You’ve probably heard of the phrase doing good is good for business but how do programs such as CSR, ESG, and other social impact initiatives contribute to a business’s growth? Joining us today is Bill Roedy, former chair and chief executive officer of MTV networks international. He built and scaled the global business with a 2 billion audience with 200 channels in 200 countries. Here’s a successful author of What Makes Business Rock, where he uncovers the innovative strategies he used to help make MTV the most successful and best-known media brand in the world. In his chat with Anne Pratt, he shares how part of this success is because of their commitment to significant advocacies during that time and using their voice to bring awareness to the AIDS pandemic. Tune in as he shares key strategies for scaling your business while sending an important message to your audience. Plus, he talks about Meeting Mandela and why Mandela’s brand of leadership is relevant now more than ever.
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The Value Of Social Impact Initiatives And Why Doing Good is Good for Business with Bill Roedy
The Story of MTV’s Rise As The Largest International Entertainment Network In Existence
Our bold leader in this episode lives by the mantra, “Doing good is good for business.” He is a Harvard MBA graduate and a West Point Academy graduate. He went from the battlefield of Vietnam to global boardrooms. He’s the former Chair and Chief Executive Officer of MTV Networks International, who built and scaled a global business with a 2 billion audience and 200 channels in 200 countries.
He’s a successful author of What Makes Business Rock, a former UN ambassador, and former Vice Chair of GAVI, the Global Vaccine Alliance, as well as COVAX, an initiative to spread the COVID-19 vaccine worldwide. An American by birth, he joins us from his beautiful home in London, the dedicated, disciplined, diplomatic, and development-focused William or Bill Roedy. Welcome to the show.
Bill Roedy, what a great joy to have you as part of this conversation. Thank you so much for joining in and meeting with me.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
You’ve had a remarkable colorful career. You frame it as the 3Ds, Defense, Diplomacy, and Development. Could you maybe sketch for us what is the common thread and what each of those chapters means to you?
As I was living in it, I didn’t necessarily see a common thread but the initial D was Defense. I served in Vietnam. I volunteered to go to Vietnam when it was quite unpopular to do that. As a graduate of West Point, I thought that was my duty. West Point teaches you so much of what I did not have, which is time management, discipline, leadership, etc. From the Vietnam experience, I pivoted to something much bigger, which was a nuclear missile basis as part of NATO. That’s the first D.
Discipline is a major thread there. On to diplomacy, I put diplomacy in the same bucket as my media career, which stretched over 33 years initially, in HBO, primarily domestically in the US. The bulk of the 33 years, almost a quarter of a century, was spent taking MTV, Nickelodeon, and comedy around the world, launching 200 channels in front of a potential audience of 2 billion people and 200 countries. It was quite extensive.
You built that global operation.
I joined MTV after it started in ’81 but took it outside America. That was my whole thing. We became quite big. We had 80%, for example, of the viewership of MTV. It was from outside the US, which was always a bit of a surprise when I mentioned that. While I was at MTV and media around the world, I realized how important a big part of my strategy is to do something good. I coined the phrase, “Doing good is good for business.” That brought me into development.
This is the third leg of the story of the career. When I left, I went all in on not only development but global health. I took on roles with Gavi, which is vaccines amfAR, which is searching for cure aids, and 8 to 10 other initiatives started something called the Global Business Coalition, which unites businesses. I worked for two secretary generals. That became all in for the last many years.
In terms of the common thread, what do you think that is?
I’m going to preface this by saying that I was asked all the time when I was at MTV about my military background, and I didn’t talk about my military background because I figured, “In the world of rock and roll, who wants to know about combat or even worse nuclear weapons?” I didn’t talk too much about it. I wasn’t smart enough to realize that I took a lot of what I learned from West Point and in my military experience to the design of a media organization around the world.
Small fighting units, keeping communication lines open, knowing your audience very well. The common thread there was leadership. It’s easy to describe what leadership traits should be. It’s much harder in doing them. I don’t consider myself a natural leader but because I’ve done so much research and have been trained, I know what the traits are. The key is to discipline yourself and try and do as many of those traits as possible. That’s a common thread.It’s easy to describe what the leadership traits should be, but it's much harder to actually do them. The key is to discipline yourself to try and do as many of those traits as possible. Click To Tweet
Also another common thread is scale. I realized early on that impact is important in this world. To have an impact, you have to have scale. That’s what the vaccines at Gavi were all about. I found that when I launched 200 channels around the world, that gave us to scale. Even though I wasn’t smart enough to realize a lot of these common threads, organizational leadership and strategic scale, I look back on it, and those were the common threads.
