iHeartMedia Turns the Dial

Tres Williams shares how an old-fashioned radio company became a leading media brand

As the last note rang out in the nightclub, Tres Williams scurried off stage and wove his way through the turbulent crowd to break down his gear, collect the cash, and check in at the next venue. Williams, a saxophone player and de facto band manager, found himself in the middle of the frenetic southeastern rock and jam band scene that hit fever pitch in the 1990s. He started promoting concerts and events through college and later at an Atlanta venue. And when a New York newspaper ad caught his eye, Williams landed an entry-level position as an assistant at Zomba, parent company of Jive Records, the pop label at the time known for best-selling artists Britney Spears, R. Kelly, NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys.

While there, Williams got a behind-the-scenes look at the industry’s inner workings as labels, artists, media companies, and corporations fought piracy and battled tooth and nail for a piece of the new digital landscape. His early mentor was Zomba’s top lawyer, who noticed Williams had a penchant for contracts and deals and helped the enterprising musician enroll in evening classes at Brooklyn Law School. While Williams studied and eventually earned his JD, he was also busy in his day job at Zomba, defending against rampant piracy being facilitated by services such as Napster and mp3.com. BMG acquired Zomba and eventually merged with Sony. Shortly after, iTunes started selling singles. Consumers changed behaviors and drove trends.

As the music industry struggled through the growing pains of the digital era, Williams embraced one idea that often rose to the surface of his mind: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” In 2006, after spending three years as Sony BMG’s associate director of business affairs, Williams left to join eMusic, where he helped the independent MP3 distributor negotiate deals. He then moved to Thumbplay in 2008, where he licensed rights from record labels and music publishers to launch an on-demand streaming service similar to Spotify, but before Spotify existed in the United States. Clear Channel acquired that company in 2011, and Clear Channel changed its name to iHeartMedia in 2014.

Williams, along with about seventy colleagues from Thumbplay, were quickly put to work in the relaunch of iHeartMedia’s digital music and live streaming radio service, iHeartRadio, just four months after Thumbplay’s acquisition. Williams now leads iHeartMedia’s business and legal affairs team and has spent the last several years helping iHeartMedia evolve from the old Clear Channel into a leading next generation media company. Today, the worldwide company’s operations include radio broadcasting; online, mobile, digital and social media; live concerts; special events; and more. With 85 million social media followers, nearly 900 radio stations, and more than 250 million monthly listeners in the United States, iHeart boasts the largest reach of any radio or television outlet in America.

Williams relies on lessons learned at Zomba, eMusic, and elsewhere to lead a business and legal affairs team that helps various divisions of a large company work together to maximize profits and minimize risk. “My team works with every facet of iHeartMedia’s businesses,” he explains. “We are the central glue that connects various teams in a huge and fast-moving modern company.”

In recent years, iHeartMedia has built a reputation for high-octane live events, music festivals, and national tours. Each large project requires deals with numerous artists and partners, and each project presents various opportunities and revenue streams from sponsorships, television deals, and elsewhere. Thousands of iHeartMedia employees work behind the scenes to grow these events and products through innovation and advancement while adding more radio stations, personalities, and promotions. Williams’s office is where many of these efforts converge. “We work with all the different parts of iHeart to make sure their various interests are aligned and that all of the important details are communicated and captured in a contract so everything goes smoothly. That’s how we ensure the company thrives in the new world,” he explains.

It’s no secret that it takes a special team to accomplish the varied tasks necessary to make iHeart run efficiently. “Urgency is a key value for my team and for the entire company,” he says. “We’re a huge media company, but we have to operate as a start-up.” The 14,500-person organization—with cores in New York City and San Antonio—has to remain fast and nimble to compete with other media companies.

And while competition is fierce, Williams believes iHeart has a few key advantages, such as the right combination of talent, leadership, product, and strategic partners. Although the brand leads the way in radio, it has also invested heavily in the digital space. And in that space, visionary leaders such as chairman and CEO Bob Pittman encourage employees to be willing to make mistakes and lead innovation. Additionally, the company can leverage close ties with Snapchat, The CW, Turner, and others to deploy and test new ideas. “We’re not a radio company. We’re a new kind of media company, and we’re pushing the limits of that,” Williams says. “iHeart isn’t just a brand, it’s part of our culture.”

Loaded with deep experience and resources, iHeart has a head start on any competitor that would try to replicate its expertise and infrastructure around the audio experience. For years, others in the tech world have overlooked what the iHeart team is doing. Now, those would-be competitors might have no choice but to take a page from Williams’s own playbook and repeat that oft-heard chorus: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”