In a Shifting Media Landscape, Radio Remains

by Emily Kelleher

December 7, 2017

iHeartMedia executives visit Newhouse, discuss how they revitalized a century-old medium.

When Bob Pittman, CEO and chairman of iHeartMedia, and John Sykes ’77, Newhouse alumnus and president of iHeartMedia Entertainment Enterprisers, came to campus Nov. 16 to speak to students, there was supposed to be a video introducing them. However, there were technical difficulties, and the video didn’t play. The pair reassured the crowd that the same thing had happened in their office just two nights before, only that time it was Justin Timberlake they were hosting, and it was his new record that wouldn’t play.

Pittman and Sykes are no strangers to thinking quickly and coming up with innovative solutions. They stressed embracing new ideas and maintaining a sense of restlessness.

The pair co-founded MTV in the 80s, and now run iHeartMedia, a brand that reaches a quarter of a billion users monthly under their leadership. To them, radio is more than music. It’s companionship.

“The reason we play music on 75 percent of our stations is because if a great friend was riding in the car, what would they do? Probably be playing music, and talking about it, and talking about everything going on in the world,” said Pittman. 

It’s why, despite a rapidly changing industry, 93 percent of Americans continue to listen to radio each week, according to Sykes.

Pittman and Sykes attribute radio’s continued popularity to the way audio requires listeners to paint their own pictures in their head in a way that TV doesn’t. Pittman asked the audience to imagine dinner last night, or their best friend from high school. “Everybody is thinking of something with an emotional attachment,” he said. “As soon as we cast one person, no one in this room will relate to it. With radio…we’re tapping into your own memories and your own emotional attachments.”

When Pittman arrived at what was then Clear Channel Communications, the company owned radio stations scattered across the country. He realized the company reached more users than either Google or Facebook, but lacked the cohesion and name recognition of an overarching brand. Pittman and Sykes unified the satellite stations under the brand iHeartMedia, which now encompasses seven network TV shows, a subscription service, award-winning podcasts and an app. They compared the rebranding to one they once did with Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Corporation, now known as MTV.

When it came to MTV, Pittman and Sykes weren’t afraid to break the rules. They knew they wanted to show Michael Jackson’s music videos, but Jackson’s label insisted they pay for the videos. Hesitant to set a precedent of paying for music videos, Pittman and Sykes came up with the idea to create a “making of” video for “Thriller,” which ended up paying for the music video itself. “Thriller” became so popular that they ran it at the top of every hour, effectively putting MTV on the map. Pittman summed up his business philosophy saying, “What really makes a business grow are insights and epiphanies.”

Because of the 858 satellite stations under its umbrella, iHeartMedia is in a unique position to provide personalized, localized content to its millions of customers. Pittman referenced an ad campaign they did when Small Business Saturdays, a campaign aimed at getting people to shop at small businesses, was first launched. iHeartMedia recruited real, local small business people from the towns surrounding the stations to appear in ads. In the end, Pittman said, they had 850 different ads representing each of the different dialects and languages represented in the communities iHeartMedia serves.

“Our business model is pretty simple,” Pittman said. “We create engaged relationships with consumers… Some people call that advertising.”

Sykes and Pittman also gave advice to students entering the workforce.

“When you do have something you believe the consumer will connect with, what you don’t do is give up,” Sykes said. “People will say no to you because they’re the conventional wisdom people who are thinking you’re too young, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Pittman stressed speed over perfection, arguing it’s better to get a product out there and tweak it later than spend more time getting every last detail down and risking a competitor beating you to the punch.

Both men agreed that technology should be used as a tool to stay relevant. 

“I was amazed at Newhouse 2, at all the things you’ve done, with drones and VR, to be on the edge. Take those things, play with them, crash them into walls, constantly question things,” said Sykes.

Pittman recalled being in a meeting when the CD was first introduced to him, after it had been released in Japan but before it became mainstream in the U.S. The company lawyers wanted to keep it off the market, because they said it was “master quality” and didn’t want to risk people ripping the songs digitally and putting them on the internet for free.

The lawyers didn’t get what they wanted.

“Technology always wins,” Sykes said, as Pittman pointed out that when Napster came along, record labels fought it instead of embracing it, but in the end, music was free.

“And one more thing,” Sykes said. “You’re in a magical place. As I look back I always say, of all our MTV days, our iHeart days, the four greatest years were really here. Take advantage of this amazing place called Newhouse, it will take you great places.” 

Emily Kelleher is a sophomore magazine major at the Newhouse School and a political science major at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.