I’m curious about that background. I also know you serve on the board of Berlin’s Creative Leadership Organization. In your mind, what is the definition of leadership, and parting on from that, what do you think are the big leadership challenges nowadays?
In my book, I’ve identified twenty different traits of leadership. You could pick maybe 4 or 5 that are probably the most important. I would start with your core character, which consists of many different things but certainly, emotional compassion is a big part of it. You go from that core to character and integrity to pick many of them. A vision, ability to communicate, and stamina become very important, which means duration.
A lot of people nowadays simply have all the traits but don’t have the stamina to do it. The courage to act and be adaptive is key because we live in the acceleration of time that requires adaptation. Nothing survives the first battle with no strategy. You have to adapt right away. Those are a few of the examples but there are many. The most important thing is to pick and choose and follow what you are good at, perhaps, in my case, twenty different leadership traits. The most important thing is that we wake up every morning and do it. Don’t talk about it.
In this world of work, you have this incredible experience working with countries around the world and the United Nations. There are so many big issues. If you had to think of perhaps the 2 or 3 that keep you concerned and troubled or stuff you mull over a lot, what are the 2 or 3 big issues that you think are facing leaders nowadays?
Ones that we all know about are so pervasive that war is the number one. We are living every day with this terrible Ukrainian situation. We came from a terrible two years of the pandemic, which was quietly predicted but not appropriately prepared for climate change. I would put those in the top three. Of course, there are many subsets of them but those are the ones that we need.
The world has suffered terribly in the last several years. Economic is another situation that looks like it’s going to be a lot of hardship for a lot of people going forward, driven largely not only by COVID but also by war and climate change. When you think about it, there’s much rest on economics. It includes food security, getting to handle inflation, and shelter. I would include economic and probably those at the top four that cause quite a bit of concern going forward.
In this very different kind of world and the demands, you authored a CNBC bestselling book, What Makes Business Rock. What do you think the role is for business in terms of dealing with these bigger issues, and how do you motivate businesses to come to that party?
I had an epiphany several years ago that was basically wrapped around the private sector can have even bigger impacts sometimes than governments. Governments have bigger budgets. In many respects, our political leaders haven’t met the expectations of what the people should deserve. Private sector leaders are not saints either but the impact of the private sector can be quite extensive. The private sector, for example, does things very efficiently. They know how to sell better than anybody. They know how to market and have distribution systems and motivations.
The other epiphany is that at MTV, we started something that I would say was the early seeds of CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. Now, it’s a must. Every business must have harder DNA, an ESG program, and something to do with social responsibility. It can be anything but it has to be something. Over time, we are going to continue to see much more impact in this.
Particularly with anything to do with ESG. There are funds that are set for ESG. There are departments of hundreds of people now in corporations that are devoted completely to ESG and social responsibility. This has been a change in the last many years. It’s a very important change because business has so much to offer in solving a lot of these problems that we are talking about.
Dealing with issues of ESG, the Environmental, Social, and Governance aspects, what’s in it for business? In your experience, do you have a particular example where you’ve had an organization or corporate that was a little skeptical when they had to deliver to not only shareholders but multiple stakeholders that have a shareholder mentality? Have you persuaded them? Do you have an example of that?
I will give you the one I used to talk about all the time ago. It still resonates a bit. We will pick a company like Coca-Cola or colored water. You start with a product that is omnipresent but may not offer anything good. Coca-Cola, therefore, pivoted to everything from clean water to all different initiatives. When I was working with them many years ago, they were dozens, even in the hundreds of initiatives they supported. One of the ones I liked the best was clean water in Africa, where you did not have clean water. This is the way I would put it, and it still holds a bit.
You pick a company like Coca-Cola and AIDS in Africa. You want to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa because you want your customers to be healthy so they can use your product. Secondly, if you don’t believe that, you want to have something that has your employees rally around the flag and feel good about coming into the office, that they are doing something good in addition to the commercial aspect of your product.
This was all part of the mantra that we had with the global business coalition because you were quite right, particularly many years ago but even now, there’s skepticism and reluctance that it may not hit the P&L. Here was always the clincher. If you don’t believe in that taking care of your customers or your employees, giving them more motivation, do it for your brand. You can be a little bit cynical about this but who cares what altruism or motivation is as long as you do something?
