James Mahlon Rupp grew up 60 miles from Rigby, Idaho, where a decade earlier an inventor from that small town created the first electronic image pickup device — the television.
“He had television in his blood from day one,” said Rupp’s daughter, Sandra.
Rupp would go on to be a television pioneer in his own right, creating 24-hour news, sports and weather channels for Minnesota and the Upper Midwest while leading WCCO to become one of the top stations in the country.
He died on Dec. 28 at age 83.
Rupp grew up in a Mormon family, one of four kids raised by a father who was schooled in hard knocks and who taught the value of hard work. At age 9 he started delivering and selling newspapers, a job he kept through college at Idaho State University. He met his wife there, and went on a honeymoon where they appeared as contestants on “Name That Tune.”
He had his own college radio show for a time, with the stage name of Jim Sapphire. But with his sales and marketing skills, his daughter Sandra said he realized he’d be better behind the microphone.
He started work at Arbitron, one of the first companies to track ratings. He rose to vice president, traveling the country meeting station owners and managers. That led to a job as general manager of Cox Communications, which ran TV and radio stations in 13 markets across the country, including Miami and San Francisco.
In 1978, he met famed Omaha investor Warren Buffett, who led him to a job as president and CEO of Midwest Communications, which at the time owned WCCO radio and TV.
As a family-owned company, Midwest Communications didn’t have much capital to be aggressive in the market.
Rupp got creative. He started a 24-hour news show for the Upper Midwest, competing with CNN. He started a round-the-clock weather channel before a national one was created. He was one of the first to use satellites to beam the station’s content to other outlets. He created a Midwest sports channel that would eventually become Fox Sports North.
He was one of the first to get into cable television, and later satellite radio. He led WCCO to consistently top the ratings, bringing in syndicated shows that the channel still airs today — “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” He was also one of the first to air the syndicated “Oprah Winfrey Show.” He would later serve on the board of King World, which distributes those shows.
He became so influential in television that at one point the entire “60 Minutes” team flew into Minneapolis to have dinner with him. He hosted Phil Donahue for dinner at his Minnetonka home.
When WCCO formed its investigative team, Rupp backed it when the family owners questioned its value, said William Craig, who worked for Rupp.
“Jim was a visionary,” Craig said. “He was just trying stuff to see if it worked.”
He brought his Midwestern sensibilities to the jobs, Craig said. He called himself a Jack Mormon, because he liked to drink liquor and smoke cigars.
His business demeanor was always confident and professional, which brought that out in the people who worked for him, said Everett Klosterman, who worked as Rupp’s CFO.
“If he told you something, you could believe it,” Klosterman said. “He was a man of integrity.”
Rupp retired in 1992 after CBS bought WCCO.
He is survived by his wife, Sharon; daughters Julene Adell Rupp Dasher of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Sandra Kay Rupp of Naples, Fla.; and a son, Steven James Rupp of Minnetonka. Services have been held.