Hundreds of CNN alum bid farewell to CNN Center in Atlanta
Ted Turner was unable to be there but alums said his spirit made the place special.
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Hundreds of current and former CNN employees reunited outside CNN Center in Atlanta on Thursday, June 1, 2023. The gathering included a life-sized cardboard cutout of founder Ted Turner (center), who did not attend the event. After more than 35 years, CNN is leaving its downtown building this year, with the entire operation moving to the Turner Techwood campus. (Arvin Temkar / firstname.lastname@example.org)
On a sunny, dry Thursday afternoon, CNN alum began gathering hours before the actual 3:30 p.m. start time for a farewell photo around the huge red-and-white CNN logo on Centennial Olympic Park Drive in downtown Atlanta.
For the more than 500 attendees, this was not just a farewell to CNN Center, which is gradually being emptied this year as CNN’s 1,000-plus Atlanta-based employees move to the Midtown Techwood campus.
Rather, it was a family reunion. Hugs happened spontaneously. Smiles and laughter abounded as people shared old war stories and caught up with each other’s lives. Name tags with job titles and specific years of employment (e.g. 1994-2006) helped jog people’s memories.
By the time 3:32 p.m. rolled around, organizer Marylynn Ryan, megaphone in hand, told everyone to wave at the drone hovering 30 feet above, then pose for the photographer on a ladder set in the street.
Credit: RODNEY HOemail@example.com
Credit: RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org
Ted Turner, the audacious mustached media mogul responsible for birthing the world’s first 24/7 news network 43 years ago, was out of the country and unable to make the event.
Instead, his longtime right-hand man Phillip Evans, chief communications officer for Turner Enterprises, walked the three blocks from his offices over Ted’s Montana Grill carrying a life-sized cardboard cutout of a tuxedoed Turner. “I got a few stares,” Evans said. Planted in front of the CNN logo, the surrogate Turner became a magnet for photos.
Turner did pen a letter which was read by former CNN president Tom Johnson (1990-2001) at a reception in the Omni Hotel atrium after the photos were taken. In part, Turner wrote that he didn’t want CNN’s move from CNN Center back to its original home at Techwood to signal an “end of an era.” Rather, “it is a homecoming of sorts ― to its roots, where it all began in 1980. And let me remind you ― the doubters said we couldn’t pull it off. But with grit, tenacity and perseverance, we endured.”
He ended the note referencing one of his many nicknames and his yacht racing past: “As your Captain Courageous, I look to the horizon with anticipation: Set sail, CNN! May you find safe harbor in your new (and old) home, sweet, home.”
Turner moved CNN to CNN Center in 1987 because his cable network had outgrown its original space. It overlooked a food court that once housed a skating rink and, briefly, The World of Sid and Marty Krofft amusement park. Ever the self promoter, Turner slapped the CNN logo on top of the building next to what was then the Omni and now is State Farm Arena. He even lived in a 900-square-foot penthouse on top of CNN Center until 2003.
At the reunion, Steve Korn, the legal counsel who helped Turner get CNN launched in 1980, said he was not thrilled by the move to CNN Center given how gritty and downtrodden the neighborhood was at the time. He was equally skeptical when Turner started a studio tour at CNN Center.
But the tour became a surprisingly profitable success, a way for millions of tourists over the years to gawk up close at the likes of Lynne Russell, Leon Harris and Bill Hemmer reading the news live. (The tour closed down for good when the pandemic began in 2020, as did the atrium store selling Warner Bros.-branded product and CNN tchotchkes.)
And as the network grew, so did the building’s import as an iconic symbol of Atlanta’s growing influence and sway in the world. Turner’s CNN is often credited with fueling Atlanta’s surprise winning bid for the 1996 Olympics and the building of Centennial Olympic Park next door to CNN Center. A flurry of other tourist attractions soon joined the area including a relocated Coca Cola Museum, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Georgia Aquarium and The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, all of which will outlast CNN’s presence downtown.
“This is a monumental loss for the city of Atlanta,” said Lyn Vaughn, a CNN Headline News anchor from 1984 to 1998. “Ted elevated this city. He literally took it from a mid-sized American city to an international one.”
“I felt when you walked into CNN in that building, you were at the center of the world,” said Teya Ryan, who worked there from 1990 to 2009 as a programming executive. “You had this palpable sense of importance and dedication to an idea that news reported honestly and directly and brilliantly could change the world for the better.”
But that isn’t the point of this gathering, according to Marylynn Ryan, the woman responsible for this reunion. Now at Georgia Public Broadcasting, Ryan worked at CNN from 1995 until 2019, a bulk of the time as Southeast bureau chief.
Aware the large sidewalk logo was going to be taken down later this year, Ryan came up with the idea of gathering alums for a group photo on the 43rd anniversary of CNN’s debut. She posted the idea on a Facebook CNN alumni page with 4,000 members.
The reaction was visceral and immediate. She received more than 550 RSVPs.
“I am not calling this a reunion,” Ryan said before the event. “This is a CNN legacy party. I really believe all of us who worked there from the 1980s to now are part of a legacy that Ted built. We want to celebrate all those people who have walked past those red letters..”
The people who came to the event included a few recognizable faces such as WSB anchor Sophia Choi, former CNN anchors Thomas Roberts and Daryn Kagan and current CNN correspondent Ryan Young. But a bulk of the attendees were rank and file, the producers, the photojournalists, the writers who made CNN and its sister operations such as CNN Headline News, CNN.com, CNN en Español and CNN International tick the past 43 years.
There was also CNN executive Rick Davis, the network’s longest-running original Atlanta employee who helped turn the lights on in 1980 and retired in 2021. He rubbed shoulders with photojournalist David Rust, who also worked at CNN for more than 40 years traveling the world and hitting all seven continents. Rust is the unofficial CNN historian who voluntarily set up multiple tables of CNN memorabilia such as Larry King’s suspenders, Christiane Amanpour’s 1991 laptop and a baseball bat thrown into his CNN van during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Credit: RODNEY HO/rhoajc
Credit: RODNEY HO/rhoajc
Former CNN photographer Tyrone Edwards (1982-1997) came to the event with a strip of ribbon he saved after shooting the ceremonial ribbon-cutting opening of CNN Center back in 1987.
“I look at CNN as an ethos more than a brand,” said Edwards, who now runs his own production company. “CNN people have the ability to get things done. I often hire CNN alums for that reason.”
Pamela Sellers, a booking and segment producer from 1997 to 2012, flew in from New York City to pay homage to the import CNN played in her life.
“I was there when Ted Turner announced his billion dollar stock donation to the United Nations,” Sellers said. “I was in an executive conference room for an editorial meeting when I felt my daughter kick for the first time when I was pregnant. We were encouraged to have families and share our personal lives. Weddings. Big parties. Baby showers. Cakes in the newsroom all the time.”
CNN’s new Atlanta home at the Techwood campus will be significantly smaller and not readily available to the public the way the old space was. And as has been the case for at least a decade, CNN key executives are now based in New York City, not Atlanta, which is essentially a back-office operation to its new owners Warner Bros. Discovery and not considered headquarters anymore.
“I realize times have changed,” said Tony Harris (2004-2010), a former CNN anchor who gazed at the CNN sign perhaps for the last time. “But we are all here because we still want CNN to succeed.”
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.