If you are doing something good for the brand, you are what you do and not necessarily what you think. That resonated with a lot of companies. There are many examples like MAC Cosmetics. People will buy your brand or be more loyal to your brand, I’m not saying everybody will but a good number will if you know you are doing something good. By coin, the phrase, “Doing good is good for business.” It’s an old example but it still works.
In your wonderful book, what was the key message?
It could be a good sleep aid on a long flight across the ocean. The publisher wanted to make it a lesson on business disguised as an autobiography. It was the reverse. It was an autobiography disguised as a business lesson. It’s a little bit about my experiences but I tried to, let’s say, some of the mistakes learn from those mistakes is more of a ride, as you know, because you are an author. You can’t publish a book nowadays, it seems, without having this single theme, a single lesson that’s going to catch everyone’s attention.
That was not necessarily what makes business rock, except for maybe developing a global business and how to do a global business and don’t make the same mistakes that I did. The necessity for a business needs to be more than one domestic market. That would probably become the closest. I have all sorts of lessons in life. Particularly the advice I give to young kids because we worked a lot with kids being MTV.
Your comment about it being a great, take along on a long flight. I’m sure with your incredible stories, it would have been a very positive distraction on a long flight and a number of lessons learned. To that point in the book, can you take us back to a moment, particularly with MTV Europe, where you’ve had a remarkable career building this global operation, 2 billion audiences, 200 channels, and 200 countries? Can you take us back to a particular moment or an event that was difficult on that journey from a business point of view? Paint the picture what was that moment? How was it at the time? What was a tough event during that process?
Everybody thinks MTV is like a candy store. It is not true. It’s very difficult to build a global business from scratch around the world with different regulations, cultures, languages, and everything. The key, as I look back on it, I had three parts to the strategy. Number one was scale again and access, which means good distribution. I had a mantra that was, “Aggressive, creative, relentless.” I simply wanted to be in every household in the world.
Secondly was designing a product, and which was quite radical at the time, that truly reflected and respected local cultures. Our channel was dramatically different wherever you went around the world. We had marching events in China, Bollywood in India, Dora with burqa in the Middle East, and the list goes on and on.
Thirdly, because we were dealing with so many stakeholders who resisted us, do something good. This is what I was addressing a bit early. We were engaged in many voting campaigns. For example, we had a whole host of issues. The one that we jumped on because it coincided with our audience was AIDS or HIV. The reason it coincided is that the most heavily impacted demo was the same as our audience. That takes us to many pivotal points.
On the AIDS side, in 1998, it was out of control. Over two million people were dying. Many more were being infected. There was no cure. There’s very little treatment available, if at all, and there was a lot of hopelessness. We had all sorts of counter observations on, “Why would MTV do this?” We went all in. We started with 32nd PSAs, and then went to 90-minute documentaries, and then made it seamless in our programming.
There was some resistance to that, not from the audience but some governments, because our programming became very explicit on prevention measures, even internally, because it wasn’t profit-driven necessarily. We had to fight through a lot of recess that kept plugging away. It didn’t happen overnight. Eventually, we became the largest multimedia ever to fight the pandemic. It was very hard to show measurements. Behavioral change is very hard to prove.It didn't happen overnight, but eventually, we, MTV, became the largest multimedia effort to fight the AIDS pandemic. Click To Tweet
How could you?
I will give you one example. We would have an impact with screening stories, which that’s how you tell your message. You like stories. We make programs that you would want to watch because they were entertaining but had all AIDS messages built in. We would do screenings, perhaps one message was, “How critical was it to get testing because then you could have access to treatment.” Right next door to the screening, we would have a center to get tested.
As you saw people leave the theater or whatever, a good number of them would then go right over to confidential testing because, as you know, there was quite a bit of discrimination and stigma. That gave us an immediate measurement. We also had WHO and the World Bank do all sorts of research to show that you could have behavioral change. More likely, if you watch the program, have a condom.
You are more likely to be tested. You are less likely to discriminate against others, even in your own family. The list went on and on. It’s not easy to measure behavioral change but it’s something to work very hard. That example, if you want, if it’s separate completely, was our Berlin involvement and the involvement leading up to November 9, 1989, the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
We were very active in getting distribution behind the Iron Curtain starting in January. We went on a satellite that cost a lot of money. There was resistance back in the headquarters. It was $10 million for one transfer to other, and then we flipped a switch, so it was not encrypted. Everyone could buy a 90-centimeter dish, before it was a 3-meter dish, and have access to this programming. Lo and behold, behind the Iron Curtain, we had people setting home for money from relatives in the West to get enough money to buy a dish to suddenly have access to programming. In this case, it was MTV.
