Tom Freston is sitting up front, headphones on, punching out emails to producer Brian Grazer about a script idea involving John Glenn and Charles Lindbergh.
We flew here from Liberia on a borrowed 767 with cream-colored chaise longues and private sleeping quarters. There was a lunch of grilled shrimp and cabernet. From the grimmest of slums in Liberia to opulence at 30,000 feet in the space of a few hours – it's the kind of cultural and socioeconomic whiplash that Freston is used to. He isn't one to go native. He carries Hollywood and Manhattan in his BlackBerry 24/7. Even in the wilds of Chocolate City, where chickens and stray dogs roam muddy roads and children play in abandoned buildings, Freston wears Prada sneakers and carries a Jack Spade bag.
If there's anything that seems to acclimate Freston, it's music. From the back of the bus, I text him: "How's it going?" He texts back: "Into da music, mon. Very nice West African playlist...perfect soundtrack."
Later, he tells me it's his favorite compilation of Ghanaian highlife music, The 'Guitar and the Gun,' from 2003. "They had an unbelievable scene in the Seventies and Eighties," he says. "A whole psychedelic era, garage bands, all kinds of shit."
When Hindu Kush folded, Freston read his first self-help book, 'What Color Is Your Parachute?' – the bible of aimless Baby Boomers – and concluded that music was his passion. Luckily for him, while he was in Afghanistan, his brother had become an executive at Columbia Records: "'We're going to see Bruce Springsteen at the Bottom Line,' and I'd say, 'Man, I could do this. This looks like fun,'" Freston says.
For Freston, snagging a job interview with the not-yet-named MTV was a stroke of unimaginable luck. "They said, 'We're looking for people who have no experience in television,'" recalls Freston. "I said, 'I'm your guy. They didn't even have television where I just spent the last eight years'... They all assumed I was a drug dealer."
Freston was MTV's fifth hire, soon to become a business partner to a whole generation of pop stars, from U2 to Fab 5 Freddy, whose careers he would help mint in the music-video era. Early on, he found himself at a ski resort in Gstaad, Switzerland, where David Bowie had agreed to shoot the famous "I Want My MTV" promo clip. "I'm in the sauna with Bowie," Freston recalls, "and who else is there? Paul McCartney! Everyone had towels on."
It took him about four years to pay down his debt. Seven years in, he was CEO. While he helped develop the channel, Freston imprinted the corporate culture with the free-range ethos he'd learned as a bootstrapping exporter. "He has that easy, affable nature that rock & rollers like to be around because they're a little anxious around obvious corporate-type people," says Bono. "This belies that he's expert in a boardroom, and that is his secret weapon. Tom is highly organized and better briefed and more articulate than a lot of those corporate people. It's just that he doesn't look like he is."
Judy McGrath, MTV's former programming chief, and Freston's top lieutenant, says Freston's grooviness masked his relentless will to succeed. "We know executives who flame out because they get captivated by the glamour," says McGrath. "It was never, 'Let's just party all the time.' You would have a blast, but it wouldn't feel like work. It's like Tom Sawyer. You didn't even realize you painted a fence."
Freston became as rich as he'd ever dreamed back at the Wee Burn Country Club. He was married in 1980 to Margaret Badali, a Wall Street trader, and had two sons, but it was over by 1993, his relationship strained by his nonstop lifestyle. Freston says what he loved most about his job was the power to make people into stars, to "take somebody from out of the crowd and hold them forward and all of a sudden they're some big phenomenon."
The cultural contributions of Freston's success ranged from the memorable and progressive ('Beavis and Butt-Head,' 'Yo! MTV Raps,' 'SpongeBob Squarepants,' 'Blue's Clues') to the utterly stupid and vacuous ('MTV Spring Break,' 'The Real World,' and pretty much the entire reality-TV genre that came after). What you couldn't argue with was its export value.
"His global background and instincts are superimportant," says Craig Marks, co-author of 'I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution'. "He oversaw MTV's worldwide expansion- Europe, Latin America, Asia. That's where MTV made a ton of fucking money. He was the perfect guy to do that. He had that background; he had that field of vision."
