The most wanted man on the planet
Fired as chief of Viacom, Tom Freston took off on a nonstop global adventure. Now he's helping Oprah to start a new TV network and Bono to save the world.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Where in the world is Tom Freston? A lot of people have been asking that question ever since the day in September 2006 when Freston fell off the face of the media world.
One of those people, Oprah Winfrey, didn't wait long to find out. Just a few weeks after Sumner Redstone, the octogenarian chairman of Viacom (VIA), had abruptly removed Freston as CEO, Winfrey found him - in Burma. She had never met the man, but she knew his reputation as a talent magnet who had built MTV and Nickelodeon into two of the most widely distributed cable networks on earth. She had heard about Freston's farewell: At least 1,500 employees at Viacom's Times Square headquarters, upon learning that their former boss had returned to clean out his office, crammed the lobby and spilled onto the sidewalks, shouting, "Tom! Tom!"
"I'd love to meet you," Winfrey told Freston when she reached him on his cellphone half a world away. She invited him to visit her at her 42-acre estate in Montecito, Calif., outside Santa Barbara. "He walked in the door, and I said, 'Cool,'" says Winfrey, recalling the morning he showed up. "I liked his spiky hair. I liked his loafers. Everything about him was cool."
She cooked him breakfast (scrambled eggs with cheese) and decided then and there that she wanted him to be CEO of Harpo, her media conglomerate. "I didn't phrase it that way because I could tell he was reluctant to commit to anything," Winfrey tells Fortune. "He was relieved to roam the world and be his own man." Ever since, though, Winfrey has been tracking Freston around the globe, gently pressing him to work with her, and hoping he will help her build the next (and biggest) phase of her empire.
If you're not a believer that life is about the journey rather than the destination, Tom Freston's story may convert you. Since Labor Day 2006, when Redstone summoned Freston to his home in Los Angeles' gated Beverly Park and told him, after 19 years of working together, "We've decided that we're going to have to make a change," Freston has moved from shock to embarrassment to anger, and past all that.
He walked out of Viacom with $60 million in severance and is one of the few ex-CEOs who actually knew what to do with the money: Change your life for the better. Thirteen days after he was fired, Freston flew to Singapore, then on to Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and China with his wife, Kathy, her mother, Joan, and his brother, Bill. Ever since, Freston, now 63, has been roaming the planet, visiting 30 other countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. "You really realize that you're not at the center of things," he tells Fortune. "You're less than a pinpoint on the map."
It's a good time to be a small target, given the woes of Viacom and Freston's former boss. This past October, Redstone, 85, was forced to sell $233 million worth of Viacom and CBS stock to meet obligations related to $1.6 billion in private debt. His own financial troubles plus the recession and soft ratings at MTV are hurting Viacom shares, now trading around $16, vs. $37 the day Freston was canned.
While Redstone flails, Freston has spent the past two years dodging the press, resisting employment opportunities ("I told him, 'If you want backing to do anything, you can count on me,'" says Rupert Murdoch), and fending off advice from his high-powered friends to get back in the big game. Only lately has he been receptive to such talk from Jeffrey Katzenberg. "Having walked the walk before him - getting myself inelegantly, and with great fanfare, fired - I felt I could offer him a good shoulder to lean on," says Katzenberg, who was ousted by Michael Eisner at Disney in 1994 and is now CEO of DreamWorks Animation. "I told him, 'It ain't fatal. The amazing thing is, one door closes and another opens.'"
Freston's decision, at long last, to enter a few of those doors is noteworthy, given his track record as a leading indicator of the zeitgeist. Last June he signed on as a consultant to Winfrey - a role that understates his deep involvement in the creation of OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network. The new cable network, all about the Oprah ethic of living a meaningful life, is supposed to launch in at least 70 million homes early in 2010.
Even faster at tracking down Freston after he was fired was another celebrity recognizable by one name, Bono, who called Freston the very next day. "Fuck 'em. Count your blessings" was his advice, delivered with rock-star bravado.
Bono, whose side gig is saving the world from extreme poverty and AIDS, quickly went into recruitment mode. Freston agreed to pitch in but resisted taking a real job. Without title or pay (pro Bono, that would be), he set out to help the U2 frontman restructure his humanitarian organizations, the advocacy group ONE and the fundraising campaign Product RED. "I've linked up to a refreshing subculture of activist young people who are committed to improving the world," says Freston, who feels a little like he did 28 years ago when he was launching MTV. "It's the same young people that Obama has tapped into."
The likes of Oprah and Bono had to twist Freston's arm because he doesn't need to work anymore. He followed the advice of his billionaire pal David Geffen to get out of the stock market ("The party's over!"), which Freston did by last June. These days he is putting his money into an orphanage and medical clinic in Southeast Asia and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, where he once lived. Last summer, if you had the right map, you could have found Freston running around Kabul with a cameraman, researching one of two film projects there. Says Katzenberg: "In his heart and his gut, Tom is a mad adventurer."
