Staying Relevant: How a Radio Behemoth has Weathered the Storms of Change to Survive in the New Media Market of the 21st Century
Any company that expects to survive in the 21st century – especially in the music industry – will need to adapt to the ever-changing business landscape. Few companies have exhibited the survival instincts that iHeart Media has over their almost 50 years of existence. Through exponential growth and government regulation to name changes and rebranding, this company continues to adapt to the morphing media models of our times. Even given the recent filing for bankruptcy restructuring, iHeart Media has remained a strong force in the industry and provides an interesting historical perspective into some of the major music industry transitions of our times.
“The history of the company is marked with serendipity, a game-changing act of Congress, exponential growth, greed, outrageous success, unanticipated technology disruptions, a deep recession, excessive valuations, and a mountain of debt”1David Hendricks, “iHeartMedia Financial Troubles Embedded in 2008 Leveraged Buyout,” https://www.expressnews.com/business/local/article/iHeartMedia-financial-troubles-embedded-in-2008-12241990.php. (October 1, 2017)
It is certain that Lowry Mays had no idea where his inauspicious entre into the world of radio would take him or the company he would come to create. No one could have predicted the wild success of what Clear Channel would become, or how technology (and other) disruptions would affect the direction his enterprise would eventually take. Many large companies go by the wayside as they fail to adapt to changing trends and consumer preferences. Clear Channel – with its new moniker “iHeart Media” – is working hard to morph into a media company that will transcend the pressures of current (and future) media consumption and solidify its foothold as a powerhouse in the 21st century. To understand where this company is going, and how far it has come, it is helpful to understand the background of the largest – and most maligned – “radio” station in the country.
Lowry Mays (the owner of Clear Channel from 1972-2005) did not set out to be a radio mogul. Had he not fortuitously co-signed on a loan gone bad, he never would have found himself in possession of radio station KEEZ in 1972. Mays was a shrewd businessman but had no experience in media, so he brought in partner Red McCombs – who himself reportedly had no more experience in radio than having bought ads for his car dealership. Despite their collective lack of experience in this field, their business skills led to the success of this station, and in 1975 they bought WOAI, a designated “clear channel” operating under a Class 1 radio license with a unique frequency and a very long range, and forged the company Clear Channel Communications.
Throughout the next decade, Mays continued to buy up struggling stations, turned them around, and then went public with an initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange in 1984. By 1990 he owned over forty radio stations and more than a dozen TV stations and was well on his way to creating the largest radio conglomerate in the country. Between 1995-2000 Clear Channel was a Wall Street darling, with Moodys listing Clear Channel as one of the best performing stocks with a 1,300% increase in share value over that period of time. Mays and his company were significantly aided in this growth and success by the 1996 Communications Act that lifted the restriction on how many stations (radio and TV) a single entity could own in a given market and allowed for, “…any communications business to compete in any market against any other.”2Telecommunications Act of 1996. https://www.fcc.gov/general/telecommunications-act-1996 This opened the way for Clear Channel to expand to over 1,200 stations - including 247 stations in the 250 largest markets.
But, this ever-expanding company was not content to be pigeon-holed into the media market alone. In 2000 they began their foray into live music entertainment with the purchase of SFX Entertainment for $4.4 billion dollars and also purchased a large national billboard company. At this point Clear Channel Communications became Clear Channel Entertainment – a change of name to reflect their diversification strategy . Being the largest in any industry segment often leads to significant scrutiny by outside parties. Clear Channel was not immune from this phenomenon. Beyond complains of homogenization of playlists (excluding all but the top artists) they were vilified for their overt conservative stance including the ban of the Dixie Chicks following their imfamous political comments, and a refusal to air certain political ads from candidates in one party. They were also criticized by musicians, fans and industry professionals for their list of banned songs after 9.11 (a list they deny, but common sentiment dictates otherwise) and their stance on “indecent” material on the air in reaction to the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” incident on Super Bowl XXXVII in 2004. There was also a rallying cry against cyber-jocks and the practice of leaving stations unmanned or very sparsely operated. This came to the national attention of people outside the music industry in 2002 due to a train disaster in Miot, ND when public officials tried to get word out through the local radio station but no personnel could be reached for several hours as the disaster unfolded.
The issue of public discontent, as well as some financial issues, led to troubling times for Clear Channel. Stock prices dropped from a high of $95 per share in 2000 to $31 in 2005. Just two years after buying SFX, Clear Channel took a write-down of 75% on the business and many investors and analists wondered if a company spreading in too many directions was the right way to go. As stated by Robert Sillerman, former owner of SFX, “….combining radio and concerts was something that, intellectually, seemed like it would make sense. The most abused word in the English language was ‘synergy’. Now investors are interested in focus and single purpose.”3Jeff Leeds, “Clear Channel to Spin Off Its Entertainment Division,” https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/30/business/media/clear-channel-to-spin-off-its-entertainment-division.html. (April 30, 2005) As this quote references, being beholden to investors and the stock market is challenging, as many music related businesses have found out over the years.
