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iHeart's Bob Pittman: 'Our niche is companionship'

As the radio giant strikes a deal to help it emerge from bankruptcy, its CEO discusses what's next

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Bob Pittman
Bob Pittman Credit: Max Sternlicht/Ad Age

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If you wrote off iHeartMedia as dead on arrival last year, you might have made the call too soon.

Saddled with debt and a bad capital structure, the company filed for bankruptcy in March 2018. But last month, the radio giant gained court approval for a plan that would cut about $10 billion of debt and allow it to emerge from bankruptcy within the first half of this year.

Leading the charge is iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman, who joined the company as an investor in 2010. His mandate was simple: completely transform the company.

"At the time it was called Clear Channel, it was a radio company. Let's fix the capital structure," says Pittman on the latest episode of the Ad Lib podcast. "On the transformation side we really took it into a complete multiplatform company. If you look at the other players in audio today they all basically are single platform companies."

A quick glance at a few recent stats suggests how far it's come: iHeartMedia boasts more than 120 million registered users, is the No. one all-in-one digital audio service with more than a billion downloads and is the top commercial podcast producer in the business.

And yet, says Pittman, iHeart's biggest pain points are the public perception of the brand—and silos within the advertising world. Still, in a world where brand safety remains a persistent issue in digital and podcasts are white hot, it's not the worst time to be a radio company.

"Suddenly everybody is interested in audio. When I got here, everybody was interested in online video," says Pittman. "You found every publisher saying, 'I need to get a camera and start doing some online video!' Now suddenly you find, when you walk into a room, everybody goes, 'Tell me about podcasting. Tell me about Alexa.'"

If he were to tell you about Alexa, Pittman would say he loves it. It's the new clock radio. Where some brands struggle with discoverability, he says, iHeart's stations are already differentiated enough that people ask for them by name. (It's an old trick, he says, from his days as a co-founder of MTV.)

"We look at the consumer. We have an expertise in audio and we really know how to talk to them about it," says Pittman. "Let's look what all they're using and our programming strategy is to be where our listeners are with the products and services they expect from us. Ta-da!"

And where those listeners are might actually come as a surprise. Broadcasting—meaning AM/FM terrestrial radio—still accounts for 90 percent of all listening in audio, Pittman says. Digital comprises just 10 percent.

"We know what our niche is," he says. "We're not TV without pictures. We're companionship."

If you don't know Pittman as the CEO of iHeart or MTV co-founder, you might be more familiar with him as the one-time CEO of AOL Networks. Or Six Flags Theme Parks. Or Century 21 Real Estate. Also Time Warner Enterprises, among other c-suite roles.

He discusses some of that background on the podcast, and breaks down the audio landscape—from radio and Alexa to streaming and podcasts—at the beginning of 2019 as iHeart emerges.

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