At one point, we had nearly equal in some countries, even more distribution than we had in the West because they were eager to learn. Coincidentally, we didn’t bring the wall down, although we were told we did. We brought MTV to all these countries in 1989, sequentially to governments changed in leading up to November 9th, the Berlin Wall coming down. I was in East Berlin at the time.
We developed a relationship with Gorbachev. We gave him awards because that didn’t lead to the Soviet Union in 1991. That was a challenge because there was no money to profit. It was not commercially viable to spend invest in countries behind the Iron Curtain. We did it because we knew we could be part of something big change. To your point, it was a pivot that wasn’t necessarily popular at the time.
That is such a powerful point. Is there a particular example that you recall of great resistance, whether it be from the board, executives or whoever? Is there a particular moment that you can recall where it was tough and take us through how you pivoted out of that and got to the other side to get people’s support?
With a commercial operation, you are driven by share a price. Anytime you want to take a chunk of money, and back in ’89, it cost $10 million, you get resistance. You have to go forward. I’m thinking about when I launched MTV Pakistan. I will never forget it because my own staff didn’t want me to do it. It was not only dangerous but there was absolutely no commercial benefit at all. This was around 2005. Things were tense with Pakistan.
Daniel Pearl, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal, lost his life. It was not particularly friendly between Pakistan and many countries in the West. One of my brilliant staffers’ students on the distribution side found a way to get MTV into Pakistan all localized, by the way, local music, etc. There was a lot of trepidation. I didn’t tell anybody, the headquarters or the press. I packed my bags and went to Karachi, and we launched MTV Pakistan.
There’s a bit of a leap in faith. There’s a song, I Want My MTV, by Dire Straits. I will never forget it. After giving my typical rah-rah speech on the stage and telling Pakistan was going to be the best MTV in the world, the audience on their own broke out, “I Want My MTV,” as I was walking off the stage. It was probably a misconception, ironically, that I’ve had with any country around the world.
Why did you not tell people?
It’s because I knew I would be told no.
What was the strategy then to get past the point of no to yes?
Do it. We had a phrase, “It’s easier to say I’m sorry than to ask for permission.” My own staff sometimes didn’t like that idea. Another gospel that I kept repeating over and over is, “Break the rules. Never accept no for an answer.” I always quote Churchill, “Never say no.” I would have added a few more never to that speech but the premise was the same. Occasionally, you have to do it.
That’s a fine point, never say no and break the rules but we are also living in times where so many rules are being broken. In navigating that strategy, are there some caveats or qualifiers around that? When you broke the rules, what were your strategy and end game?
The end game is to get something done because you are always encountering, particularly as an entrepreneur, a no constantly, “No, you can’t do this. There’s a problem there.” You are trying to cut through the bureaucracy because it can be a killer to any business and creative business. Caveats? When I was commanding nuclear missile basis, I definitely didn’t want to say to anybody, “Break the rules.” It depends on the product and what the circumstances are but there are definitely guard rails against that.
You had a clear strategy that would be successful and would contribute to the ultimate business performance in the area.
That’s the bottom line. MTV, at the time, was a phenomenon. We were very profitable as we went on, particularly in the US but MTV had a chance to have change because we were influential, and it was quite something. You could have this influence over so many people. That definitely weighed heavily in our minds that we were part of a phenomenon that had never existed before. We were going with it. The morale was very high in our staff because we knew we were bringing change to countries that had never seen MTV before.
That sounds like you were motivated by a much higher purpose, which had the business payback in perhaps staff, morality, and productivity. Were you conscious of what the bigger purpose was in terms of explicitly defining it for your people?
Very much so. That’s exactly the point but you have to remember you are working for a profit and loss, stakeholder, shareholder, and public company. You have to navigate that. The example going back to Eastern Europe because, in one of my prior careers, I was part of NATO and was in charge of missiles. Gorbachev, in our various meetings, we give him awards used to call me Missile Man. He had a great quote, and it’s a bit of an exaggeration, “Music is more powerful than missiles.” In my courtyard, I have a 3.5 tons section of the Berlin Wall with his inscription on Gorbachev saying, “Music is more powerful than a missile.” It’s because of my background, it was a bit unusual.
