Chris Anderson: The new media mogul of TED

New media mogul Chris Anderson's acquisition of TED turned the conferencing organisation from a playground of the elite to the Glastonbury of the intellect.

Rupert Murdoch's old empire may be under siege. But one former hack has been building a very different one. Magazine mogul Chris Anderson, 53, is the self-styled curator' of TED, the Technology Entertainment and Design global conferences that were started over 20 years ago to talk about "ideas worth spreading". And how they have spread. TED Talks, with its short sermons' 18-minute talks delivered by experts in their fields on everything from neuroscience to creativity has just racked up 500 million views on YouTube.

"In the month when the News of the World folded, Anderson has demonstrated there's an enormous and still largely untapped appetite for actual news of the actual world," says Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian. In many ways, Anderson is "the anti-Murdoch'. Not least because few people have heard of him."

Born in Pakistan in 1957 to medical missionaries, Anderson boarded at schools in India and Bath. A physics course at Oxford followed, from where he graduated in 1978 in politics, philosophy and economics. His journalism career progressed from local papers to producing a world news service in the Seychelles to editing early computer magazines. Then in 1985 he launched a publishing company Future devoted initially to hobbyist computer magazines. His audience loved them and later he expanded the format into areas as diverse as cycling, music, video games and design. Anderson sold Future to Pearson for £53m in 1994, but he was brought back in 1998 when venture capitalists Apax acquired it for £142m. Meanwhile, he was busy building up a US media empire, Imagine Media, which at one time boasted 130 titles and 1,500 employees. By 2001, Anderson had made his money. He decided to join TED.

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Here, "the real revolution happened in 2006", when Anderson and his team decided to "give all of their content away on the internet for free", says Patrick Pittman for Dumbo Feather magazine. "A conference often described as a fascinating, elitist playground of ideas for the privileged became a radical force for the spread of innovation. Its audience spiralled into the hundreds of millions."

Anderson himself is less polished than some of his TED presenters, says The Sunday Times. "One interviewer noted that Anderson... appeared more flushed with embarrassment than success'." But there's no doubting his passion. As he tells Pittman, the "mass media has let us down... the conversation there has gotten hijacked [by] the dramatic or the confrontational or celebrity gossip, and there are actually millions of people out there hungry to learn, who believe in the possibility of a better future, and... that they might even play a role in shaping it." With his latest initiative a database of learning resources that can be used in any classroom in the world he's aiming to help them achieve that goal.

How he turned lectures into an internet hit

TED conferences have been taking place since the early 1990s. Historically, they were where the great and the good could get together to become inspired by revolutionary thinkers and also by each other. But after Anderson and his not-for-profit Sapling Foundation took over the reins in 2001, TED changed radically. Being launched online has turned TED Talks into the "Glastonbury of the intellect", says Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian, "a festival of ideas and an international thinkers' forum that's become an internet sensation". No wonder, with presenters such as Bill Clinton, Gordon Brown and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates gracing the stage. Winners of the TED prize, who've been given $100,000 and a "wish to change the world", include Bono and Jamie Oliver.

Anderson has added a much needed commercial touch. "Radical openness pays," is how Anderson himself described it to a group of design graduates at Harvard earlier this year,reports Harvard Magazine. For the privilege of savouring next year's TED conference in Edinburgh, aspiring attendees will have to shell out a minimum of $6,000 each. Even then, you're not guaranteed to get in. "We're looking for people who are likely to be a strong contributor to the TED community through their energy, influence and connections," says the application page. "Set aside an uninterrupted hour to fill out the form and pay special attention to your favourite websites and your personal references we follow up on these."

It's all pretty didactic. So is TED at risk of going over the top or turning into a "religion"? asks Cadwalladr. "Attendees... check their cynicism in at the door, and standing ovations at TED seem at times like mandatory acts of obeisance rather than spontaneous moments of appreciation." But Anderson won't worry. As The Sunday Times says, with TED becoming the "Facebook for smart people, the web can't get enough".