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Mississippi Legends: Bob Pittman, iHeart Media CEO and co-founder of MTV

  • This energetic seventy-year-old Mississippi-native says he can’t wait to wake up and get started every day.

As CEO and President of iHeart Media, Bob Pittman oversees 863 radio stations in 160 cities across the United State. 250 million people tune in to iHeart monthly. Annual revenue is in the $3.85 billion range.

Bob’s vision is to provide a platform, almost a town square-like venue where diverse voices speak. His goal is to “put it all” out there. Let every opinion have a voice, and then trust the public to make their informed decisions according to what matters to them.

A freak horseback riding accident when he was six years old left Bob Pittman minus one eye. Call him resilient. Having a glass eye did not slow him down. As a high school student at Brookhaven High School ten years later, he measured six feet tall and weighed all of 120 pounds soaking wet. His appearance may have invited a few jokes, but that did not stifle his ambition or slow down his drive.

The son of a Methodist District Superintendent, Bob’s family moved about five times between his birth in Jackson, Mississippi in 1953 and his graduation from high school in Brookhaven in 1971.

Such a series of “starting overs” and “obstacles to rise above” probably enhanced his people skills. He developed a notable empathy for others and a drive to succeed that he might never have discovered had social acceptance been handed to him as one of the cool kids.

At 15, he fell in love with airplanes and was dead set on learning how to fly. His parents said, “If you want lessons, you must earn the money to pay for them.”

Employment options for a 15-year-old in Brookhaven in 1968 were limited. He tried to get hired at the cool men’s clothing store. Then he tried the local Piggly Wiggly for a job bagging groceries. No luck.

He walked into the local radio station, WJMB, an AM station with 1000-watt coverage, and auditioned for a job as a part-time disc jockey. Bill Jones, the station manager, hired him on the spot after he proved he could grab the news report off the noisy teletype machine and read it flawlessly. Between the $1.65 dollar per hour radio job and washing airplanes at the local airfield, he cobbled together the $10 per hour he needed to pay for flying lessons.

Today, he can fly his personal plane as well as his helicopter, which is his means of transportation to and from NYC every day. He lives north of the city and gets to avoid the traffic!

(Photo: bjtonline.com)

Although radio initially was a means to finance his passion for airplanes, it wasn’t long before radio was another all-consuming interest. Bob says, “The bug bit me. Passion isn’t something you plan. Passion comes out of nowhere. And it starts more as curiosity than passion.”  

He knew nothing about radio, transformers, signals, or anything else. But he was curious and eager to learn. Bob has an insatiable appetite for learning new things.

After completing one year of college at Millsaps, he took a summer job at a radio station in Milwaukee. To his surprise, one job led to another, and college just never came back around.

By his twentieth birthday, he was chief programmer for a central AM/FM station in Chicago, and three years later, NBC’s flagship station, WNBC in New York City, put its programming in his hands.

In 1981, he and a few of his twenty-something friends founded MTV. The concept was novel. Rock and Roll music with video and loose allusions to the lyrics created a unique venue that the intended youth audience found incredibly appealing. The audience was over the top, but the revenue was not.

After a dismal first year when their projected revenue of $10,000,000 came in at $500,000, Bob was close to doing the unthinkable, giving up.

When one of the significant investors asked him, “Kid, do you think we can run this whole thing?” Bob answered, “Yes,” although he had no idea. With a committed team that, as Bob said, “figured it out, we made MTV the first profitable cable network.”

He is often introduced as the father of MTV. Nickelodeon was his brainchild. Bob has an unusual gift for seeing the entire technology spectrum and understands how to make different components work in sync.

His resume becomes increasingly impressive. Before becoming the cofounder of iHeartMedia, he made stops along the way as COO of AOL Time Warner, CEO of Six Flags Theme Parks, CEO of Century 21 Real Estate, and CEO of Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the world’s largest outdoor advertising companies. He is a founding member of the Pilot Group, a New York-based private investment firm whose investments include Huffington Post, Zynga, and Facebook.

His awards include induction into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame among many others.

Bob is frequently asked in leadership forums around the world, “How did a kid from Brookhaven, Mississippi, go from working in a 1000-watt radio station to being a sought-after CEO of some of the world’s most influential media organizations?”

His answer reveals his Mississippi roots: “The magic in my life was having spectacular parents. I had a mom and dad who were role models for me. In my house, you couldn’t say the word “hate.” You couldn’t hate anybody. The worst thing I ever heard my mother say about another person was, ‘I wonder why they want to be that way.’”

His father was an outspoken proponent of civil rights during the heyday of civil rights. Respect and service to others was a bedrock in the Pittman home. It was more important to do the right thing than to avoid upsetting the status quo. It was at home that Bob learned to think outside the box.

The people skills Bob learned as a guiding principle from his parents have transferred well in every business venture he has pursued. He has never divorced the principles his parents taught him from the way he navigates life.

“Teamwork,” he emphasizes. “You build a nurturing, caring environment. When something goes wrong, you take responsibility and try to fix it. The richness of life is not about getting stuff, but it’s about giving stuff.”  

Janet Wagner, Madison resident and childhood friend of Bob’s says, “He really is a genuinely nice guy. If I called him right now, he would pick up the phone.”

He values people, especially old friends, and he makes time to maintain those relationships. As a philanthropist, his footprint of generosity runs through many organizations. Among them is the New York-focused poverty-fighting Robin Hood Foundation where he has served as Chairman of the Board.  

This energetic seventy-year-old says he can’t wait to wake up and get started every day. Work is for Bob what golf is for many of his contemporaries. It energizes him. Curiosity drives him to observe, learn, and explore.

He has many hobbies, but one of the most notable is riding motorcycles. His motorcycle club, “The Bridge Club,” recently took off from the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and headed west for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Bob counts that as one of the most enjoyable adventures of his life.

He is still working on his bucket list, but it does not seem to be getting shorter. The curious philanthropist and entrepreneur never seems to run out of new ideas. Google his name. You will enjoy every YouTube video you discover.

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