Because of investor pressures and inquiries from the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, artists were complaining they were compelled to play concerts sponsored by the company or risk losing radio airplay. In addition to this, other promoters were claiming they were being forced out of business. Because of this pressure, in 2005 Clear Channel spun off its live entertainment business which lead to the creation of Live Nation. They also eliminated a music publishing wing and their interest in a select number of museum exhibitions. These changes still did not turn the company around financially, and they found themselves in a vulnerable situation.
In 2006 Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital financial firms made a bid to buy the ailing Clear Channel company. They leveraged this buyout by borrowing money from Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Royal Bank of Scotland, Deutsche Bank, and Wachovia. They borrowed an excessive amount of money for this deal – 9 times the company’s pretax cash flow according to the New York Post.4Josh Kosman, “iHeartMedia Inching Closer to Bankruptcy,” https://nypost.com/2018/03/05/iheart-media-inching-closer-to-bankruptcy/. (March 5, 2018) When the financial markets crashed in 2008 the banks wanted to back out of this deal, but Lee and Bain were able to successfully sue the banks and they were forced to honor their commitments. The finalized deal was inked in 2008 for just under $19 billion dollars.
The company struggled for some time after the buyout, and in 2011 Bob Pittman was brought on as President and CEO of the company. Yet another leader for the company without a radio background – but his prior experience is indicative of the direction the board of directors had for the company. Mr. Pittman was the co-founder of MTV, had served as an executive with AOLTimeWarner, and led Century 21 and Six Flags. While not a radioman, Pittman seems to understand the art and science of the music industry. He was quoted as saying, “Someone told me early on that when you are trying to solve a problem it’s the mix of math and magic. Understanding the problem, the analytical, and then you have to have creativity, you’ve got to have the burst of a magical idea to solve the problem.”5“Cannes Lions TV Meets: Jared Leto” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SWtKnevQmM (June 18, 2014) This, in fact, seems to be his signature strategy – having just launched his signature podcast called “Math and Magic.”
In 2014 Clear Channel made the bold move to change their name to iHeartMedia. Some might wonder if this was to shed former bad publicity and negative public sentiment, but according to an accompanying press release, the name change, “…reflects iHeartRadio’s momentum and how consumers and advertisers engage seamlessly across the company’s diverse live media platforms – broadcast radio, digital, mobile, social, TV, outdoor, and events.”6“Clear Channel Becomes iHeartMedia,” https://www.iheartmedia.com/press/clear-channel-becomes-iheartmedia (September 16, 2014) At the time of writing, with 859 radio stations, 245 million listeners/month, 90 million digital listeners/month and over 20,000 live music events, iHeart claims to be, “One of a kind multi-platform media company with unparalleled reach and impact.” 7ibid In fact, Bob Pittman goes on the say he aims to provide, “…the MOST entertainment to the MOST engaged audiences wherever they go, with MORE content and MORE events in MORE places on MORE devices.” 8ibid While this is reminiscent of certain music companies that tried (and failed) to be “the most” to everyone, it also reflects current advertising theories of eliminating silos and providing companies with ad space in many different formats.
Despite Pittman’s initial grand plans, the company continued to suffer from financial woes. The leveraged buyout of 2008 left iHeart with an unserviceable debt load. Notwithstanding operating income of near the one billion dollars mark over the past several years, the company has been unable to show a profit – primarily due to loan repayment issues. This lack of profitability led the company to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March of 2018. As of this writing, the courts have accepted a plan in which, “….iHeartMedia will complete a comprehensive balance sheet restructuring that will reduce its debt from $16.1 billion to $5.75 billion and will separate clear Channel Outdoor Holding, Inc. from iHeartMedia creating two independent public companies.”9“iHeartMedia Successfully Completes Restructuring Process.” https://www.bloomberg.com/press-releases/2019-05-01/iheartmedia-successfully-completes-restructuring-process (May 1, 2019) iHeart hopes to complete this debt for equity swap and emerge from bankruptcy in mid 2019. Curiously, while an offer to buyout iHeart in 2018 by Liberty Media was soundly rejected, media sources in the industry indicate that they are looking to buy a stake in the company as soon as it emerges from bankruptcy. This would give the company that currently has partial ownership of SiriusXM, Pandora, Live Nation (and Ticketmaster) as well as the podcast streaming service JioSaavn, a stake in the largest terrestrial broadcast company. This is somewhat ironic, given that iHeartMedia (Clear Channel at the time) sold off its stake in SiriusXM in 2013.
