Lowry Mays, Founder of Clear Channel Communications, Forerunner of iHeartRadio, Dies at 87

Lowry Mays, the San Antonio entrepreneur who turned Clear Channel Communications, the predecessor to iHeartMedia, into the largest broadcasting conglomerate of the post-consolidation era, died on Monday (Sept. 12) at 87 in his hometown.

Said iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman: “We built this company on the foundation and vision created by Lowry Mays. He started it all from a single station in San Antonio — and look at iHeart today.”

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Mays was an investment banker sporting a Harvard MBA when he founded the San Antonio Broadcasting Company in 1972 with local car dealership owner Red McCombs (who went on to own stakes in the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Vikings), acquiring a single station, KEEZ, and adding WOAI in 1975. The latter was dubbed a “clear channel” station because no other operated on its frequency and its 50,000-watt signal could be heard thousands of miles away on a “clear” night.

Over the next several years the company bought 10 more struggling radio stations and made them profitable, usually by switching the formats to religious or talk programming. Their first non-San Antonio acquisition was KPAC in Port Arthur, Texas, upgraded with a 2,000-ft. tower build near Devers, Texas to cover Houston, but eventually sold.

After renaming it Clear Channel Communications and going public in 1984, the company expanded into television and grew exponentially thanks to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 under then-President Bill Clinton, lifting the national caps on broadcast ownership in each individual market, clearing the way for the massive consolidation to follow. With an infusion of private equity funds, Mays’ Clear Channel eventually owned more than 1,200 radio stations and 41 TV stations across the U.S., acquiring properties including Jacor and AMFM, among others. The company also expanded into outdoor advertising as well as concert and live event promotions through its acquisition of Robert F.X. Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment.

“He saw a playing field that no one else saw,” said Emmis founder/CEO Jeff Smulyan, via InsideRadio. “And he saw it before everybody else.”

In January 2003, Mays testified before Congress about the company’s business practices at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the consolidation of media ownership. The Eagles’ Don Henley also participated, representing the Recording Artists’ Coalition, accusing the company of using its clout to coerce artists into promotional deals to benefit its radio and concert divisions. When Mays argued that radio was less consolidated than other media industries, including movies, TV networks, record labels or newspapers, Henley responded that such comparisons were misleading because airwaves “belong to the public, just like national forests belong to the public.”

After suffering a stroke in 2005, Mays stepped down as Clear Channel CEO, with son Mark taking the reins. Clear Channel went private after a leveraged buyout by Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners. In the interim, the company divested its television properties, changed its name to iHeartMedia, filed for bankruptcy, emerged from Chapter 11, spun off its outdoor and live event divisions, made an aggressive move into podcasting and digital, and laid off much of its workforce.

Mays, a Texas A&M alum, contributed almost $50 million to the university, with its Mays Business School named after him. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2004 in recognition of his impact on the business.

National Association of Broadcasters Pres./CEO Curtis LeGeyt paid tribute to Mays’ legacy through a statement: “NAB is saddened by the passing of Lowry Mays, a trailblazing icon whose historic career revolutionized and reshaped the broadcasting industry. He founded and built one of the foremost media companies in the world through bold and innovative thinking, while his philanthropic and generous spirit helped countless people during his lifetime of service. We extend our deepest condolences to the Mays family and the iHeartMedia community.”

Broadcasters Foundation of America Chairman Scott Herman said: “BFA mourns the loss of one its longtime supporters, Lowry Mays. One of radio’s most prominent leaders, Mays established the Lowry Mays Excellence in Broadcasting Award, bestowed annually at the BFA breakfast to an individual whose work in broadcasting exemplifies innovation, community service, advocacy, and entrepreneurship. We send our condolences to the Mays family.”

Added iHeartMedia’s Pittman: “He was a kind and caring person who influenced countless lives through his generosity. He will be missed, even as his legacy lives on through iHeart.”

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