Nine months after he got fired, Freston's travels took him back to Afghanistan for the first time in 30 years. At age 26, after a stint in advertising - working on Hasbro's GI Joe account at the height of the Vietnam war "was like something from a Joseph Heller novel," he says - Freston set off with $4,000, wandered around Europe and North Africa by himself for a year, ended up in Afghanistan, and "was mesmerized after just a couple of hours there."
This was 1972, and Freston was drawn, like many other foreigners, to Afghanistan's remoteness, its openness ("Sikhs, Jews, and Hindus living beside Muslims, and even women in miniskirts") - and to the opportunities presented by the dawn of the air-freight industry. He started a clothing export business, Hindu Kush, and ran it out of Kabul and Delhi until 1978, when the communist coup in Afghanistan crippled the operation.
Back in the U.S., in New York City, Freston was deep in debt and, he says, "professionally reincarnated." He read a Billboard story about a guy who wanted to start a cable TV network where the programming was music videos. It was an absurd idea, and Freston loved it. He called the fellow, John Lack, asked for a job interview, and got hired on the spot.
Freston joined a network with five people and no name. He was the director of marketing, blasting "I want my MTV" across the airwaves, but it was his borderless curiosity that propelled MTV's global growth. "He would sleep on planes that practically had holes in the fuselage," says MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath, who worked with Freston from MTV's 1981 launch and remembers riding puddle-jumpers with him to remote corners of the world. "We'd land, and he'd be hyper-focused. He'd go out half the night with the most creative and craziest locals, and the next day he'd be funny, alert, and articulate."
"Tom was an extraordinary executive. He attracted amazing creative people and fostered an environment where they wanted to excel," says Mel Karmazin, who used to be Freston's boss at Viacom and is now CEO of Sirius XM Radio. But while Freston played the part of a Fortune 500 executive quite well, he never cared a lot about climbing the ladder. In 2004, after Viacom president Karmazin quit over clashes with Redstone, the chairman asked Freston, then MTV Networks chief, to step up to the bigger job. "I said I was flattered and honored but wanted to go home and discuss it with Kathy," recalls Freston, signaling ambivalence. The following day, Redstone told Freston he had decided to promote Les Moonves, who ran CBS (CBS, Fortune 500) for him, instead. "He told me, 'You didn't jump up and down and say you wanted it, so I gave it to Les.'"
Redstone ended up splitting the company "to make everyone happy," he told Vanity Fair, though wanting to goose his stock had more to do with the financial engineering. Freston supposedly got the better half, the cable networks and Paramount Pictures, while Moonves got CBS. But as CBS stock rose 12% in those first eight months after the split, Viacom fell 10%. After he fired Freston, Redstone cited those declining Viacom shares, Freston's "discomfort" with Wall Street, and also his failure to acquire MySpace.
"Rubbish," says News Corp. (NWS, Fortune 500) CEO Murdoch about the last point. Murdoch, who had defeated Viacom in the contest for MySpace the year before, believes, as many others do, that "Sumner's bureaucracy," as he puts it, botched Viacom's bid. Freston won't discuss the matter except to say that he didn't have the necessary authority over Viacom's M&A team, and his hands were tied. "The blame for that seemed Kafka-esque," he says.
By the time Oprah Winfrey tracked Freston down a second time, he was a free man in Hanoi. Winfrey had met David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications (DISCA), who had paid her a visit in Chicago to pitch a big idea: her own TV network. Zaslav wanted to help her build a platform, as he said that day, "that will impact people for many years after you're not here - it's bigger than you." Immediately, she recalls, "I was thinking of Tom to run it." Though after getting a clear no from him at breakfast, "I thought, I'm not sure I can go back there."
But of course she did. She invited Freston back to Montecito - with his wife, Kathy, this time. Kathy Freston, a bestselling author of self-help books, had been on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote The One: Finding Soul Mate Love and Making It Last, and Winfrey suspected that Kathy could be her ally in finding a connection with Tom. While Winfrey committed the hostess faux pas of serving meatballs, chicken parmesan, and a spread of other meats for lunch (Kathy is a vegan), Tom was friendly, charming - and noncommittal. "Sounds interesting. Let's keep talking," he told Winfrey.
"Do not get involved with another billionaire media mogul." That's what several friends told Freston. "But, you know, Oprah is anything but a billionaire-owner type," he says, explaining why he's now a consultant to OWN. "I'm trusting my gut." A few things drew him in: OWN's distribution deal, which has Discovery converting one of its existing networks, Discovery Health, to the new Oprah channel. "It's taking beachfront real estate and putting a better house on it," Freston says. OWN, he contends, "is as big an idea now as MTV was then. It's the first network about empowerment and life purpose. A great fit for our economic era."