Under Freston, MTV Networks, which included Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, grew into the biggest TV network in the world. It's why, in 2004, Redstone offered him a job as co-operating officer of Viacom, along with CBS president Les Moonves. It took Freston 24 hours to decide. And even as he accepted, he realized he was sacrificing the values that had made him successful to become a full-time servant to Wall Street. "For the first time in my career," he says. "I was taking a job that I wasn't dying for."
In exchange for the power profile, Freston now lived on a treadmill of corporate panels put on by investment banks, always preparing for the next grilling by Wall Street analysts. Redstone hovered over him. "I'd come in in the morning, and there would be a stack of faxes from him," says Freston. "'What about the stock price?' 'We didn't do this in the earnings call.'"
Freston felt he did everything right, but the stock market did not agree. When Viacom's shares stagnated, Redstone decided to split the company and give Freston half the cable and film properties and Moonves the other half, CBS. But in the new digital revolution, where Google and Yahoo! were the dominant paradigm, an old-line content company like Viacom struggled. Eight months in, Freston was fired.
To escape the media glare, he took off on a trip to Burma. He says he was humiliated by reports of his golden parachute because he felt it exposed him. "The kids are coming home and saying, 'Dad, everybody at school says you made $85 million,'" he says. "I pride myself on having relationships with people from all economic strata. You didn't want to be seen as some rich white guy. It wasn't in keeping with my delusional self-image."
He was bombarded by messages from prospective employers upon his return, but he decided it was time to reexamine the color of his parachute. So he organized a trip to Africa to see the Festival in the Desert in Mali, the famously remote concert of Tuareg music frequented by musical adventurers like Robert Plant. For companionship, he took his MTV friend Bill Flanagan and his two favorite music moguls, margarita man Jimmy Buffett and Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, who first signed Bob Marley and U2. (They dubbed themselves the Buktu Brothers.) In 2005, Blackwell had hosted Freston's 60th-birthday bash at his GoldenEye resort in Jamaica, where Freston's all-star friends, including Jann Wenner and Graydon Carter, swam, danced, and listened to reggae bands, and Rastafarian waiters walked around offering joints.
Buffett flew the gang in his private jet to Mali's capital, Bamako, where on a lark they sought out the members of a defunct 1970s Afro-Cuban group they all loved called the Super Rail Band. Freston asked a local if any of the original members were still around, and a phone call later, the story goes, the guitar player appeared and said the band would reunite for $300. "Next thing you know, some amps show up and the Super Rail Band shows up," marvels Buffett.
In Ghana, the ONE bus takes us to a village tucked in a wooded grove along the Cape Coast, where a couple hundred villagers come together to celebrate the opening of their first working bathroom, an adobe-style outhouse built by the U.S. government. A festival in the desert with the Buktu Brothers it's not. The ONE delegation, about a dozen consultants from Washington, including Clinton-administration press secretary Dee Dee Myers and former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, gathers to watch women and children in ceremonial costumes dance to pounding djembe drums. A large, corn-fed conservative from Kansas is made king for the day, outfitted in a batik robe and a golden crown - and then hoisted, precariously, by skinny villagers on a ceremonial plank.
"White man's burden," Freston quips.
Later, Freston walks up to the new outhouse and announces, "I want to inaugurate this thing!"
Maybe it's just his serene moguldom, but Freston, whose craggy features recall Lee Marvin after a bong hit, is a little too cool for the earnest NGO crowd. Freston believes Africa is a place of vast potential, but on the ground, among actual Africans, he can seem a bit detached, distracted by the lure of his BlackBerry, not quite the lonely planeteer his friends whisper about at dinner parties. Greeted by a village elder in a robe and crown and carrying a golden scepter, Freston blithely snaps his photo before shaking his hand. He's no Margaret Mead.