The irony of bringing a powerful army of music, whereas once before I had missiles, definitely fit that higher purpose. Take yourself too seriously. At MTV, I kept telling myself, “Do not believe what you read in the newspapers. It’s entertainment. It’s lifting the spirit.” We had important conscientious programming like countering the AIDS pandemic but in this regard especially, and in life in general, you cannot take yourself too seriously.
The relative big picture, sometimes, as you say, “We forget our frailty and our humanity.” How did you inculcate that in the business? Not taking oneself too seriously and having more the lighter side and moments? How was that inculcated in the culture?
Not so much about the business but definitely, the culture. Humility rules over hubris. We see so much hubris. We saw a lot back then. Look at the ‘80s. It was all about hubris. It’s very important in the culture to have humility. There’s no shortage. There’s no second choice. You have to be humble. Particularly when you are in different cultures around the world and no one culture is better than the other. No one country is better than the other to be humble and quick to say sorry.
I had some principles coming from the military, “First on the battlefield, last to leave.” Meaning with a global operation, you have a crisis invariably somewhere in the world, and it’s very important to be on location. Do not let your lieutenants, team commanders or local CEOs be all alone. Be there with them, arm in arm. The other one which is a bit foreign to businesses, and honestly, we all have to remind ourselves, “Quick to take the blame. Slow to take credit.” That’s part of the humility as well. We all make mistakes and learn from each other. This is very important.
You talk about those values. I’m curious about your younger life. Is there a defining moment in your young life? Not everybody grows up with that mindset or value system. Share a little more about your childhood, what shaped you, and is there a particular life-defining moment?
I had a very strong mother. In my second book, I wrote a chapter on my website about my mother. Many people, particularly those with single moms, truly appreciate their mothers because no one works harder than a single mom. That was a defining principle in my life, seeing how hard she worked job after job, selling real estate, crossing swamp lands of Florida in new housing developments. Another career she had was as a receptionist in an emergency room in a hospital, which taught me a little bit about global health.
Another one is that she was the rental car check-in person at the airport before you had a separate location. In the heat of Miami, where all the cars are driving by you, the gas fumes, she worked in the little cubicle outside, not inside, air conditioning to make ends meet. I would see her count to pennies. That was a defining part of my growing up.
The other part was television. Why did I love television so much? We had a lot of challenges coming from a broken family. I can remember that on Sunday nights, my grandmother was the matriarch really of the family. She was a widow. We didn’t have any male figures in our immediate circle. My mother, my sister, and my aunt are all women.
I have six sisters if you count all the steps and half-sisters. We watch TV every Sunday night. It was the only time that I saw the family laugh. As a young kid, you are watching this and saying, “That little box is very powerful.” It had an influence on me. I also memorized a TV guy. I was a television junkie. It’s the only thing that I could make my mother proud of because my grades weren’t particularly good but I could recite the entire week of a TV guy. I saw where all these things related to television provided happiness and were capable of great influence. That was another pivotal point in my childhood.
It is interesting that your mother also works in the emergency room and how you’ve brought this intersection of the media world and your various initiatives as a global ambassador and Founder of the Chair of COVAX. Also, doing these remarkable international health initiatives around the world, not only with HIV but also with the COVID pandemic, and distributing vaccines. What for you is important in terms of the relationship between media and these big global social impact initiatives, whether it be Gavi and vaccinating 700 million children or whether it be COVAX and distributing the vaccine worldwide?
It’s indispensable. I had the privilege or the challenge of going through many disruptions of television. I was small. There were 2 or 3 channels, then you had disruption from cable TV. Now you have the disruption of streaming TV. There are many different ways to have content. It’s not necessarily through a television box. The extension of that is all the things we do online, including social media. The answer I believe to the question is unlimited influence and benefit to whatever the cause is.
Unfortunately, it’s also given an opportunity to what we now call fake news or disinformation. We are seeing that out of control in the Ukraine situation. How do you determine what’s true and what’s not? It’s getting more difficult because you can fake things now using artificial intelligence and even on the virtual side. Unfortunately, that creates an opportunity for a lot of different disinformation.
I see it with my own children. They come to me with something that I know is not true. The answer, I suppose, is education. I’m not sure it’s regulation but in some ways, perhaps on the social media side, there is some regulation that comes into play. More importantly than a negative is positive because it can definitely impact not just awareness and education but also core values.
