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Charlie Warner’s Media ‘Children’ On How Their Mentor Shaped Their Careers.

You may not know Charlie Warner but chances are you’ve heard of some of his media prodigies. Warner, a longtime media guru who died June 8 at the age of 91, possessed an uncanny ability to spot future media leaders and trendsetters – young people in whom he saw potential – get them jobs and then mentor them throughout their wildly successful careers in the evolving media industry.

Born in Chicago on Feb. 23, 1932, Warner was a product of advertising’s “Mad Men” era, who worked at CBS in the Bill Paley-Frank Stanton era. He started in TV ad sales in 1957 in Spartanburg, SC, before landing sales gigs in Washington, DC and then New York. By 1970 he was VP/GM of CBS Radio Spot Sales and managed famous radio stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York, before making the transition from traditional to digital media back in the dial-up modem days.

Perennially at the vanguard of innovation, Warner invented the concept of online political advertising. In 1983 he founded the Mass Communication Department at Menlo College, just as he began a long and phenomenally successful broadcast and cable sales and management training and consulting business, used by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Belo, Gannett, and Clear Channel. A Professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Warner’s book “Media Selling,” an update of “Broadcast and Cable Selling,” has been adopted by over 70 universities and colleges and purchased by countless media organizations globally.

Wildly curious throughout his entire life, including his final years –he made the trek to Burning Man for the first time at age 81 – Warner remained active until the end, teaching students about data and technology in the graduate Media Management Program at The New School in New York.

Here are just a few of “Charlie’s Children.”

Bob Pittman, Chairman & CEO, iHeartMedia

The son of a Methodist minister, Bob Pittman was hired at age 19 by Charlie Warner as program director at top 40 WPEZ-FM Pittsburgh (now WWSW). As an NBC Radio exec, Warner took Pittman with him to WMAQ-AM Chicago and then on to the company’s radio flagship – WNBC-AM New York. “One-hundred percent of that jump is because a guy named Charlie Warner decided he could trust a 20 year-old in Chicago and count on me in New York at age 23,” Pittman recalls.

As he did with other media execs throughout his career, Warner saw something in Pittman, took him under his wing, and began a relationship that lasted for decades. Says Pittman, “Not only did he give me the jobs, but he took the time to try and help me make the jump from some rube from Mississippi to somebody who could understand how corporations work. He' was telling me that you eat at this restaurant, here's where all the media people go, here's how you dress. He was supportive in business, but also helped train me in a total way to survive and thrive in corporate America. There is zero chance I'd be here today we’re it not for Charlie Warner.”

In 1979, Warner introduced Pittman to John Lack, Executive VP of Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment. Lack hired Pittman as head of programming at what became MTV. As he learned the cable TV biz and helped launch the channel that would redefine music and pop culture, Pittman used Warner as sounding board.

Their roles reversed in 1998 when Pittman, now Chief Operating Officer of America Online, hired Charlie to help restructure AOL's Interactive Marketing Division. Pittman says Warner deserves some of the credit for “building that digital advertising juggernaut” that led to digital becoming the biggest form of advertising today.

“Charlie was always my advisor. That never changed,” Pittman explains. “Whether he was a media sales consultant, whether he was a professor, whether he was an employee of AOL or NBC, he was still the teacher.”

Warner retired from AOL in 2002 and became a part-time associate professor in the Media Management Program at The New School in New York City.

Jim Spencer, Founder & Former CEO, Newsy

Jim Spencer, a media entrepreneur who helped lead start-ups and established internet, mobile and media and tech companies, was mentored by Charlie Warner in the late 1980s when Warner taught at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Spencer, a graduate student studying Media Management was Warner’s teaching assistant. “He strongly encouraged me and very kindly had the belief in me that I could be a leader in media management,” Spencer recalls.

Spencer would later found Newsy, an early online, mobile and OTT video news service that was acquired by the E.W. Scripps Co., and also served as VP of Answers at Ask Jeeves. It was Warner who nurtured Spencer’s interest in the internet as part of a relationship that lasted decades. In 1991, Warner and Spencer began playing around with CompuServe and some of the early message boards during the primordial days of the web. “Charlie always embraced the next technological wave, from his love of the transistor radio all the way up to the iPhone,” says Spencer. “He changed my life.” When Spencer founded Newsy, Warner advised him on business models and other aspects of the service.

While he taught at universities and authored books, Warner’s teachings went far beyond the pragmatic and practical. “He taught you how to think, he taught you how to listen,” Spencer explains. Warner was also known for his incessant networking. “Many of the people that I worked for and trained under, were all in one way or another, connected back to Charlie,” Spencer says. “He had this uncanny ability to identify and nurture and grow talent, unlike anybody that I've ever seen in my life.”