Freston, however, did manage to salvage Bono's organization from dissolution, which is why we're here at all. After his firing from Viacom, one of Freston's first calls was from the Irish rock star, whose advice Freston sums up as "Fuck 'em." "How much more successful can you get?" Bono remembers asking Freston at the time. "He was right at the top of the pyramid. He had some crazy billionaire standing on his neck, but here was a guy who had much life force and wisdom."
So Bono conscripted Steve Jobs - Apple is a sponsor of Bono's AIDS charity – to lobby Freston to overhaul his various nonprofits. After a visit to Bono's mansion in the south of France, Freston agreed to travel to Washington for a crash course in foreign policy and nonprofits, meeting up with political heavies like former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Bush White House chief of staff Josh Bolten.
Bono says he admires Freston for his ironic sense of humor, a useful trait when faced with nonstop scenes of poverty and disease. He also liked that Freston could party pretty hard. "We can stay up later than anyone, and we can get up earlier," says Bono. "That's why we should be roommates."
But joining Bono, in a way, was easy. The job involved not only cleaning up balance sheets, but also a heavy regimen of travel, including a trip to Dakar, where they were treated to a private performance by Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal. More complicated was Freston's reentry into the media, as Oprah Winfrey courted him for advice when she began to formulate her cable-TV channel, OWN. Freston resisted her entreaty to become its CEO but signed on as a consultant and board member, saying he never really related to Oprah's audience.
But Freston soon discovered a TV audience he could really relate to – 30 million war-ravaged Afghans who had just begun watching TV. Before leaving Viacom, he had met an ambitious media executive named Saad Mohseni, who told Freston how television was skyrocketing in his home country. Nearly 70 percent of the population was now watching TV, and Mohseni's company, Moby, had captured most of the viewers.
In May 2007, Freston returned to Kabul for the first time since 1978. "I was like Rip Van Winkle," he says, awaking to a country with bullet-pocked barricades, air pollution, and women in burkas – nothing like the hippie haven of his youth. The young TV startup, however, left him "dumbstruck." "Everyone in their twenties, no one who really had ever worked in TV before – few knew what they were doing, but were learning fast and on the job," he says. "It looked like an Afghan version of MTV, circa 1981."
Freston believes television, even trashy content like game shows and soap operas, can democratize and acculturate places like Afghanistan more quickly and more effectively than politics – the way MTV urbanized a generation of teenagers in rural America some 25 years ago. It doesn't matter to Freston if 'Beavis and Butt-Head' is the lingua franca of the masses: It's still the great cultural unifier. Most Afghans, he says, "can't really read, so TV is a great place to get various signals about various forms of socialization. I mean, it's the most powerful thing that's ever been invented. It's nearly irresistible."
He didn't invest in the company but signed on to become a member of Moby's board of directors and quickly brought his connections to the table. Over lunch in Manhattan, he introduced Mohseni to News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, who was intrigued with the satellite-TV business Mohseni was gearing up in Iran, called Farsi1, which was dubbing syndicated content like South American soap operas and becoming hugely popular. Murdoch bought a 50 percent stake in the company – it's now the number-one TV network in Iran.
It's uncertain what will happen in a place like Afghanistan in the next few years. Will Moby, like Hindu Kush before it, be sunk by a violent coup, this time by the Taliban? Mohseni has convinced Freston that the Taliban won't regain power. "I know this may seem optimistic, given all the news reports to the contrary, but they are not well liked in the country," Freston tells me.
"There have been huge social changes in Afghanistan in the past 10 years and more connection to each other and the outside world," he says. "Moby and the other TV networks and other media have played a huge role."
Moby's latest project is building a soccer league in Afghanistan. Freston sees it as a creative way to generate goodwill and mediate the country's ethnic and tribal tensions through televised sports. Naturally, Freston had a front-row seat to the semi-final match between De Spinghar Bazar and Toofan Harirod.
"He's not insular, he's not inward-looking, he's always looking out," Mohseni continues. "He's a great ambassador for his country. I joked once: He's the sort of American who gives America a good name."