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Phrases like “trailblazing icon,” “shrewd businessman,” “tough competitor” and “aggressive consolidator” are being used by industry leaders to remember Lowry Mays, the Clear Channel Communications co-founder and CEO who built from scratch a company that changed the face of broadcasting and mass communications. Mays died Monday at 87 after a long illness.

“Lowry Mays did more to shape the face of local radio and television across America,” says Eddie Fritts, who served as President of the National Association of Broadcasters from 1982-2006. Fritts worked alongside Mays, who chaired the NAB Board in the mid-1990s, in securing something for radio in the 1996 Telecom Act. “His vision led the industry toward local consolidation,” says Fritts.

Fritts also recalls a broadcaster, who starting with a single station in San Antonio, grasped the impact broadcasters can have in local communities. “He recognized that consolidation under the FCC rules offered opportunities to expand localism into every market in the country. Indeed, he was a visionary in broadcasting for local radio and television,” says Fritts.

The empire that became the biggest ever in American radio history was started in 1972 by Mays with what was then known as San Antonio Broadcasting Company, later renamed Clear Channel and now known as iHeartMedia. In 1975, he partnered with Red Combs to buy WOAI San Antonio (1200).

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

Under Mays’ leadership, Clear Channel gobbled up other radio companies whole, including giants like Jacor, AMFM and SFX Entertainment. By the late 1990s it owned more than 1,200 radio stations, 41 TV stations, an outdoor business and the country’s largest concert promoter.

“He saw a playing field that no one else saw,” says Emmis Founder and CEO Jeff Smulyan. “And he saw it before everybody else saw it.”

‘Unlikely Candidate To Change Face Of Radio’

After President Bill Clinton signed the sweeping Telecom Act in 1996, Clear Channel took advantage of unlimited national ownership rules to buy up hundreds of radio stations, creating a radio empire not seen before—or since.

“With his MBA and early Wall Street experience, and no background in radio, Lowry was an unlikely candidate to change the face of the radio industry – but he did,” says Tom Taylor, who served as Editor of Inside Radio from 1989 to 1997, and again from 2001 to 2007. “He became the most aggressive consolidator in the business as the ownership rules changed first in 1992 and then – far more dramatically – with the Telecom Act of 1996.”

During the course of his career, former CBS Radio CEO Dan Mason says Mays was both a mentor and a competitor.

“I learned so much from him just watching him,” Mason says. As a 27-year-old General Manager for KTSA San Antonio (550), en route to an NAB convention, Mason spotted Mays and Clear Channel co-founder Red McCombs sitting together at the San Antonio airport. “I was just a kid, and I was looking at these two guys – they were like icons – and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I'm sitting next to Lowry Mays,’” Mason recalls. “He was talking radio and advertising and I'm just sitting there soaking it all in.”

Later, when Mason was the President of Cook-Inlet Broadcasting, he tried to sell some of the group’s stations to Clear Channel. Mays “looked at me and said, ‘I'm not going to buy any stations from you!’ I was stunned and said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because I can't improve them.’”

Calling him “a shrewd businessman who didn't need the spotlight,” Taylor says Mays “changed not only the face of the radio industry, but its underlying structure, as he paid strong prices to construct the most formidable radio group anyone had ever seen. Then when he thought it was time, he sold it, proving that his business instincts remained as keen as ever.”

In 2008, after marathon negotiations, clandestine weekend meetings in airports with financial backers and the threat of mammoth lawsuits, the Mays family sold Clear Channel to Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners for $17.9 billion.

Curtis LeGeyt, NAB’s current President, calls Mays “a trailblazing icon whose historic career revolutionized and reshaped the broadcasting industry.” LeGeyt says it was “bold and innovative thinking” that built Clear Channel into “one of the foremost media companies in the world.”

“His contributions are immeasurable,” says Smulyan. “He shaped the state of American radio for decades.”

‘Philanthropic And Generous Spirit’

Mays is also being remembered for his philanthropic efforts as a generous contributor to the Broadcasters Foundation and other causes.

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

“His philanthropic and generous spirit helped countless people during his lifetime of service,” says LeGeyt.

Mays established the Lowry Mays Excellence in Broadcasting Award, which is bestowed annually at the Broadcasters Foundation breakfast to an individual whose work in broadcasting exemplifies innovation, community service, advocacy, and entrepreneurship. The foundation’s Chairman, Scott Herman, calls Mays “one its longtime supporters [and] one of radio’s most prominent leaders.”

Receiving the award was “one of my greatest honors,” Smulyan adds. “And having Lowry and Mark [Mays] present it to me was just very, very moving.” – Paul Heine