Core values are expressed through the media. We are turning slightly to somebody that we both admire, love, and respect, Nelson Mandela. I know that the later great Kofi Annan appointed you as the first envoyer of AIDS at the UN, and he was very close to Mandela. What is a particular moment that you recall where Mandela’s life, leadership, and legacy had an indelible impact on you? Can you take us back in time?
There are several, and I will pick one. We decided to do a show with Nelson Mandela called Meeting Mandela. We were a little late in developing a channel specifically for Africa. We would bring MTV Europe down but he launched MTV Africa for us the year after we did a show called Meeting Mandela. Meeting Mandela was a thrill for all of us. We had a small production staff in the hotel Saxon in Johannesburg, which is where he went as soon as he released the autobiography. He lived there for six months. We brought back there and set up camp there for two weeks to produce a show called Meeting Mandela.
We knew already in 2005 about Mandela’s wonderful brand, courage, and set of values that were going to live long after he was on this Earth. We wanted to do something for our MTV audience. The challenge was bridging a multi-generation gap. He had a very thick accent. We also have Tutu. He is more articulate but Mandela had these invaluable lessons in life. Instead of using a professional interviewer or narrator, we decided to go to our audience. We picked someone from Uganda, Burma, a person from Israel and Palestine, the Palestinian instinct.
We had those people talk to Mandela about what they have experienced in life. One was hopelessness. The AIDS epidemic was the person from Uganda. His name is Henry Hudson. He lost a father and brother to AIDS. He talked to Mandela about how do you overcome hopelessness. We admins in from Burma was freedom fighter at the time. He had to leave his family to keep being an activist, “How do you leave your family?” Mandela talked to him about how he was in prison when his mother died. They didn’t allow him to go to the funeral and also when his son died.
He talked to Mandela about sacrifice. The piece de resistance was the theme in all of it, but forgiveness drove it home. We had an Israeli who lost his sister to the first female suicide bomber. We had a Palestinian who lost her father, a civilian, not in the military, to an Israeli sniper. They obviously had terrible anger toward each other. We had Mandela talk to him about forgiveness. This all was edited down to one hour-long show. It was very influential, not only for us but also for all of our AIDS programming, we did something unusual.
We put it on all the MTV channels worldwide and our extended brands, but we also gave it rights free to anybody who would run it. Even to this day, the programming that we have is staying alive, which was the initiative that we started in the ‘90s, is offered to a network that even doubles with an MTV network. It has a series of TV channels. We gave it to everybody for free. A lot of this programming gets incredible coverage. The meeting in Mandela one was not only very moving for us, but we think impactful for the audience.
Meeting him and knowing him behind the cameras but in person, how did you feel at the time?
I was wheeled into a private room with him in the Saxon. It has a little library. I sat there one-on-one with him with nobody else. It was extraordinary. He went through the history and talked about how close things were to a lot of violence. The one story he told me, it’s in his book as well, where he was put under terrible conditions and working on these outdoor minds and wasn’t allowed to wear sunglasses, so his eyes were permanently damaged.
The guard wouldn’t let him attend the funerals of his mother and son. Some of the first people he invited to the inauguration of the president were those same prison guards. As he’s telling these stories, you become overwhelmed by his power of forgiveness, which is his whole brand. The power of forgiveness of all the things he contributes to the world in lessons that’s number one.
On that note, do you think Mandela’s leadership example is relevant for the world nowadays, and if so, why?
It definitely is. Unfortunately, the current realism doesn’t allow for a step back and compassion. If you pick this major crisis that we are all living through in Ukraine, there’s no diplomacy going on. It’s all about military exploits. On one side, the atrocities are unspeakable, and the number of displaced people and the new people suffering up to ten million will have a long-term effect on not only Ukraine but also Europe. The Ukrainians rightfully are outraged at the level of atrocities, and it’s very hard to come to the table with that. On the flip side, Russia has put much into this, Putin specifically, that it’s very hard to come to any sort of peace agreement or diplomatic effort because they put so much into it.
It’s more relevant than ever because of the amount of violence. There’s so much autocracy versus democracy, poverty, and hunger. We have more challenges than probably in recorded history in some ways. A person who stands above it all and creates this aura of forgiveness, his most important message to people, is more critical than ever. Whether it’s applicable or relevant in certain situations, it is a challenge, obviously. You have a greater opportunity when you go more local.
