Pittman Gives Into Temptation; Takes Over As Clear Channel CEO

It seemed like a no brainer back in November. If Bob Pittman was willing to return to radio after forays at MTV, AOL (NYSE: AOL), Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) and his investment group, why stop at chairman of media and entertainment platforms for Clear Channel? (OTCBB: CCMO) Mark Mays was already set to step down as CEO and Pittman, who started in radio at 15, would be an obvious replacement.

But Pittman, who also invested in Clear Channel, only planned to work part time. It didn’t work out that way.

Effective immediately, Pittman is CEO of CC Media Holdings; Mays remains chairman. Pittman will join the boards of CC Media Holdings and Clear Channel Communications, Inc.; he also will serve on the board of Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, Inc., as executive chairman. (More details in the release.)

He’ll stay with The Pilot Group, his private investment firm. His investments include The Huffington Post (sold to AOL), DailyCandy (sold to Comcast) and Zynga. Pittman initially invested $5 million in Clear Channel.

The Clear Channel promotion puts him in charge of 850 CC stations in 150 cities with a monthly reach of 159 million; Premier Radio Networks syndication that reaches another 4,000 stations; Clear Channel Digital; media services including the Katz Media Group; and 1 million or so displays in 40 countries including airports and Times Square. The company was taken private by Thomas H. Lee and Bain Capital Partners in 2008 for $17.9 billion.

For the past 11 months, Pittman has focused on working with Clear Channel Radio CEO John Hogan to shift Clear Channel from a radio company with digital to one perceived as a media and entertainment company. They acquired cloud-based music service Thumbplay Music to integrate the technology into IHeartRadion, the digital radio service that lets listeners tune in to Clear Channel stations across the country.

The new version of IHeartRadio, designed to compete with Pandora (NYSE: P) and other music services, launched late last month with a Las Vegas music festival billed as the largest live concert event for radio. (Previous digital head Evan Harrison initiated the IHeartRadio — then known as iheartradio –streaming strategy, including the first apps.)

When I sat down with Pittman in his mid-Manhattan offices for a long chat this summer, he talked about taking one what was supposed to be a part-time job. “I’m so into this I can’t even stand it. A month in, my wife said, ‘you’re not working part time. You’re working harder than you ever did at Time Warmer.’ I said, yeah, but I’m enjoying myself.”

Why Clear Channel? “They’re three times the size of the next largest radio company. They’re bigger than the biggest TV networks. They rival the big internet players in the U.S. for reach…. and they’ve got these big brands.”

Pittman is all about matching brand and convenience. “I’ve always said I can only be in a consumer-facing business ’cause my only real skill is reading consumers. It’s amazing when you think about the consumer that’s actually the same human being whether I’m trying to sell them a house, trying to get them to subscribe to AOL, getting them to listen to MTV, getting them to listen to radio — whatever it was, it’s always the same human being.”

Those same human beings fall in love with brands. “The only time they’ll consider other brands is when their brand isn’t there.”

He added, “The second thing consumers do is they’ll always go for convenience. If you can figure out a more convenient product, you’ll win, a better product doesn’t necessarily win. That’s one of the arguments I always have with developers. ‘Is it one less click?’ ‘No, it’s one more but it’s better.’ We’re not going to do that.”

He has been CEO of MTV Networks; AOL Networks; Six Flags Theme Parks; and Century 21 Real Estate, among others, and COO of America Online and AOL Time Warner.

“Every business I’ve been in it’s all about that. That guides me and drives me, and it’s the prism I use. Knock on wood, it has not failed me yet.”