Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman (left) and a fellow Burner in front of a new inflatable structure.

Nellie Bowles

Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman (left) and a fellow Burner in front of a new inflatable structure.

Culture


I walked across the Burning Man playa to visit billionaire Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman’s camp. It had been agreed that I was there exclusively for the Wi-Fi. The camp, and everything I saw there, was to be off the record. But when Pittman popped out of his trailer, spry and tan, he just had to show me one thing. And yeah, he said, it’s probably a good story.

The thing? Giant blow-up spider houses. Enormous party pads designed to withstand the brutal dust storms, thunder and lightning of Black Rock, the desolate desert in Nevada where the Burning Man festival takes place every year.

Fancy new toys, certainly, Pittman noted. But maybe something more! Maybe a solution to flimsy refugee-camp tents. Maybe homes for when we all inevitably live on Mars.

The houses had thick legs sprung out of a fat body. Blown-out dusty white plastic around central cores, puffed up by negative air pressure, they constantly grew and then contracted, like they were breathing. They weren’t noisy, but I could hear the air rushing in and out, mingled with the dubstep throb of Burning Man.

Pittman walked barefoot (had he heard of “playa foot,” I wondered?) across the astroturf and power tools of his camp’s half-built bar setup, and padded across the dust to a spider house. The designer of the structure, Michael Beneville, joined the conversation.

The door to the inside looked like lips.

“Breast-stroke inside,” Beneville instructed me, before disappearing into the beast.

It’s a long breast-stroke through the thick plastic to get to the other side — the “lips” rise about to your belly button before you see where you’re going. And, like most elaborately constructed structures at Burning Man, where you’re going is a party pad.

The central core serves as a closet, kitchen and bathroom, and splits the spider into two rooms. In one room, there’s a futon, in the other, a king-size bed. The whole interior, including the bar, is covered in multicolored strobe lights and various LEDs.

Once you make it past the giant inflatable spider's lip-like door, it's a party pad.

Nellie Bowles Once you make it past the giant inflatable spider’s lip-like door, it’s a playa party pad.

Pittman, in a red tank top, cargo shorts and steel dust glasses, leaned back onto a futon, Beneville sat on a chair.

“We could all be at the Four Seasons, but we’re not, we’re at Burning Man,” Beneville said. “So let’s build something cool.”

“This is proof of concept for us,” Pittman said.

The pair had decided to construct the spiders in February. The process followed Pittman’s usual 24-hour rule: Everything should be able to be accomplished in 24 hours. It’s an attitude, he said, that is very much informed by Burning Man.

“This is why big companies are all fucked up, and small aren’t,” Pittman said. “By the time something gets to my desk, it’s been through 10 people, so the system is lopsided to no’s. I worship dissent. People say they want to get rid of chaos — why do you want to do that? Have the idea and live with the wildness. The consensus style of business is great for a factory line, but not for innovation. And worshipping dissent — that’s Burning Man.”

The two men plan to market the blow-up homes. Beneville said he’ll call the spiders Dhomes.

“Seventeen people had crashed in it at Precompression,” Beneville said, referring to a pre-Burning Man Party. “So you could imagine bunk-bedding people in here in a refugee situation.”

Beneville said they were just talking to NASA.

“Any species that doesn’t invent space-faring is doomed to annihilation,” Beneville said.

For Pittman, the harsh conditions of the playa are a canvas to experiment with new technology, a place to challenge himself, he said. And for a man with a very comfortable life, it’s a place to confront some amount of discomfort.

“We experiment with this at Burning Man, but this is solving fundamental problems,” Pittman said. “You go to refugee camps, and it’s tents — how do we still have tents in 2014?”

“To the outside world, Burning Man is a rave with sex and drugs. Or it’s the New York Post article saying I have a private chef cooking me dinner. This, to me, is Burning Man,” he said, gesturing to the spider contraption surrounding us.

Pittman and Beneville met through Burning Man — “Michael helped us paint a pedicab,” Pittman said.

“Burning Man renews my spirit,” he said. “As you get older, your world narrows. One hundred years ago you probably went away to renew your spirit — I think Burning Man is the place creative people come to have their worlds opened again.”

