Lowry Mays: He Built Clear Channel Into a Media Empire That Revolutionized the Radio Industry

From a New York Times obit by Clay Risen headlined “Lowry Mays, Who Revolutionized the Radio Industry, Dies at 87”:

Lowry Mays, a businessman who inadvertently acquired a local radio station in the early 1970s, then built it into a media empire called Clear Channel that revolutionized the entire industry, died in San Antonio.

Mr. Mays was a petroleum engineer turned investment banker when he agreed in 1972 to co-sign a loan to purchase KEEZ, an FM station struggling to survive at a time when most people still listened to AM. When the original buyers backed out, Mr. Mays and his business partner, Billy Joe McCombs, were left owning a property they had no interest, let alone experience, in operating.

Mr. Mays did, however, have a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, as well as a gift for fixing failing balance sheets. He bought more stations over the next 25 years and branched into television in the late 1980s. He ran a tight operation, keeping costs low, cash flow high and Wall Street eager to finance his every move.

When Congress loosened regulations on the radio industry in 1996, Clear Channel was ready. Over the next five years, Mr. Mays went on a spending spree, growing the business from 40 stations to some 1,200 by 2001, more than triple the number of its closest competitor, Cumulus. At that point, Clear Channel controlled an estimated 10 percent of all radio stations, an astounding achievement in an industry that, until then, had been run by mostly mom-and-pop operations.

Along the way, it gobbled up event promotion, live music, sports management and billboard companies. By the early 2000s, Mr. Mays held sway over a media empire: Artists who appeared on a Clear Channel station might also perform at a Clear Channel venue and have that concert promoted on a Clear Channel billboard.

Thanks to Mr. Mays’s obsession with cash flow, Clear Channel proved one of the best-performing companies of the 1990s, with sales rising from $74 million in 1992 to $8 billion in 1999.

His success, though, invited backlash. Artists claimed that Clear Channel was engaged in pay-to-play arrangements. Activists accused the business of favoring conservative voices and issues, particularly during the run-up to the Iraq War. And critics said that its market dominance was squeezing out smaller companies — and with them, musical diversity.

“Everybody gets the same McDonald’s hamburger,” the musician Don Henley testified before Congress during hearings in which several senators excoriated Mr. Mays and his company.

Mr. Mays was nonplused. He was, after all, just a businessman, and he was neither sentimental about the products he sold nor particularly interested in their aesthetic details.

“If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company,” he said in 2003. “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 lack of sentimentality continued to serve him well when, a few years later, he decided to get out of the business completely. He had surgery in 2005 following a minor stroke, and though he remained engaged with the company, he handed over most day-to-day operations to his sons and longtime lieutenants, Mark and Randall Mays.

For all the changes that he had brought to the music industry, he could also see that even more disruption was coming, thanks to the internet. In 2006, he agreed to sell the company to the private equity firms Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital for $17.9 billion.

Clear Channel’s fortunes changed almost immediately. It was shackled by debt, hampered by the Great Recession, challenged by changes in consumer taste and, critics said, undermined by listeners’ aversion to a radio monoculture that Mr. Mays had helped usher in. The company struggled for years, even after rebranding itself as iHeartMedia in 2014.

Mr. Mays kept a low profile and was famously press shy, particularly for a Texas billionaire. But he did grant the occasional interview, including a brief conversation with Texas Monthly in 2018.

When asked why he had sold Clear Channel when he did, he replied simply, “It was best for the family to sell and take the chips off the table.”

Lester Lowry Mays was born in Houston and was raised in the Dallas suburbs. His father, a steel executive named Lester T. Mays, died in a car accident when Lowry was 10, leaving his mother, Virginia (Lowry) Mays, to keep the family afloat by selling real estate.

Lowry Mays studied petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University, working summers on oil rigs. He graduated in 1957 and joined the Air Force, where he oversaw the construction of an oil pipeline in Taiwan — an experience that involved managing 10,000 people, giving him his first taste of running a big organization.

After receiving his M.B.A. from Harvard in 1962, Mr. Mays returned to Texas, where he worked for an investment firm for eight years before starting his own in 1970.

He proved to be an adept businessman: In order to drum up investors for a San Antonio photo developing company, he hired one boy to write down the license plates of all the cars in the developer’s parking lot, and another to get the addresses for all of the plates at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Mr. Mays then sent a solicitation letter to each address.

He founded the San Antonio Broadcasting Company in 1972, soon after acquiring KEEZ, and changed its name to Clear Channel in 1975. Though he had never shown an interest in media, he immersed himself in the business. He understood the great potential for talk radio better than most, and switched several of his early acquisitions to that format; many observers have credited Clear Channel with driving the boom in conservative talk shows in the 1990s.

Even as the company grew rapidly, he insisted that his goal was not market dominance, or even growth itself. In an industry full of outsize personalities both onstage and in the boardroom, he succeeded by being quiet, even boring.

“I’m not concerned with how big we are,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “I’m not even sure I know what ‘big’ means.”

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The New York Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.”

Also see the Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “L. Lowry Mays, builder of radio empire, dies at 87.” The opening grafs:

L. Lowry Mays, a Texas investment banker who stumbled into the radio business with the purchase of a single local station in 1972 and over the next three decades built his company, Clear Channel Communications, into the largest radio empire in the United States, died Sept. 12 at his home in San Antonio.

Mr. Mays had a Harvard MBA — and more knowledge of the oil industry than broadcasting — when his first radio property, the small San Antonio station KEEZ-FM, landed in his lap. According to an account in the magazine Texas Monthly, a group of investors had persuaded Mr. Mays to co-sign a loan for the purchase of the station but defaulted, leaving him the owner.

“I had no intention of getting into the broadcast business,” Mr. Mays said in 1992.

He formed a partnership with B.J. “Red” McCombs, a car dealer who later became an owner of athletic teams including the San Antonio Spurs, the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Vikings, and in 1975 purchased WOAI, an AM station also based in San Antonio.

WOAI was clear or “clear channel,” meaning that no other stations could operate on its frequency. The term gave their company its name, and Clear Channel Communications, which Mr. Mays led as chairman and chief executive, went public in 1984.

From the outset, Mr. Mays was set on expansion, because with every additional radio station purchased came greater advertising reach. “I’m in the business of selling automobiles and tamales,” he told Forbes magazine in 1997. He boosted his acquisitions through investment in his sales force and cultivated audiences through promotions including on-air giveaways.

The turning point for Clear Channel, and for the modern radio industry as a whole, came with the deregulatory trend of the 1990s that culminated with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which vastly reduced restrictions on how many stations a single owner could control in a particular market.

The law precipitated consolidation across radio broadcasting, and Clear Channel Communications became the largest owner of radio stations in the country.

Among other acquisitions, the company purchased Jacor Communications in 1998 — an acquisition that included the syndicated talk shows of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger — and AMFM in 2000. In the Washington area, Clear Channel owned music stations including DC101 and Hot 99.5 as well as sports-talk WTEM-AM.

By 2004, Clear Channel owned more than 1,200 radio stations and more than 40 television channels in the United States, as well as radio stations around the world, reaching sales of $9 billion. The company ventured into billboard advertising and concert promotion with the purchase of SFX Entertainment in 2000. It became, in the description of the New York Times, “a media empire upon which the sun never sets, from gospel radio in Greensboro, N.C., to billboards in Beijing.”…

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