Former AOL exec returns to his roots in radio

Since stepping away from AOL Time Warner in 2002, Robert Pittman never really left the media biz, but his appointment Monday to a senior exec post at Clear Channel still marks a return of sorts.

Not only does it bring him back to his roots in radio, but the Clear Channel gig also raises Pittman’s profile again after years of quietly running his own private investment firm. In addition to serving as chairman of media and entertainment platforms at Clear Channel, Pittman has made an equity investment in the company, the largest radio operator in the U.S., with 850 stations and 97 million listeners a week. Clear Channel is owned by private equity firms Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners.

Pittman began his career at 15 as an announcer on daytime AM station WCHJ in his native Mississippi while he was still in high school. The station, now a gospel format, is not part of the Clear Channel family today.

Pittman will focus mostly on digital strategies, working closely with Clear Channel CEO John Hogan.

He told CNBC on Monday: “This is my game. Half the story is telling the story. We’ve got the consumer base. We just have to offer them the features. That’s the driver’s seat to be in.”

Pittman returns to broadcast radio as such competing services as recommendation site Pandora gain traction and satellite subscription service Sirius XM counts more than 20 million subscribers.

Pittman will likely take over the former duties of Evan Harrison, who ran digital strategy for Clear Channel for years before resigning in August.

Harrison’s work included creating the live music “Stripped” video series on local station websites and ramping up the iheartradio mobile app.

Pittman said he sees digital not as a threat to radio, but as an opportunity.

Pittman made his way to New York’s WNBC station when he was only 23, and his career skyrocketed after that: a founding executive at MTV, top jobs at Six Flags, Century 21 and eventually, AOL and AOL Time Warner, where he was serving as co-chief operating officer with Richard Parsons when he resigned under pressure in 2002 amid a clash of cultures between the Time Warner and AOL camps.

A year later, he created the Pilot Group as a vehicle to invest in old and new media. Those investments have included Daily Candy (sold to Comcast for $125 million), Barrington Broadcasting, Double O Radio, Thrillist, Plum TV, Casa Dragones Tequila and Stereogum.

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