Once iHeartMedia clears the bankruptcy challenge, they have big plans for the future with groundwork that has been going on throughout their financial challenges. They have expanded far beyond terrestrial radio, “iHeartMedia’s platforms include radio broadcasting, online, mobile, digital and social media, podcasts, personalities and influencers, live concerts and events, syndication, music research services and independent media representation.”10“iHeartMedia,” https://www.makers.com/partners/5a7791dea7a868227e27a252 (2019) They currently quote having a quarter of a billion monthly listeners in the U.S., 85 million social media followers, over a billion downloads of the iHeartRadio app and 95 million registered users on that app. As Pittman has said, “We’re in a renaissance in audio. Our strategy has not been, ‘Let’s do radio.’ It’s been ,”Let’s be where our listeners are.””11Anne Steele and Benjamin Mullins.“iHeartMedia Buys Stuff Media for $55 Million,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/iheartmedia-buys-stuff-media-for-55-million-1536843600 (September 13, 2018) This philosophy and impressive reach is reinforced by their bold claim to be “America’s No. 1 audio company, reaching 9 out of 10 Americans every month.”12“Form S-1 Registration Statement,” https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1400891/000119312519096030/d694706ds1.htm (April 3, 2019)
It is important to remember why this consumer base is so important to iHeartMedia – in a word – advertising. And, to consider that their biggest competitors in the market today for advertising are not other radio stations, but Google and Facebook. As of 2018, the Wall Street Journal indicated that, “Broadcast radio reaches 271 million people each month – more than any other media platform, including Facebook and Google.”13Soma Biswas and Anne Steele. “iHeartMedia Files for Bankruptcy, Reaches Restructuring Agreement in Principle,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/radio-giant-iheartmedia-files-for-bankruptcy-reaches-restructuring-agreement-in-principle-with-investors-1521092058 (March 15, 2018) iHeart has invested large sums of money to best leverage the attention of those listeners to provide sales results for their advertisers. Through its technology companies, iHeart has created over 700 distinct audience segment profiles and uses real-time triggers such as weather, sports scores, mortgage rates, ad infinitum to deploy different advertising campaigns to get just the right message to just the right consumer at just the right time. As stated by one of their advertising customers, this technology is effective because, “Combining the efficiency and scale of radio with data and advanced analytics of digital moves iHearMedia beyond the standard age and demo paradigm to create enhanced audience-based plans that drive real business outcomes for us.” 14“iHeartMedia Introduces “Smart Audio,” Its New Audio Digital Data Advertising Product for Broadcast Radio,” https://www.iheartmedia.com/press/iHeartMedia-Introduces-SmartAudio-Audio-Digital-Data-Advertising-Product-for-Broadcast-Radio-SoundFront (March 16, 2017)
While iHeart is successfully using its technology to serve radio advertisers, it is certainly not content to stay in that platform alone. With over 216 billion impressions in the U.S. for its 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards show and similar statistics for other broadcast, they provide ample opportunity for cross media advertising with a far reach. In addition, the hosting of over 20,000 concerts a year provides yet another opportunity for advertising and sponsorships that bring in significant revenue. The latest in the arsenal of many media companies is podcasting and iHeart has embraced this trend with vigor. Pittman believes, “Podcast is to talk as streaming is to music.”15“Pittman on Podcasting, Smart Speakers and Why Audio is Hot Again,” http://www.insideradio.com/free/pittman-on-podcasting-smart-speakers-and-why-audio-s-hot/article_3900c798-cac5-11e8-8d8e-f32e41269df1.html (October 8, 2018) To back this, in 2018 iHeart purchased Stuff Media for $55 million and is using their technology to support 5.6 million listeners a month to various programs, including one created by Pittman himself. All of the podcasts, as well as the digital radio stations, can be accessed through their iHeartRadio app. The free version provides opportunity for advertisers but more direct income for the company comes from the “iHeartRadio Plus” version for $4.99 a month and the “iHeartRadio All Access Powered by Napster” (ironic that this company name is still playing a role in streaming services) version that includes the ability to build and manage playlists and offline listening for $9.99.
There is no question iHeartMedia has big plans for the future. With over 100 companies under the iHeart brand, their reach is impressive - and growing - particularly as the digital realm continues to expand and more ways to reach consumers are imagined. A glimpse at the background of some of the new members of the board of directors – including work at Walt Disney, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and SPOTIFY- might provide some insights as to directions for the future. Clearly, this company continues to respond to the way consumers interact with audio.
