Interview by Casey Hilder
Feature | January 2014
Robert Pittman has had a hand in nearly every major media milestone of the past 40 years. As current CEO of Clear Channel Communications, former head of AOL and co-founder of MTV, few can deny the prominence of this former small-town Mississippi radio announcer. Next month, Pittman is scheduled to be honored at the 14th annual Crystal Ball Gala, the largest annual fundraiser of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.
CM: When you come back home, what’s the first thing you do?
RP: When I step off the plane, I go straight for the fried catfish or barbecue. Of course, when I eat all that catfish and barbecue and come home from a weekend in Mississippi, I usually find that I’ve gained about five pounds — but it’s worth it.
CM: Have your beginnings in Mississippi, the poorest state in the union, shaped your outlook on business?
RP: It certainly has. My dad was a minister there and he spent a lifetime working with those sorts of issues – helping the community and community outreach. My earliest memories are collecting clothes and cans for a local house that had burned down. It was very much a grassroots community-driven effort to help the neighbors. I lived through the civil rights movement, which was a major transition that happened right down here in Mississippi. That definitely influenced my view of what responsibilities we all should have. However, I will say this; rural poverty is much different from urban poverty. There are different issues and different ways to deal with them. But I do know what correlates with every instance of poverty and that is education.
CM: What role would you say philanthropy should play in corporations such as Clear Channel? What kind of social responsibility do you believe a corporation should have?
RP: I’d say every person and every company, not just corporations, has a responsibility as a community member to make the community better. I think you often find that all sides have different views of what’s important. For example, Clear Channel has probably donated about $100 million of airtime in our effort to build the Show Your Stripes campaign which, on a local level, helps returning vets who need a job find work with local companies. It’s been hugely successful and, I believe, tremendously important. However, we also deal in areas of poverty, literacy, obesity and other issues that face our country as a whole through the Robin Hood Foundation. When it comes to larger issues facing our country like education, I think there’s more to it than what you can expect the government to do – I think all of us have that responsibility. I would even argue that most private citizens should play that role – those who have should help others.
CM: What are your thoughts on the future of terrestrial radio?
RP: I think it’s remarkable that out of all the businesses out there based around technology, radio is the one that’s really kept its relationship with the consumers and I think a lot of that is because radio was the original social media. When I was on the radio, we had the request line where people called in and asked for dedications. In the early days, we also had Swap Shop on the air, where people called in to trade toothpicks for a bicycle. I think all of these things have put radio in a good position. And now with digital coming along through iHeartRadio and other products, you can not only listen to us through the FM radio but also online. The opportunities for people keeping radio with them are out there more than ever. In comparison to TV, I think radio isn’t a set group of programs; it’s more of a companion. It’s a very powerful relationship with a lot of responsibilities and I think radio’s done a spectacular job at that so far. I see nothing but good news for radio in the future for both terrestrial and online radio. The two feed each other and that’s good for the business.
CM: Do you have any particular radio favorites that you tune into daily?
RP: I listen to the morning man in New York City, Elvis Duran, on Z100. Occasionally, I’ll go on iHeartRadio and listen to Ryan Seacrest on the West Coast on our big Los Angeles station, KISS FM. On the weekends, I usually just dial around iHeartRadio and get a good sampling of our stations. The wonderful thing about radio is that if you want to get a good sense of what’s going on in any given city, all you need to do is listen to their radio stations. When I was younger, I would listen to WLS in Chicago and listen to stories of blizzards in the Windy City and all the stars coming to town. I got a little taste of Chicago while living in a small town in rural Mississippi.
CM: How have you personally had to change the way you think about doing business over the years?
RP: I think technology has accelerated communication—not just in how we manage businesses, but more importantly, how we keep in touch with customers. It’s gone from a lot of guesswork in the ‘70s to a lot more directed research in the ‘80s and ‘90s; and now, 13 years into the new century, we’re able to get direct contact with our consumers and give them a sort of pipeline right back to us. I don’t think there are many companies out there who don’t want to serve their consumers, but I think it’s hard to know how to do so when you’re sitting in the corporate headquarters. I think social media, email, texting and the Internet can give the customer a lot of information about us and has been very beneficial in serving the consumer better, which is ultimately what every business is about.
CM: Are there any current major corporations or business leaders who you hold a particular admiration for because of their model/methods?
RP: There are a lot of corporations that speak for themselves. You look on the tech side at Google and Facebook, who have been leaders in innovation and connecting consumers. In my day, AOL really claimed that role. If you look to the TV business, you’re looking at a transition toward consumers wanting On-Demand viewing and companies responding to those requests. I hope that we’re also seen as one of those companies that are known for high integrity and listening to the consumer well. CM: Any advice to up-and-coming entrepreneurs out there who hope to be the next Robert Pittman?RP: Well, I’m not sure if I’m the person they should model themselves after, but I think if someone out there is trying to get a start, the important thing is to listen to your customer. Also, spend as little money as you have to because you’ll need way more than you thought you would. And you’ve got to be willing to work 24-hour days, seven days a week to bring the passion and commitment to your idea to make it happen.