MTV Founder Bob Pittman Is Our First Media Visionary

Clear Channel CEO's many incarnations make him a jack of all media

Bob Pittman | Photo: Gavin Bond

Bob Pittman had no intention of putting lipstick on a pig. The native Southerner and C-suite veteran, who was semi-retired a few years ago and overseeing private equity firm Pilot Group, was looking for a canny investment, a hidden gem with undiscovered value and untapped potential. He didn’t want a flabby firm that he’d need to dress up to hide its inherent flaws.

So Pittman ended up staking $5 million into radio behemoth Clear Channel, with its 850 local stations around the country—including top-rated KIIS-FM in Los Angeles and Z100 in New York—as well as a global outdoor advertising division and digital properties.

That investment turned out to be the first step in yet another phase of his long and distinguished media career. Pittman went from investor to consultant—as in, “I told them I’d help out part-time”—to chairman and CEO of Clear Channel Communications. The move came as a surprise to many industry watchers but was a homecoming of sorts for Pittman, who, at 15, started his long media career as a small-town radio announcer in Mississippi.

“I wasn’t going to do this again,” Pittman—who this year was selected as the first ever Adweek Hot List Media Visionary—says of his 2011 return to a top corporate gig. “But I just thought, Oh my God, look at these assets. Think of what you can do with all that.”

It didn’t matter that Clear Channel, syndicated home to right-wing commentators Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, suffered from an image problem and had none of the sex appeal of music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. In fact, that was a major draw to Pittman, a media pioneer who, in his 20s, led the original team that launched MTV. He later spearheaded turnarounds at Century 21 real estate and Six Flags theme parks before becoming COO at the ill-fated AOL Time Warner. That exotic résumé prompted his former MTV colleague Tom Freston to describe him as a “jack of all trades” who’s been “reincarnated so many times he’s like Buddha.”

Since radio in general and Clear Channel in particular have been contented “to sit at the kid’s table for no good reason,” Pittman says he felt it was high time to lead the charge, becoming a cheerleader for a medium that was vital at its core but rough around the edges. “Many businesses have a better reputation than the facts would suggest,” Pittman argues. “Clear Channel had better facts than reputation. I love a business like this.”

Evangelism came with the territory and, coincidentally, has always come easily for Pittman, the smooth-talking son of a Methodist minister. Lately he’s been spreading the radio gospel at trade conferences, tech gatherings and investor groups, hammering home its value as an advertising tool and trying to snag a bigger share of marketers’ budgets. Calling it “the last real-time, mass-market medium” and “America’s companion,” Pittman preaches about radio’s reach (92 percent of Americans listen to the radio, the same as in 1970), its return on investment (which he calls “spectacular”) and its future (hint: it’s multiplatform).

Even Clear Channel’s $20 billion debt load, from a leveraged buyout in 2008, didn’t dissuade him. The company, which generated $6.3 billion in revenue in 2013, recently negotiated a multiyear extension on its debt payments.

One of Pittman’s lieutenants, John Sykes, says the energy at Clear Channel these days is familiar to him, but from a completely different context. “I feel the same spirit, the same drive to carve out a brand-new business as I did with him at MTV 34 years ago,” explains Sykes, brought in by Pittman to run the newly created Clear Channel Entertainment Enterprises. “Only this time, it’s on top of a very old, traditional one, an incredibly powerful medium.”

They had no wind at their backs at MTV, Sykes remembers, still they fervently believed the music channel would catch on. Clear Channel’s advantage is its scope and reach. Its owned stations cover 100 cities, and Premiere Radio Networks blankets 100 more on some 5,000 stations. Talent like Ryan Seacrest and Elvis Duran draw millions. Its rapidly growing iHeartRadio audio service, free app, live events and TV business all expand the audience. “Bob has said, ‘Don’t think of it as 850 radio stations, towers and transmitters—think of it as 240 million consumers a month,’” says Sykes.

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