Freston might have been an easier catch for Winfrey if Bono hadn't wanted a piece of him too. ONE deploys grass-roots advocates and celebrities like George Clooney and Brad Pitt to campaign against global poverty, while Product RED is a co-branding program that invites companies like Apple and American Express to donate a portion of their revenues to fight AIDS in Africa. DATA, a third Bono organization, did policy analysis. For all the PR buzz, DATA and ONE were troubled behind the scenes - poorly staffed, with dysfunctional boards and misunderstandings about strategy. "Tom kind of saved my bacon," says Bono.
A friend since the early days of U2 and MTV, Bono chased Freston with more intensity than Winfrey did. "We ganged up on Tom," says Bono, explaining that he tapped Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and venture capitalist John Doerr in his recruiting effort. "Steve Jobs called me and said, 'Why don't you run RED?'" recalls Freston. "I told him, 'I don't want to run RED.'"
But as Oprah learned, the guy's a sucker for a higher calling. Freston read voluminous data, traveled to Washington to talk poverty with Condoleezza Rice, studied Bono's organizations, and recommended merging DATA and ONE. He oversaw restaffings and helped recruit new CEOs for ONE and RED. A year ago, after enough arm-twisting, he agreed to chair ONE and join the RED board. If you've noticed the RED promotion in Starbucks (SBUX, Fortune 500), that is Freston's doing. He pitched Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to try out such a program when they met as directors of DreamWorks Animation (DWA). Says Schultz: "Tom was the catalyst."
Freston has mulled what his life would be like now if Sumner Redstone had not fired him. He would not have gone to Rwanda last summer with Mike Huckabee, Bill Frist, Tom Daschle, and Cindy McCain. He led the bipartisan group of politicos through malaria hospitals and AIDS clinics to show off ONE's progress. After Rwanda, Freston and a ONE staffer shot over to the Rwanda-Congo-Uganda border to see the mountain gorillas. Then they traveled to eastern Congo, where some 5.4 million people have been killed in more than a decade of wars. "Sometimes I just like the feeling of being a minority and seeing how far you can push yourself in extreme circumstances," Freston says.
That same sensibility draws him back to his first love, Afghanistan. "I feel like Rip Van Winkle," he says about the place, which has endured constant war since the day he left. "I found a country tortured, broken, yearning for peace, yearning for connection with the modern world."
He spends a lot of his time there meeting with government officials, diplomats, and influential entrepreneurs like Saad Mohseni - "the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan," as Freston calls the young media titan. He's the fellow who loaned Freston a cameraman to research his movie, tentatively titled Kabul. The plot, based on Freston's adventures, revolves around Afghan Star, a Mohseni-owned TV show that's like American Idol. The story line: Washed-up American music exec runs off to Afghanistan, loses his passport, falls in with a crazy crowd, hooks up with a Pashtun girl who sings Cat Stevens songs on Afghan Star, and, well, this all leads to redemption.
Which brings us back to Oprah, who has found her "business soul mate" in Freston. She's still hoping he'll be more than a consultant to OWN. "We're negotiating his role," says Winfrey, prodding him still. "I'll be stepping up," says Freston, who played a key role in recruiting OWN's new CEO, former MTV president Christina Norman.
He's also been a co-architect of the new network's strategy, including brand identity and programming, both on TV and the web. Winfrey is prohibited by her current TV syndication deal from having her own show on OWN until 2011, so there's lots of airtime to fill. Freston, she says, has been invaluable in helping her expand her idea of what OWN should be: not just a female channel. "I'm so woman-centric," she says. "I'm always thinking about Her. Tom understands people who want to live their best life."
Maybe that's because he's learned to live his. Kathy, his wife of ten years, says Tom used to get up in the middle of the night, turn on the lights, take notes, and wander to the computer at all hours. "It was a nightly occurrence," she says, noting that he now sleeps through the night.
His two sons from his first marriage are out of the house, so Freston is free to roam. At his son Andrew's 2007 graduation from Emerson College, he gave the commencement talk and told the grads to travel early and often, reincarnate when necessary, and keep learning. About setbacks, he said, "Not to worry. The skills you acquire can always be effectively redeployed. You will look back on setbacks and be grateful for the catalyst that came not a moment too soon." (Andrew, 24, works in the music business. Gil, 19, is a freshman at USC and was the subject of a special-education case Freston took all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.)
The only time Freston has crossed paths with his old boss since his famous setback was last October at Il Piccolino, a restaurant in West Hollywood. "He just said, 'Hi, Tom.' I said, 'Hi, Sumner.' That was it," Freston says. Redstone, who declined an interview request, says through a spokesman, "I continue to admire him and know that he has many successes ahead." Upon hearing that, Freston says, "That's nice." His tone is pensive.
He has hardly watched MTV since he left Viacom. "The firing was truly a punctuation mark," Freston says. "When I got fired, I had a feeling of loss because Viacom had been a passionate long-term relationship. But I got my balance back. I guess it's like getting jilted by a girlfriend, a serious girlfriend. You move on."