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Facetime: Clear Channel exec plays up traditional radio's stability

Bob Pittman says the nation's largest radio broadcaster can afford to invest in building its online audience, despite slow-growing digital distribution revenue.

May 05, 2011|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times
  • Bob and Veronique Pittman attend the 2009 Whitney Museum Gala at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Bob and Veronique Pittman attend the 2009 Whitney Museum Gala at the Whitney… (Jemal Countess, Getty Images )

Bob Pittman, best known for his stints as the founder of MTV, the president of AOL Inc. when it was still called American Online, and the chief executive of Six Flags Entertainment Corp., has coasted over to Clear Channel Communications Inc. as the radio conglomerate's chairman of media and entertainment platforms.

For the 57-year-old New York-based executive, the move in November to the nation's largest radio broadcaster was not so much a stretch into yet another entertainment medium as a return to his roots.

Pittman started his career at age 15 as a radio announcer of his hometown station in Brookhaven, Miss., to pay for his flying lessons. He went on to program radio stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago and, at the ripe age of 23, New York for WNBC-AM, then NBC's flagship radio station.

Between his media stints, Pittman served a brief tenure as chief executive of Century 21 Real Estate in 1995 and 1996.

But his passion has always been in entertainment and technology, which he indulged in as an investor and a founder of the Pilot Group, a New York private investment firm that had stakes in start-ups such as Web video producer Next New Networks Inc., social gaming company Zynga Inc. and music blog Stereogum.

Pittman also made a personal, minority investment of $5 million in Clear Channel in November, when he took on an executive role at the privately owned San Antonio-based company. In a recent interview with The Times, Pittman talked about what he's doing to bring the traditional radio company into the digital age, online radio and whether he thinks Pandora Media Inc. is a threat.

How is traditional radio doing in the digital age?

The perception out there is that radio is somehow in trouble. The reality is that we have the same percentage of the population listening to radio, at 93%, as we did in 1970 when it was 92%. It's not declining. Clear Channel reaches 237 million listeners a month, and that doesn't include our online listeners.

What do you think of Pandora, Slacker and all the online radio stations that are grabbing so many ears these days?

Pandora is not really radio in that it's not curated. It's more like a playlist that you put on shuffle. They don't have local information or local personalities. That said, Pandora is a nice feature. When I was at AOL, we had Instant Messenger. It was a nice feature, too. But it remains to be seen whether Pandora can be a free-standing business model.

So, what's it going to take to make money online?

The problem is that advertising comes slowly to any new medium or product. When I was at MTV, we projected $10 million in ad revenue for the first year. We did $500,000 and almost went out of business. Coca-Cola did not advertise with us for the first five years. That's how slow advertisers are to warm up to new media. It was the same thing at AOL. But over time, it will grow.

What's Clear Channel's plan for making money off of digital distribution?

Our strategy is to be where the listeners are. They're on the Web. They're on Facebook. They're on Twitter. They're on their tablets and cellphones. And so are we. Radio is truly America's companion, wherever they happen to be.

We have roughly 30 million unique visitors each month to our online radio stations. Pandora has 25-plus million. The good news is that we have billions of dollars in advertising revenue from our terrestrial radio business. So even though it's not big business now, we can afford to invest and grow our online audience. We have the deep pockets to wait it out.

Clear Channel bought Thumbplay, a digital music subscription service, in February. Any more acquisitions on the horizon?

We're going to first look at our consumers and ask what they want. Then we ask ourselves, do we make it, do we buy it, or do we partner with another company to provide that? In Thumbplay's case, we decided to buy it. With iHeartRadio, our iPad app that lets people listen to our 750 digital radio stations, we built it. And later this summer, we'll be adding a feature that will let our users build custom radio stations just like they do with Pandora.

alex.pham@latimes.com

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