Clear Channel radio founder Lowry Mays dies at 87

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L. Lowry Mays, a Texas investment banker who fell 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, in the largest radio empire in the United States, died September 12 at his home in San Antonio. He was 87 years old.

His family announced his death. The cause was not immediately available. Clear Channel Communications, which was sold in a leveraged buyout in 2008, was the predecessor company to iHeartRadio.

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

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

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

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

From the outset, Mr. Mays focused on expansion, as each additional radio station purchased came with greater advertising reach. “I sell automobiles and tamales,” he told Forbes magazine in 1997. He spurred his acquisitions by investing in his sales force and cultivated his following through promotions, including giveaways at the antenna.

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

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

Among other acquisitions, the company bought 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 talk about WTEM-AM sports.

In 2004, Clear Channel owned over 1,200 radio stations and over 40 television stations 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, as described by The New York Times, “a media empire upon which the sun does not never sets, from gospel radio in Greensboro, North Carolina, to billboards in Beijing.

Lowry Mays [was] the great consolidator after the Telecom Act of 1996,” said Tom Taylor, a journalist who covered the radio industry for 30 years, including as editor of the Inside Radio newsletter. “It was a time when people felt they had to get fat or get out, and Lowry had no doubt which side he was on. He was going to get fat.”

Clear Channel’s dominance has increasingly drawn criticism from musicians and their advocates. who argued that consolidation had stifled the creativity that once flourished at local radio stations and placed artists at the mercy of big business for airtime.

“To listeners who yearn for a time when their favorite radio station was independent, eclectic in its programming, and as sensitive as a tripwire to breaking local news,” wrote New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg in 2008, “Clear Channel is nothing less than the evil empire.

Don Henley, founding member of rock band The Eagles and representative of the Recording Artists’ Coalition, argued before the Senate Commerce Committee in 2003 that “the airwaves belong to the public, just as the national forests belong to the public.” Mr. Mays, who also testified in those proceedings, defended Clear Channel as having rescued stations that might otherwise have failed and provided listeners with wider access to popular formats.

Mr Mays suffered a blood clot in 2004 and was replaced as chief executive by his son Mark Mays. His son Randall Mays was chief financial officer and his daughter Kathryn Mays Johnson was senior vice president of corporate relations. (Another daughter, Linda Mays McCaul, is an oceanographer and wife of U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas.)

In 2008, after a long negotiation process, Clear Channel Communications was acquired by Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners for $17.9 billion. The radio industry was evolving beyond the era Mr. Mays had helped define, with competition from satellite radio and streaming services.

“It was better for the family to sell and take the chips off the table,” Mr. Mays told Texas Monthly.

Lester Lowry Mays was born in Houston on July 24, 1935 and grew up in Dallas. His father, who worked in the steel industry, died in a traffic accident when Mr Mays was 10. His mother supported him and his sister as a real estate agent, then remarried.

Intent on becoming a savage, Mr. Mays earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M University in 1957. He then served in the Air Force, traveling to Taiwan to help supervise building a pipeline for the Chinese Nationalist government in a military exchange.

He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard in 1962 before returning to Texas to work in investment banking, starting his own company in 1970.

Mr. Mays maintained a ranch near Spring Branch, Texas, where he raised exotic animals, including zebras, kudus, oryx and bongos.

He established the Mays Family Foundation and was a prolific philanthropist, donating a total of $47 million to Texas A&M, where the business school is named for him and his family. The Mays family also supported the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, whose facilities include the Lowry and Peggy Mays Clinic in Houston.

His 61-year-old wife, the former Peggy Pitman, died in 2020. Besides her four children, survivors include 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Mays was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2004. “Perhaps no one has had a greater impact on radio in the 21st century,” the quote read, “than L. Lowry Mays.”

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