The Bad Boys of Radio Lowry Mays and sons made enemies building Clear Channel into an empire. Now they want to tell the world they're not...
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Lowry Mays is the Big Daddy of radio. The founder and CEO of Clear Channel, Mays oversees 1,233 radio stations with some 100 million listeners across all 50 states, and runs a company with $8 billion in revenues and a $23 billion market cap. But ask Mays about what he does for a living and you won't hear much about musicians or how to bring up ratings or who's the best DJ. Those things don't interest him much. Truth is, Mays isn't that passionate about what goes out over the airwaves. As long as his broadcasts sell ads, he's happy. "If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn't be someone from our company," says Mays, 67. "We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customers products."
That all-business attitude is just one of the things that infuriates Mays's detractors, for whom creative content is everything. To the musicians, small radio operators, and other radioheads who hate Clear Channel, Mays is an evil emperor intent on seizing the many charming boutiques of Radio Land and converting them into an audio Mall of America. And that's just for starters. They accuse Clear Channel of stomping on the competition, destroying artistic integrity, and making mush out of the little guy. In short, Clear Channel has become their Exhibit A for everything that's wrong with media deregulation.
Congress, you see, made Clear Channel possible. The 1996 Telecommunications Act lifted restrictions on radio ownership, and overnight, everything changed. Where companies had been allowed only two stations per market and a maximum of 40 nationwide, suddenly they could own up to eight per market, with no limits nationwide. Companies in the radio industry split into two camps--those acquiring and those being acquired. You can guess which one Mays joined.
While media watchers were captivated by the rah-rah Internet boom or the mergers between big names like AOL and Time Warner, Mays, along with his sons Mark and Randall, quietly snatched up company after company and branched into outdoor advertising, concert promotion, and sports management. Today, in addition to its radio stations, Clear Channel owns more than 770,000 billboards and advertising displays around the world. It manages athletes like Andre Agassi and Michael Jordan. It produces concert tours by everyone from Britney to country duo Brooks & Dunn. Broadway shows and monster truck rallies? Those too.
Until the past couple of years, most people didn't pay much attention to Clear Channel. They knew their local station's call letters--KIIS-FM in L.A., say, or Z100 in New York. Maybe they noticed the little CLEAR CHANNEL sign at the bottom of a highway billboard. The Mays boys liked it that way. Publicity shy, they chose to keep corporate headquarters in a small limestone building overlooking a golf course in suburban San Antonio, rather than in some New York City skyscraper. Mark, 39, the company's COO, talks about coaching his kids' sports teams, not lunching with Madonna. During an interview, CFO Randall, 37, mutters, "I won't be tremendously disappointed if you never publish your article."
Well, maybe. But as their detractors become more vocal, the Mayses have started to realize that Clear Channel has an image problem. That's one reason they agreed to a rare day of interviews with FORTUNE. The proximate cause for the Mayses' efforts to spruce up their image is the Federal Communications Commission's review of its media ownership rules. The review, which should be finished this spring, is largely focused on television and is unlikely to result in big changes for radio. Nevertheless, it does give Clear Channel critics a platform. In late January, for instance, when Lowry Mays testified at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the radio industry, he shared the witness table with three detractors--including Eagles frontman Don Henley--who each had something bad to say about Clear Channel. Committee chairman John McCain, making his own irritation plain, testily asked Mays, "Do you have plans to obtain any more radio stations?" McCain had to repeat the question four times before Mays finally answered, "If we can serve the local community better, and we see an opportunity, yes." Even FCC chairman Michael Powell, who is thought to favor loosening media restrictions, said, "Candidly, I am troubled," when asked about Clear Channel's growth at a Senate hearing two weeks earlier. "I am concerned about the concentration, particularly in radio." Also in January, Senator Russ Feingold introduced a bill that could prevent further radio deregulation and limit each company's audience share and ad revenue to 35% or less in any given market. That could hurt Clear Channel, which has at least a 35% share in several major markets. Any wonder that in the past three months the Mayses have hired their first full-time Washington lobbyists? (One, brought on after the Commerce Committee hearings, used to work for John McCain.) The surprising thing, really, is that they didn't do it earlier.
Back in 1972, when he came into possession of a radio station quite unintentionally, Lowry Mays hardly imagined that one day he would be denounced as a radio bully. Mays had been working as a San Antonio investment banker when a friend asked him for a loan to buy a local station. Mays agreed, but three months later his friend backed out, and Lowry was stuck with the station. Having no clue how to run it, he asked his friend B.J. "Red" McCombs, a used-car dealer, to go in with him. "The only thing I knew about radio," admits McCombs, one of Clear Channel's largest individual shareholders and now owner of the Minnesota Vikings, "was that I bought a lot of advertising. And I listened to it."
Three years later they were feeling pretty confident, and Mays picked up WOAI-AM. It was one of only 24 "clear channels" in the country--that is, it has a powerful AM frequency that can be heard nationwide, though only at night. Mays and McCombs bought it for $1.5 million and renamed the company. Over the next 15 years Lowry developed a pattern--find a radio station in debt, buy it, and turn it around.
Clear Channel went public in 1984, but since 1989, when Mark came to work for his dad, it's been run as a family business. Three years after Mark came on board, his brother Randall, a self-confessed "numbers nut" and Harvard MBA, joined too.