I have seen many examples of unselfish giving and help in my life, particularly in global health. I went to an event to benefit the refugees from the situation in Ukraine. I learned that many efforts we don’t even know about in Ukraine are helping with food shortages, water shortages, and medical supplies. A lot is happening that we don’t know about. Rather than look for one Uber figure around the world, it’s, in my view, more about instilling values like Mandela’s values in an army of people that are doing it, NGOs, and people doing it on the side. It’s quite extraordinary.
If we could build an army of one million Mandela generals worldwide, there are so many doing it. Profiling, acknowledging, and rewarding, those people get more of that message out there. In terms of his example, I was wondering about sharing in those interviews, particularly with the Israeli and Palestinian example you gave, what stood out for you both in Mandela’s response to each of those people both suffering, pain, and loss in the same conflict?
I always look for impact. It’s sometimes impossible, if not very hard, to measure behavioral change through the airwaves. The one thing that did it for me with the Israeli and the Palestinians is that they absolutely hated each other when they met. We couldn’t even put them in the same room as Mandela. We had to interview him separately. We spent twelve days together. In the end, they went shopping together at the mall. The subtext was, “If they can do it, why can’t the leaders do it?”
Turning to some fun facts, what made you buy a home that was a church?
I love open spaces, number one. We like to bring many different types of people and space. The joke is, “In a sign of diversity, we’ve included every religion with a synagog post and prayer rug facing Mecca, Shiva, and Ganesha as you walk in. The list goes on and on. We’ve got Buddha up here. It’s a celebration of diversity. I say, “Inclusion is what we are all about.” My wife says, “No, it’s about confusion. You are confusing the kids.” I guess it goes both ways, but we like the church. We have been here for many years.
What is something in your young life that you are most proud of?
It’s nothing that makes other people good or better. I was naive and trying to survive as a young kid, but I didn’t have any athletic ability or a particular academic ability. I had no ability. I told my kids, because I’m old-fashioned, “You can do it a lot with hard work.” I think it still trumps talent and everything else. I know it’s an old fashion thing. I wasn’t good enough for the tennis team or football.
The track was my thing, so I ran as horses do. I still do. Parts of my body have given out. I was on a relay team that caught fourth in the state. I always remind the kids, “The slowest guy in the world got fourth in the state.” It’s a running joke with us. It’s nothing to be particularly proud about, except it amplifies that you can get a lot with hard work. Fourth doesn’t get you on the podium but I was quite happy to get fourth.
There’s incredible resilience and hard work and discipline that comes with that too.
I worked when I was ten years old. I was selling papers on the street corner and selling yellow pages. I try to teach the kids a little work and make a big difference.A little bit of work makes a big difference. Click To Tweet
That was instilled at a very young age. With COVID, you have been very involved in GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccine Immunization, and COVAX, the vaccine distribution. What is the key part of that global initiative that gives you the most hope for vaccinating the world against COVID?
We all know about the COVID vaccines. In 2020, things were creeping dismal. In January of ‘21, we had hope, and look what happened. It brought us back to the vaccine. There’s always some pushback on vaccines, and there are anti-vaccines. Never unanimity on anything, but I’m totally in with vaccines. The other thing about vaccines and what we did and still doing with GAVI is that we are at the stage now where we’ve done billions of vaccines.
This is pre-COVID. Hundreds of millions of children are vaccinated, and tens of millions of lives saved. This gets back to a principle that I totally believe in, which is scale and impact. This was part of Bill Gates’ dream when he started it. The other good news is that vaccines are developing all the time, so more and more diseases will be found to be prevented. We manage COVAX happened out of the clear blue sky. There were a lot of challenges there. I’m sure you read about some of them, “Risk vaccine hoarding and vaccine nationalism.”
There weren’t enough vaccines available. One of the original principles done by started by Bill Gates was the equitable distribution of vaccines. We targeted the 71 LICs, lower income, then also some of the middle income, to make sure there was no lag time because before, there could be a lag time of years after a vaccine was developed between a developed world and the lesser developed world. This was a very important concept. However, in COVID, we still had this disparity. Why? It wasn’t the best example of multilateralism.
