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Clear Channel's revamp to iHeartMedia puts digital center stage

Clear Channel adopts the iHeart moniker from its online arm, underscoring how distinctions between tech and terrestrial radio are falling at the biggest company on the AM/FM dial.

Clear Channel's online brand iHeartRadio has the spotlight as the terrestrial radio giant adopts its moniker for the company. Getty Images

Clear Channel on Tuesday refashioned itself as iHeartMedia, accentuating how the lines between online and AM/FM radio are blurring at the country's biggest company on the broadcast dial.

"It's not a company with a bunch of old radio stations and outdoor [billboards] anymore," Chief Executive Bob Pittman said in an interview. "We've transformed, so let's now take a name that matters."

iHeartRadio is Clear Channel's digital arm, a Pandora-like online service that also hosts the digital streams of the company's 840 traditional radio stations like KIIS FM in Los Angeles. Effective Tuesday, CC Media Holdings Inc. became iHeartMedia Inc. The company's over-the-counter stock ticker symbol will also change, effective Wednesday.

Streaming is the industry's most promising segment of growth, but tech-centered outfits like Pandora -- the Web's biggest radio operator -- and on-demand subscription services like Apple's Beats Music and Spotify tend to attract the most attention as they race to dominate the burgeoning sector. By recasting itself as iHeartMedia, Clear Channel not only recognizes the company itself has changed but also believes it will get due credit in the tech community for its gargantuan scope, Pittman said.

In tech, people "find out you've also got Clear Channel, and they downgrade their opinion of you," Pittman said. "If you look at the reach that our broadcast radio stations have and you realize that actually they share digital and over-the-air, every one of the them, there's a lot of tricks that we can do."

Despite the attention lavished on upstarts like Beats and Spotify, iHeartRadio has rocketed to top standings: According to researcher ComScore's measurements for July, iHeartRadio lagged only Pandora in unique visitors, with its 51.4 million uniques dwarfing iTunes's 28.8 million and Spotify's 25.3 million. In June, iHeartRadio hit the milestone of 50 million registered users in three years, a pace it touts as being faster than any other music service and outstripping that of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Given how the iHeart label has been attached to Clear Channel's high-profile events like the iHeartRadio Music Festival, the transition may seem a long time coming, but Pittman said the outright idea to overhaul the company's public face came in only the last six weeks. And he knows the difference a name makes.

"I used to work for a company called Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment. We changed the name to MTV Networks," he said. Entering a room and dropping the name MTV versus Warner Amex meant a conversation would begin, he said, and Clear Channel noticed the same phenomenon as its employees would explain "I work at iHeartRadio" to avoid blank reactions to the name Clear Channel.

"You have this buzz," he said, adding that mixing such hype with Clear Channel's sheer media power should be an intimidating combination. "If you want to play in a big sandbox, come play with us, because we really crush everybody else in terms of total usage."