Home shopping pioneer Roy Speer dies at 80

The interactive shopping pioneer's efforts in the early 1980s led to today's TV giant HSN.
Published August 21 2012
Updated August 21 2012

NEW PORT RICHEY — Roy Speer, who co-founded what is now the television shopping giant HSN, died Sunday after a long illness, according to family friends and news accounts. He was 80.

The interactive shopping that Mr. Speer pioneered began almost by accident, multiplied beyond all expectations and turned the once-kitschy purveyor of star-shaped ice cube trays and racy playing cards into an industry standard. It catapulted Mr. Speer, a lawyer-turned-developer with myriad business interests, onto the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.

The man who engineered the Pinellas County company's financial success has been described as brash and abrasive, a burly man with an intimidating management style who ruled the Home Shopping Network for 16 years with an iron fist.

Over the years, Mr. Speer had worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for the city of St. Petersburg, an assistant state attorney and utility company owner. He had run a beauty parlor, a boat dealership and developed homes.

But it was a failing radio station on Hercules Avenue in Clearwater that turned him into a very rich man.

Robert Circosta, known to listeners of WWQT-AM 1470 as "Budget Bob," remembers the day he sold the first item for a radio show called Suncoast Bargaineers that would later morph into HSN: an electric can opener.

The station, owned by Mr. Speer and Lowell "Bud" Paxson, acquired the 112 can openers from a merchant who could not pay an advertising bill.

"It was all built on a relationship between the host and the viewer and the product," said Circosta, 62. "Our role was to tie it all together."

The relationship at the top between Paxson, the marketer, and Mr. Speer, the lawyer with connections and know-how, drove the new model forward. The can openers sold to customers who heard them described on the radio. In 1981, the company bought local-access cable, the Home Shopping Channel.

"This was a brand-new idea, that people would see something on television instead of walking into a store or looking at a catalog," said Sam McClelland, a former radio talk-show host who worked at the company's first television studio in the 1980s.

With so much demand, the bosses called a meeting in which Mr. Speer spoke.

"He said, 'We're sitting on an oil well, and we're sucking it up with a soda straw. We need to build a derrick,' " McClelland recalled. "I'll never forget that."

The company went national in 1985, broadcasting 24 hours a day as the Home Shopping Club. It debuted on the American Stock Exchange the next year as the Home Shopping Network.

Though running a public company now, Mr. Speer maintained his reputation as a tight-fisted owner. The company's management style rubbed some employees the wrong way, resulting in 14 complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over three years.

"I don't like people, I like machines," Mr. Speer told the Washington Post in 1988. "Machines don't call in sick. Machines don't form unions. Machines don't file EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) suits."

In 1993, Mr. Speer resigned as chairman of Home Shopping Network, having sold controlling interest in the company. In 1994, a federal grand jury closed an inquiry into alleged financial misconduct at Home Shopping Network without any indictments.

Roy Merrill Speer Jr. was born in Key West. He graduated from Stetson University in DeLand and Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. He married Lynnda Short in 1960.

At age 30, he ran for mayor of St. Petersburg, but was disqualified because he had not met a residency requirement. He responded with a lawsuit, but lost. In 1965, he was appointed as an assistant state attorney, but left that job two years later.

"I don't have the personality for politics," he said in 1988. "You have to be very conciliatory. You have to tell everybody what they want to hear."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.