So, what is Beneville’s role?

“Court jester!” Beneville said.

“If you are a billionaire, and you want a one-of-a-kind gift, you come to Michael,” Pittman said.

They present me with a small gift that Pittman describes as looking like “a space-faring people met an ancient civilization at Burning Man.”

A bronze arrowhead with the symbol of a hand carved onto it, it has five laser-made holes to represent “home.”

Next year, their plan is to build 200 Dhomes and rent them for between $5 and $10,000 for the week (about what an RV costs).

“People like me — boring old men — we need a bathroom and a bed, but I want to push the RVs out,” Pittman said.

And how will these Dhomes be delivered?

“Drones!” Pittman proclaimed.

“Dirigibles or airships,” said Beneville.

That night, Pittman invited me to dinner, where he and his camp of a few dozen Burners sat at long candlelit tables. Contrary to that Post story about private chefs (which I had secretly been hopeful about — ice cream flown in that night?!), Pittman himself had cooked (spiced chicken breast, smoked pork loin, brownies).

The billionaire cleared people’s plates and scraped them into a trash can in his trailer. He put on his outfit for the night — a black body suit. He offered me a costume (I look like a lesbian tennis coach at Burning Man). He asked me if I wanted to go out with him and his friends. But I was too sleepy and full, and biked off into the night.

As I was leaving our “off-the-record” meetup, Pittman said he didn’t have Wi-Fi — but wasn’t this better?

More from our Burning Man coverage



7 comments
Peter Yared
Peter Yared

My girlfriend and I randomly wandered into this camp. A guy (who I now see was Pittman) cheerfully offered to make us drinks. We weren't thirsty, but instead took a nap on a comfy furry bed in the slick communal space they had built. Then we peered into the spider houses because we thought there were cool, and I even walked around the structures to examine how they were piping in AC. Like most burning man camps, no one there had a problem with us checking out interesting things, even private structures. On the way out I noticed that they had unsafe 110v wiring for their perimeter lights. I have no idea how it survived the rain - safety third!


I've been to burning man eight times and have helped build large installations, theme camps, and art cars. Most times I leave before the burn to avoid the tourists. A lot of people nowadays go to burning man and just take take take and don't offer anything, even when giving can be as simple as handing out gummy worms on the Esplanade. Sure these guys have a bunch of cash and large RVs, but imo they are total burners - designing and building cool stuff themselves, creating communal areas for passersby, and offering strangers drinks.

BenjaminBrown
BenjaminBrown

How did this reporter walk over to Bittman's tent and bike off into the night? Did the Clear Channel CEO give her a bike?

ChiefAlien
ChiefAlien

This is why I will never go back to Burningman. This is one of the 1% who's company censors our news and dumbs down our kids with crappy music. Burningman is dying might as well end it after this year.

Rgrace
Rgrace

My God, you have got to be kidding me. "Confront some discomfort?" Why do these people have to ruin everything? And why do you have to so nakedly chase Mammon? Says everything you need to know about Silicon Valley and the Bay Area in one panting, meretricious, content-free article. Do you have a shred of skepticism left? And do you know what Clear Channel actually does?

MamaKath
MamaKath

@ChiefAlien That was my immediate thought.  Fox in the henhouse.  And you know that it was not a case of Burners teaching the king of dumming down America's musical taste what great art is.  My bet is he left crafting new ideas on how to turn Burners in to mindless twits.

Jozo Zovko
Jozo Zovko

@MamaKath @ChiefAlien


To be fair to this camp and just about everyone else on earth, nobody is forcefully dumbing down anyone in the USA. If you want to watch bad news, or listen to bad music, then go ahead. Same goes for the "good" stuff. It's all there for you to choose. This isn't North Korea and everyone here is free to choose what to watch or not watch etc etc. It is all a big marketplace, and if these people are making money with their goods, then I guess thats what their customers want. If they did not want it, why would they buy it. They have a million other ways to spend their lives, money, time etc. How did you make it out of this cultural gauntlet fully unscathed? 

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