Bye bye CNN Center: CNN employees moving to Midtown campus

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

CNN actually started at Techwood Turner in 1980 but moved downtown in 1987

The CNN Center will soon be no more.

After more than 35 years, CNN is leaving its downtown mainstay in stages this year, with the entire operation moving back to renovated space at the 30-acre Turner Techwood campus in Midtown, according to a CNN spokeswoman.

CNN Center for many years served not only as a corporate headquarters but also an international calling card for Atlanta. It was equal parts home to Ted Turner’s original 24/7 news channel and tourist attraction — the network’s logo a fixture of the Atlanta skyline.

But CNN’s move out of its namesake office building has been years in the making. CNN effectively moved its headquarters to New York years ago, and the hulking CNN Center has been slowly hollowed out.

AT&T, CNN’s former parent company, sold CNN Center in 2021 to Florida-based real estate firms CP Group and Rialto Capital Management for nearly $164 million as a cost-saving move. Neither company responded to requests for comment Thursday on how CNN’s announcement will affect the building’s operations, its other tenants and its food court.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

CNN’s new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, is now prepping smaller space at its Midtown Techwood property, which Ted Turner purchased in 1979 to start CNN. Techwood houses departments for other cable networks including TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network and truTV as well as sports programming.

CNN has already moved its master control operations to the new location, AdWeek reported this week. CNN has significant CNN International and digital operations in Atlanta, but all weekday anchors are now located in New York or Washington, D.C. A few CNN weekend shows remain in Atlanta.

This move means the oversized CNN logo on the sidewalk off Centennial Olympic Park Drive, a major spot for tourists to take pictures, will be dismantled, and the CNN sign affixed to the building for decades will be taken down.

“I am heartbroken,” said Tom Johnson, CNN president from 1990 to 2001. “So many of my friends tell me how they’re going to miss that wonderful CNN logo on top of CNN Center. It just meant so much to us.”

‘Postcard of Atlanta’

What made CNN Center unusual was how public it was. In the atrium, foreign tourists mingled with conference attendees from the neighboring Georgia World Congress Center and sports fans going to the adjoining arena. It became a tourist attraction long before construction of the adjacent Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola or the College Football Hall of Fame.

“That building and that real estate is part of the postcard of Atlanta,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “Ted created an entire industry here and helped build the city’s international status.”

ExploreAs CNN leaves CNN Center, some facts about the Atlanta landmark

Credit: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Turner, after moving into the space, created CNN Studio Tours as a way to promote the brand by providing fans a behind-the-scene look. He purposely built the tour into the structure of the news space, designed for views into the newsroom without interrupting the flow of business.

It would draw 300,000 visitors a year well into the 2010s. The tour stopped running when the pandemic hit and never restarted.

From 1994 until 2003, CNN hosted a live afternoon chat show in the CNN Center atrium called “Talkback Live,” allowing visitors to watch and contribute their thoughts on the news of the day.

“Putting ‘Talkback Live’ in that fishbowl in the middle of the atrium was clearly a stupid idea, yet it was great simultaneously,” said Susan Rook, the show’s first host, who ran it from 1994 to 1997. “It was sometimes amazing, sometimes chaotic and sometimes head-scratchingly, ‘What?’ I felt like I was always on the creative edge.”

ExploreFrom our archive, 1987: TBS gives Omni complex a different focus as TV empire becomes core of CNN Center

Credit: AJC FIL E

Credit: AJC FIL E

Her weirdest moment, Rook said, was talking once about sending troops to Somalia, and having to scold a Howard Stern fan prank caller whose obscene comments made it on air.

At the Turner Store, visitors could shoot a video of themselves mock reading the news. Lynne Russell, a CNN Headline News anchor from 1983 to 2001, said she would occasionally surprise tourists by pretending to be their co-anchor. On the downside, she said, the upper levels were open to the public for years and she’d have stalkers. Management had to close the area off so she could enter and exit in peace.

CNN Center over the years would also become a gathering place for protesters who hoped to gain international attention. Recent examples were the George Floyd protests in May of 2020. On the first night of demonstrations, windows were smashed, the CNN logo on the sidewalk was defaced and a police car set on fire.

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Losing CNN Center for many former CNN employees was a jolt.

“It was like getting a phone call and finding out your parents were selling grandma’s house,” said Tenisha Tidwell, a former executive producer who worked there from 2003 to 2015.“No! You don’t sell grandma’s house! I had so many memories there, the laughter, the people.”

The only downside, she said, was the crowds from then-Philips Arena after an Atlanta Hawks or Atlanta Thrashers game made it difficult to leave the parking garage.

“We’d keep an eye on the last minutes of the games,” Tidwell said. “If our shift was ending, you’d see us running out of the building like track stars trying to get in front of the crowd or we’d be stuck there.”

Employees also enjoyed seeing random celebrities in the elevators and food court. Paul Caron, who worked at CNN Center as a CNN editor from 1997 to 2014, recalled waiting in line for coffee with Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan at the Dunkin’ Donuts and rubbing shoulders with Hank Aaron in the elevator

Credit: Jason Getz/jgetz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz/jgetz@ajc.com

But in more recent years, CNN’s Atlanta footprint shrunk. Warner Bros. Discovery last month dropped all HLN news operations, which were based in Atlanta, including Robin Meade’s long-running morning show. CNN recently made broad-based staff cuts that reduced CNN staff in Atlanta by more than 100. There are now fewer than 1,500 CNN employees in the city out of 4,000 worldwide.

Downtown growth

This is a full-circle moment for CNN, which first operated out of Techwood but moved to CNN Center downtown in 1987 because Turner needed more space.

Before Turner arrived, the space was called the Omni Complex and housed an ice rink and briefly an indoor amusement park called the World of Sid and Marty Kroft.

CNN’s departure from downtown is another sign of shifting priorities in the area as office space has become less of a draw since the pandemic began.

Steve Koonin, the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena, said the future of downtown will include more apartments and mixed-use spaces, which lends itself to CNN Center being reinterpreted and reinvented. Centennial Yards, the redevelopment of surrounding parking lots known as the Gulch, plans to bring a $5 billion mini-city to State Farm Arena’s doorstep.

”We made a big decision seven years ago that we were going to stay and anchor downtown Atlanta,” Koonin said. “We see this as another link in the growth of downtown, which is going to be incredible in a few years.”