Michael Bassik, CEO, digital ad agency Optimal

Michael Bassik interviewed for an internship at America Online in the fledgling days of the World Wide Web when AOL was viewed as one of the coolest companies on the planet. The internship was in the interactive marketing department in the sales division – the only problem was Bassik had a background in journalism and politics and knew nothing about ad sales. Despite this lack of experience, Bassik got more than the internship. “You’re hired on one condition,” Charlie Warner told him. “I will teach you everything I know about sales and you will teach me everything you know about politics.”

It was 2000, a presidential election year, and Warner had his sights set on the mountains of cash being spent in the Gore-Bush presidential contest. “We should go down to Washington together and sell advertising on AOL to candidates running for office,” Warner told Bassik. The one caveat was that online political advertising wasn’t a thing yet. “At that point, not only had no candidate for office ever advertised on the internet, but political advertising was also banned as an ad category on AOL,” Bassik recalls. The two jumped on the AOL jet to Dulles, VA to meet with AOL’s deputy general counsel and head of policy. “We made the argument that political speech is free speech, and we should accept political advertising on AOL,” Bassik recounts. Corporate brass ultimately agreed and the two were soon meeting with the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. In short order, a lucrative new ad category was born – online political advertising, today a multi-billion dollar ad category.

Bassik ended up running AOL’s political advertising division. Today, at age 44, he is CEO of Optimal, one of the largest online political advertising firms in the country. “Charlie inspired me; he taught me quite literally everything I know,” Bassik says.

Ginny Westphal, former ABC Radio and Viacom exec

Ginney Westphal was in her mid-twenties when Charlie Warner landed at WNBC-AM New York in 1977, beginning an almost 50-year relationship with him. Westphal was a salesperson at WNBC in need of leadership. “I was toiling in the metaphorical dungeon of new business development,” she says.

Always decisive, Warner inherited and fired Don Imus and set about repositioning WNBC with Bob Pittman as PD.

“Charlie put WNBC's new format into genre and market-wide context. He gave us the tools to excel at competing in the market even with a three-share,” Westphal remembers. “Much later in my career when I was challenged similarly with a good product in an ultra-competitive market, I called on what he taught me.”

When Warner upped Westphal to WNBC head of sales, she says it may have cost Warner his job. “Even though I did as good, if not better, than anyone else had in that chair, when Charlie was fired I was demoted and ultimately left the station,” she recounts. Westphal went to WPLJ as Sales Manager, then to Director of the ABC Rock Radio Network in NY. After relocating to San Francisco, she became the Director of Advertising Sales at Viacom’s Cable Division, ultimately rising to VP of Marketing, Sales and Programming. That was followed by “Bay Area entrepreneurial things,” like launching an early internet radio start-up in 2001.

Westphal hired Warner as a consultant on several occasions to train her sales teams. “He was a strategist, a supreme teacher, a thoughtful and broad imagineer,” she says. “He was outrageous, larger than life, he had the passionate curiosity of a 10 year old, and the energy to match. He was ageless, still in the thick of it at 90. He persuaded by force of personality.”

Paul Corvino, Regional President, iHeartMedia

In the early 1990s, Charlie Warner was looking to hire a VP of Sales at America Online, where he was working as a consultant. Introduced to Paul Corvino via a recruiter, they met at a diner, where Warner explained Bob Pittman’s vision for the company. “Bob is now running this company with Steve Case, and he believes that this online internet thing can actually become media, that eventually people are going to be able to buy and sell things on a computer,” Warner told Corvino. “All we have to do is make it easy to use and accessible to the masses.” Surrounded by tech experts, Pittman and Case needed to hire media people and Corvino – a former Managing Director at The New York Times, and Head of Corporate Sales and Marketing for Cablevision Systems – fit the bill.

Warner helped Corvino understand the lay of the land at AOL and what needed to get done, Corvino recalls. “Charlie slowed me down at times, taught me when to pick my fights. We strategized on the best way to find talent to put the right organization in flow.” Corvino later hired Warner as an employee at AOL. “It was a true partnership. He guided me in so many different ways to help advance my career,” Corvino says.

Today, when strategizing as a Regional President at iHeartMedia, Corvino will “sit back and say, ‘What would Charlie do?’” One trait he admires most about his mentor is that even as he aged, he never lost his innate curiosity and desire to keep pushing ahead, whether it was selling advertising programmatically or embracing AI. As Corvino noted, “Charlie at every age was embracing every new form of technology, every new idea on business, new strategies, new ways of looking at the world, new ways of setting up organizational structures,” Corvino says. “He never stopped learning and changing.”

Pittman, Spencer, Bassik, Westphal and Corvino are just a few of the many media industry leaders whose lives were deeply impacted by the curious, insightful, generous, and visionary force of nature that was Charlie Warner. They, and the scores of others who were influenced, mentored, taught and shaped by Warner over the decades, are an enormous part of the legacy that he leaves behind.

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