It strikes a bit of fear if you are worried about how we will solve climate change because we need the world to work together. The excellent news about COVID is that so many vaccines have been developed worldwide. There are enough vaccines but we need to improve the uptake because there’s now some complacency. As we know, no one is safe until everyone is safe because as a virus goes from country to country, and more importantly, the variants will always be there. We have to continue to work to get everybody vaccinated.We need the world to work together. No one's safe until everyone's safe. Click To Tweet
That’s important. The sub-variants are coming out all the time. Our work is not yet done. In our final moments, any final message you have for current and aspiring leaders in the world, either from your leadership experience or any final message of what you think Nelson Mandela would say to the world today?
Keep hope alive, for sure. Another pivotal moment for me was right before the moon landing when the first picture was taken. It was from an orbit around the moon. It was a trial before they landed. There was not any film left in the camera except for one shot. Took the picture of Earth. The first time it has ever been seen. In all the blackness, you saw this beautiful blue. You probably have heard of the little small doctor called the Blue Dot. We are the blue dot. We are talking about going to Mars. Would you like to live on Mars?
It’s important to continual exploration. It is always in our history, but we must do everything we can to protect this blue dot. There are so many challenges. It’s not only pandemics. It’s war, climate, and economic disparity, and it’s imperative that we work together, join arm in arm, hand together, and think about the big picture and the blue dot.
On that note, you are a fine ambassador. Thank you for your dedication. I’m adding a fourth D, not only for Defense, Diplomacy, and Development but for your incredible Dedication and hard work. Thank you so much, inwards, onwards, and upwards.
It’s good to be here. Right back to you. You are doing great work as well. Thank you.
Speaking with Bill Roedy was a joy, and his unapologetic humility strikes me. In a corporate age where there is so much pressure on being right and perfect, a corporate culture that met so many organizations of blaming, naming, and shaming, boosts the antithesis of that. He’s such a humble man. It was a critical ingredient in how he built an exciting global business like MTV. Building an audience of 2 billion with 200 channels across 200 countries required his humility to navigate different cultures without a sense of superiority or inferiority. At an age, we were dealing with cultural issues and how we connect with these cultures, how we present ourselves in these different cultures, and how we view these different cultures.
The second thing that stood out was his reference to the late President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed on August the 30th, 2022. Head of the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1991 and Gorbachev called Bill the Missile Man. The more striking was his quote, “Music is more powerful than missiles.” It reminds me of another quote by William Shakespeare, “If music be the food of love, play on.” What strikes me is this incredible missed opportunity for all of us in different sectors to bring music into our working lives in a much more powerful and persuasive way.
Whether in our hospitals, our classrooms, our congress halls, and our board rooms, we are undervaluing, underappreciating, and underutilizing the powerful asset of music. Finally, I’m struck by Bill’s 3Ds, Discipline, Diplomacy, and Development. Listening and talking to Bill, looking at his remarkable life and the work he continues to do in the world, living by this philosophy of, “Do well and do good,” there is a remarkable fourth D, Dedication. Please sign up, share with your friends and take care and take forth full bold action, just one bold step for you but together, one giant step for humanity. Thank you for being with us. Until next time. Take care.
About Bill Roedy
William (Bill) Roedy is the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of MTV networks International (MTVNI). Prior to joining MTVNI, he was a Vice President at HBO for 10 years. A decorated combat veteran in the Vietnam War, Mr Roedy switched to a career in broadcasting, and has become increasingly active in a wide range of corporate social responsibility issues, in particular those involving the health of young people.
Mr Roedy has been instrumental in MTV’s award-winning efforts to promote HIV/AIDS education, and in 1998, was named Ambassador for UNAIDS. He has addressed the UN General Assembly on several occasions on the subject of the AIDS pandemic. In 2005, the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed him founding chair of the Global Media AIDS Initiative Leadership Committee.
From 1999 to 2002, he served as chair of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, of which he was a founder member. He currently serves as chairman of the Staying Alive Foundation, an organisation which provides young people with resources to fight AIDS at the grassroots level. He continues to engage in global health endeavours, working with UN organisations, as well as the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), Global Business Coalition (GBC), Global Health Corps (GHC), Fitzmi, Zumba, Ping4, Lionsgate, Hawn Foundation and Clearvue (Shanghai).
Mr Roedy has an MBA from Harvard (USA). His numerous awards include: the international Emmy Founder Award; two honorary doctorate degrees; amfAR’s Award of Courage; Doctors of the World Leadership Award; and the UN Correspondents Association Global Citizen of the Year Award. Mr Roedy was inducted as one of the “Pioneers” of the cable industry and most recently into the Cable Hall of Fame Class of 2015.