By 1995, when Congress was reconsidering radio ownership rules, the Mayses were running 43 radio stations and 16 TV stations nationwide. The brothers had gained enough experience buying stations one at a time that when Congress deregulated the industry in 1996, they were ready to leap to the big time. That year Clear Channel added 49 radio stations to its portfolio, and the boys pushed their dad to buy more and bigger radio companies. By 2001 the Mayses had acquired several rivals and grown to more than 1,200 stations. Today they operate five times as many stations as Viacom, which is second to Clear Channel in revenues. The Mayses' strategy was to buy broadly, creating a presence in many markets. That way they could sell ads regionally as well as locally.
People in the music business started to wake up to just how big and powerful the San Antonio company had become in 2000 when Clear Channel bought SFX Entertainment for $4.4 billion. Now the biggest radio company was also the biggest concert promoter. To the Mayses the acquisition made perfect sense. Clear Channel could promote its concerts on Clear Channel radio stations. The local Clear Channel station could in turn advertise at the concert venue. Regional ad sales teams could seek advertising for all local outlets--radio, billboards, and concerts. "We figure out ways they can help each other," says Mark Mays.
But where the Mayses see synergy, others see strong-arm tactics. In August 2001 a small Denver concert promoter called Nobody in Particular Presents filed suit against Clear Channel, claiming that it had threatened to pull NIPP musicians from Clear Channel airplay. Lowry Mays denies the charges, but similar rumors abound elsewhere. Says one manager and producer, echoing the sentiment of dozens of people FORTUNE interviewed: "They are the devil."
The Mayses' view of good business clashes in other ways with artists and local radio advocates. Consolidation allowed Clear Channel to centralize broadcasts through a process called "voice-tracking." A listener in Atlanta might think the morning DJ is a local guy--he peppers his spiel with references to local happenings and hot spots--but in fact he's broadcasting from a booth in Cincinnati. Voice-tracking accounts for less than 15% of Clear Channel programming, but it helps cut costs by employing fewer DJs. To critics there's an ethical breach when a radio personality purports to be somewhere he's not, but John Hogan, who heads up Clear Channel Radio, defends the practice. "At the risk of sounding flippant, it's entertainment," he says. Voice-tracking--or as Hogan prefers to call it, "talent exportation"--is simply the next step in the evolution of radio, he says. He points out that musicians were threatened when vinyl recordings replaced live studio orchestras. "Now everything's distributed digitally," he says. "I understand why people object, because it's scary for those who can't change."
The forces lined up against Clear Channel wonder what is so good about change, if it leads to homogenization. In November the Future of Music Coalition, an artists' advocacy group that seeks broader dissemination of music, released a 147-page tome analyzing the effect of radio consolidation. The group claims that the playlists for nearly every music format are controlled by an oligopoly of Clear Channel and three competitors. A handful of established artists are starting to make noise. On his latest CD, Tom Petty laments the passing of "the last DJ /who plays what he wants to play /and says what he wants to say." But FMC's executive director, Jenny Toomey, says most musicians are afraid to speak out "for fear of being blackballed."
The Mayses view these criticisms as a lot of anecdotal smoke. And they have a point. Thus far regulators have not charged Clear Channel with anticompetitive behavior. And in an industry with so many overlapping markets and so many outlets--Clear Channel owns less than 10% of the 13,331 radio stations nationwide--it's not so easy to say definitively whether consolidation has decreased broadcast diversity. Bear Stearns' Victor Miller says that there's actually more programming diversity today, not less. If Clear Channel owns three stations in one market, for example, it won't want to cannibalize them by having three R&B stations. Instead it would program one as R&B, another with country music, and the third as news.
Back in his office in San Antonio, Lowry Mays seems as surprised as anyone that Clear Channel is so big. "Not in my wildest dreams," he replies, when asked if he anticipated that one little station would lead him here. For now, though, the Mayses are resting after their six-year feast. They won't rule out future acquisitions, but say there are no more big entrees left on the radio menu--at least none that Clear Channel could consume without hitting the eight-stations-per-market rule. Mark says that the company now plans to grow revenues "organically," from its operations. That means slower growth, but Merrill Lynch analyst Marc Nabi predicts steady 5.2% compounded annual revenue growth over the next four years.
Upon meeting the Mayses, you wonder if they're a bit naive. They can't understand why their critics don't see them the way they see themselves--as a hard-working family who created $23 billion in value for shareholders. Or see them as CSFB analyst Paul Sweeney does, as "one of the best-managed teams in broadcasting." After all, the company is doing pretty well: Its radio revenues in 2002 were up about 6%, in line with the industry. Clear Channel stands to benefit from a resurgence in national radio advertising because, thanks to its regional strategy, it gets a lot of national ad dollars. "People who say we're the evil empire just aren't educated enough about who we are,"says Randall. Mark agrees: "They just need to be enlightened."
But maybe the Mayses just don't get how passionate people can be about radio. They don't care whether the Mayses are good people or good businessmen. It's a question of the public interest. "Radio is a public resource," says the FMC's Toomey. "They received free licenses, but it's our bandwidth." That's a sentiment that will never sit quite right with the Mays boys. They don't really see the point in government oversight. Randall argues that the broadcast ownership rules dating back to the 1930s were never necessary, and that consolidation occurred so quickly in radio because "it was artificially depressed for so long." This is how the Mayses like to see themselves: not as a destructive imperial army, but as a limber commando unit liberating the airwaves. Adds Mark emphatically: "Let the free markets reign."