovative deal structures. There was also the “playful” environment that he created, one that carried over to the corporate cultures at Jacor and Tribune.
“Sam lived life testing his limits and helping those around him do the same,” said Scott Peppet, Zell’s son-in-law. “He was a self-made entrepreneur, an industry creator and leader, a brilliant dealmaker, a generous philanthropist, and the head of a family he fiercely loved and protected. He had an unapologetic passion for life, a brilliant mind, a contagious wit, and a deep sense of civic responsibility and personal loyalty. All those who loved and learned from him will miss him terribly,” he said in a statement.
Zell is survived by his wife, Helen; his sister Julie Baskes and her husband, Roger Baskes; his sister Leah Zell; his three children, Kellie Zell and son-in-law Scott Peppet, Matthew Zell, and JoAnn Zell; and his nine grandchildren.
Watch a video about Sam Zell’s life HERE.