Lowry Mays, a businessman who inadvertently acquired an area radio station within the early Seventies after which built it right into a media empire called Clear Channel Communications, which revolutionized the whole industry, died on Monday at his home in San Antonio. He was 87.
A representative of the Mays Family Foundation, a nonprofit that Mr. Mays founded together with his wife, Peggy, confirmed the death but didn’t provide a cause.
Mr. Mays was a petroleum engineer turned investment banker when he agreed in 1972 to co-sign a loan to buy KEEZ, an FM station struggling to survive at a time when most individuals still listened to AM. When the unique buyers backed out, Mr. Mays and his business partner, Billy Joe McCombs, were left owning a property they’d no interest, let alone experience, in operating.
Mr. Mays did, nonetheless, have a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, in addition to a present for fixing failing balance sheets. He bought more stations over the subsequent 25 years and branched into television within the late Eighties. He ran a good operation, keeping costs low, money flow high and Wall Street wanting to finance his every move.
When Congress loosened regulations on the radio industry in 1996, Clear Channel was ready. Over the subsequent five years, Mr. Mays went on a spending spree, growing the business to some 1,200 stations from 40 by 2001, greater than triple the number owned by its closest competitor, Cumulus. At that time, Clear Channel controlled an estimated 10 percent of all radio stations, an astounding achievement in an industry that until then had been run mostly by mom-and-pop operations.
Along the best way, it wolfed up event promotion, live music, sports management and billboard corporations. By the early 2000s, Mr. Mays held sway over a media empire: Artists who appeared on a Clear Channel station may also perform at a Clear Channel venue and have that concert promoted on a Clear Channel billboard.
Because of Mr. Mays’s obsession with money flow, Clear Channel proved to be one in every of the best-performing corporations of the Nineteen Nineties, with sales rising to $8 billion in 1999 from $74 million in 1992.
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, particularly in the course of the run-up to the Iraq war. And critics said that its market dominance was squeezing out smaller corporations — and, with them, musical diversity.
“Everybody gets the identical McDonald’s hamburger,” the musician Don Henley testified before Congress during hearings through which several senators excoriated Mr. Mays and his company.
Mr. Mays was nonplused. He was, in spite of everything, only a businessman, and he was neither sentimental in regards to the products he sold nor particularly eager about their aesthetic details.
“If anyone said we were within the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company,” he told Fortune in 2003. “We’re not within the business of providing news and knowledge. We’re not within the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply within the business of selling our customers products.”
That lack of sentimentality continued to serve him well when, just 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 corporate, he handed over most day-to-day operations to his sons and longtime lieutenants, Mark and Randall.
For all of the changes that he had dropped at the music industry, Mr. Mays could also see that much more disruption was coming, due to the web. In 2006, he agreed to sell the corporate to the private equity firms Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital for $17.9 billion.
Clear Channel’s fortunes modified 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 corporate 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 temporary 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 on July 24, 1935, in Houston and was raised within the Dallas suburbs. His father, Lester T. Mays, a steel executive, died in a automobile accident when Lowry was 10, leaving his mother, Virginia (Lowry) Mays, to maintain the family afloat by selling real estate.
Mr. Mays studied petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University and worked summers on oil rigs. He graduated in 1957 and joined the Air Force, where he oversaw the development of an oil pipeline in Taiwan — an experience that involved managing 10,000 people, giving him his first taste of running an enormous organization.
He married Peggy Pitman in 1959. She died in 2020. Along together with his sons, he’s survived by two daughters, Kathryn Mays Johnson and Linda Mays McCaul; 16 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
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. To drum up investors for a San Antonio photo developing company, he hired one boy to write down down the license plates of all of the cars within the developer’s parking zone, and one other to get the addresses for all the plates on the Department of Motor Vehicles. Mr. Mays then sent a solicitation letter to every address.
He founded the San Antonio Broadcasting Company in 1972, soon after acquiring KEEZ, and altered its name to Clear Channel in 1975. Though he had never shown an interest in media, he immersed himself within the business. He understood the good potential for talk radio higher than most, and he switched several of his early acquisitions to that format. Many observers have credited Clear Channel with driving the boom in conservative talk shows within the Nineteen Nineties.
At the same time as the corporate grew rapidly, Mr. Mays insisted that his goal was not market dominance, and even growth itself. In an industry filled with outsize personalities each onstage and within the boardroom, he succeeded by being quiet, even boring.
“I’m not concerned with how big we’re,” he told The Recent York Times in 2000. “I’m not even sure I do know what ‘big’ means.”