“iHeartMedia is the number one audio company in the United States, reaching nine out of 10 Americans every month – and with its quarter of a billion monthly listeners, has a greater reach than any other media company in the U.S. The company’s leadership position in audio extends across multiple platforms including 850 live broadcast stations, streaming music, radio and on demand via its iHearRadio digital service available across more than 250 platforms and 2.000 devices including smart speakers, digital auto dashes, tablets, wearables, smartphones, virtual assistants, TVs, and gaming consoles: through its influencers: social; branded iconic live music events; and podcasts as the #1 commercial podcast publisher globally. iHeartMedia also leads the audio industry in analytics and attribution technology for its marketing partners, using data from its massive consumer base.”16iHeartRadio Announces Major Milestone – 100 Million Registered Users,” https://www.iheartmedia.com/press/iheartradio-announces-major-milestone-100-million-registered-users. (March 23, 2017)
Whether one company can expand in so many directions within an industry and flourish (a strategy that so many others have tried and failed) is yet to be seen, but for now the depth and breadth of their reach is certainly impressive and as they emerge from bankruptcy it will be interesting to see what the future holds for this iconic behemoth in the music industry.
Addendum: iHeart Media emerged from bankruptsy in May of 2019 with a reduced debt load and retained the current administration. The company launched an IPO in mid-July, 2019 and as of this writing the stock price has outpaced the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It seems that investors and industry analysts are cautiously optimistic as to the future of the company.
1. David Hendricks, “iHeartMedia Financial Troubles Embedded in 2008 Leveraged Buyout,” https://www.expressnews.com/business/local/article/iHeartMedia-financial-troubles-embedded-in-2008-12241990.php. (October 1, 2017)
2. Telecommunications Act of 1996. https://www.fcc.gov/general/telecommunications-act-1996
3. Jeff Leeds, “Clear Channel to Spin Off Its Entertainment Division,” https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/30/business/media/clear-channel-to-spin-off-its-entertainment-division.html. (April 30, 2005)
4. Josh Kosman, “iHeartMedia Inching Closer to Bankruptcy,” https://nypost.com/2018/03/05/iheart-media-inching-closer-to-bankruptcy/. (March 5, 2018)
5. “Cannes Lions TV Meets: Jared Leto” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SWtKnevQmM (June 18, 2014)
6. “Clear Channel Becomes iHeartMedia,” https://www.iheartmedia.com/press/clear-channel-becomes-iheartmedia (September 16, 2014)
9. “iHeartMedia Successfully Completes Restructuring Process.” https://www.bloomberg.com/press-releases/2019-05-01/iheartmedia-successfully-completes-restructuring-process (May 1, 2019)
10. “iHeartMedia,” https://www.makers.com/partners/5a7791dea7a868227e27a252 (2019)
11. Anne Steele and Benjamin Mullins.“iHeartMedia Buys Stuff Media for $55 Million,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/iheartmedia-buys-stuff-media-for-55-million-1536843600 (September 13, 2018)
12. “Form S-1 Registration Statement,” https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1400891/000119312519096030/d694706ds1.htm (April 3, 2019)
13. Soma Biswas and Anne Steele. “iHeartMedia Files for Bankruptcy, Reaches Restructuring Agreement in Principle,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/radio-giant-iheartmedia-files-for-bankruptcy-reaches-restructuring-agreement-in-principle-with-investors-1521092058 (March 15, 2018)
14. “iHeartMedia Introduces “Smart Audio,” Its New Audio Digital Data Advertising Product for Broadcast Radio,” https://www.iheartmedia.com/press/iHeartMedia-Introduces-SmartAudio-Audio-Digital-Data-Advertising-Product-for-Broadcast-Radio-SoundFront (March 16, 2017)
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Kim L. Wangler, M.M, M.B.A joined the faculty of Appalachian State University in 2005 as the Director of the Music Industries Program. Ms. Wangler teaches management, marketing and music entrepreneurship as well as being the faculty consultant for Split Rail Records - ASU's student- run record label. She has served in the industry as President of the Board of Directors for the Orchestra of Northern New York, House Manager for the Community Performance Series (serving audiences of over 1,000 people) and as CEO of Bel Canto Reeds - a successful on-line venture. Ms. Wangler currently serves on the Board of Directors for Singers of Renaissance - a Charlotte-based vocal ensemble and the Harper School of the Performing Arts.
Ms. Wangler is published through the Music and Entertainment Industry Educator's Association (MEIEA) Journal, National Association of Collegiate Wind and Percussion Instructors (NACWPI), Hal Leonard Publications and Sage Publishing, and has a regular feature in the MEIEA eZine with her column, "Wisdom from the Web." Ms. Wangler also serves on the Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association Board of Directors as Vice President, boards of several local nonprofit organizations, and on the College Music Society Mid Atlantic Chapter Board as the first Music Business representative.