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Turner jokes with telecom crowd

Ted Turner addresses attendees at a tech conference, hinting that he may remain on the AOL Time Warner board and joking about selling his plane due to financial losses.

NEW ORLEANS--Ted Turner regaled a telecommunications industry crowd for about an hour here Wednesday, hinting again that he may stay on at AOL Time Warner as a board member and joking that he may have to sell his plane thanks to a steep decline in his net worth.

"I'm not going to make a decision until after I talk with the board tomorrow," Turner said during an address on the last day of the CTIA Wireless 2003 conference here. "But I'm leaning towards staying. I'd hate to leave them just as the war is going to start. I don't run."

Turner's decision could have a dramatic effect on the future of AOL Time Warner, the product of a merger he described Wednesday as so painful "I'd rather go back and be with one of my ex-wives than go through this one. It's a fascinating story of how to do everything wrong."

Turner announced in January he would resign as vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, but left in the air his future on the board. Although Turner has wielded little day-to-day influence in the company since the merger, he has considerable clout as the largest individual shareholder, having reportedly helped oust former Chairman Steve Case, who is still on the company's board, and former CEO Gerald Levin.

Turner's comments Wednesday followed similar remarks he made Tuesday during an interview at a New York breakfast event. On Thursday, AOL Time Warner's board will meet to finalize its slate of directors for shareholder approval. Included on the list will be Case.

Turner enthusiastically signed off on the merger when it was announced in January 2000, but has since come to regret the deal, expressing deep disappointment with it and openly criticizing its key architects, namely Case and Levin.

"The timing was terrible, the merger was at the height of the market, and Time Warner was in enough businesses already to make it completely bewildering."

Turner said he entered into the merger despite misgivings. "I didn't have enough pieces to win the game by myself," he said.

"The Mouth of the South" touched on a wide range subjects, describing how he picks up trash while walking on Manhattan streets and saying he would not buy the Atlanta Braves baseball team if given the opportunity to do so again.

As for his net worth, he said he's down to "a little over a billion dollars...I'm adjusting, I'm mentally prepared to sell my airplane."

Should he stay on at AOL Time Warner, Turner will remain subject to stock restrictions that could limit his financial flexibility.

In February, he sold 462,600 common shares for about $5 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Turner, who has said he lost $7 billion to $8 billion since the merger, also gifted an additional 270,270 shares on Feb. 5. The filing did not name the recipient. Turner has numerous philanthropic commitments, including a pledge of stock to the United Nations that was valued at $1 billion at the time it was first offered, but that has since declined in value.

Turner reflected on how his own cable television network, CNN, spawned several copycat 24-hour news networks, including one created by mogul Rupert Murdoch. "I'd like to poke Rupert Murdoch in the nose. There's no love lost between us," he said.

He also made a deal with the audience members. Turner's recent investments include a chain of restaurants called Ted's Montana Grill, which serves buffalo, and the movie "Gods and Generals"; both are now money-losing ventures.

"I'll use your cell phones, if you eat at my restaurants," he said. "I'm going lose a lot on 'Gods and Generals,' so go see it and I'll be able to use my cell phone a little more."