Turner was born in 1938 in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States, the son of Florence (née Rooney) and Robert Edward Turner II, a billboard magnate. When he was nine, his family moved to Savannah, Georgia. He attended The McCallie School, a private boys' preparatory school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Turner attended Brown University and was vice-president of the Brown Debating Union and captain of the sailing team. He became a member of Kappa Sigma. Turner initially majored in Classics. Turner's father wrote saying that his choice made him "appalled, even horrified," and that he "almost puked." Turner later changed his major to Economics, but before receiving a diploma, he was expelled for having a female student in his dormitory room. Turner was awarded an honorary B.A. from Brown University in November 1989 when he returned to campus to keynote the National Association of College Broadcasters second annual conference.