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Bill Paley, man who made CBS, dies at 89

William S. Paley, the cigarmaker's son who bought a radio network for $400,000 in 1928 and turned it into CBS Inc., died late Friday night. Paley, 89, died at his Manhattan home.

He controlled the Columbia Broadcasting System for more than half a century as president or board chairman of its radio and television networks and its film, publishing, recording and other subsidiaries.

His television network played both to conscience and the average American, becoming the video showcase for Edward R. Murrow and Jack Benny, Walter Cronkite and Archie Bunker, Eric Sevareid and I Love Lucy.

More than a decade after typical retirement age, he was still reporting for work at his sumptuous office atop "Black Rock," the black marble-faced tower in midtown Manhattan housing CBS headquarters. He gave final approval to all major policy decisions.

In April 1983, he turned control of CBS Inc. over to Thomas H. Wyman. Wyman, only the second chairman in the company's history, had been president and chief executive officer since 1980; he announced Paley would stay on as a consultant, director and chairman of the board of directors' executive committee.

"Bill Paley not only created this company, he created much of the broadcasting industry," Wyman said at the time. "And to it, he brought an extraordinarily sensitive stewardship characterized by creativity, energy, integrity, style, wit and an enormous sense of the public interest."

But when CBS's biggest stockholder, Loew's Corp., became unhappy with Wyman's policies, Paley teamed with Loew's Chairman Lawrence Tisch in 1986 to retake control, Paley as chairman and Tisch as president and chief executive officer.

Paley had hand-picked a series of heirs apparent in his later years, and had no compunction about dumping them when he felt they didn't measure up to the man they were supposed to replace.

One of these, John Backe, who was president and chief executive officer of CBS for four years until early 1980, later described Paley's method of dealing with his immediate subordinates.

"He always asked a lot of questions at meetings," Backe said. "He was capable of great charm, and when he knew what was going on, he could ask very good questions.

"When he didn't, he used the devil's advocate role to take people off base. He'd keep asking questions, until finally you gave up."

Paley acknowledged that he was a "kibitzer," who would take positions he didn't believe in "to encourage debate." He also admitted, in his 1979 autobiography, As It Happened, that perhaps he didn't praise and compliment subordinates often enough.

"I like to believe, however, that they understand me and know how I feel about them," he wrote.

Paley became almost as towering a figure in New York society as in broadcasting, with the help of his second wife, "Babe," the former Barbara Cushing, one of the three daughters of a famed Boston neurosurgeon, Dr. Harvey Cushing. Her sisters became Mrs. Vincent Astor and Mrs. John Hay Whitney.