Exclusive: An Interview with Former Disney CEO and OHS Graduate Robert Iger

by THOMAS HARMON

The Sider Press recently interviewed the former CEO of The Walt Disney company, Robert Iger, during a video chat. Iger grew up in Oceanside and graduated from Oceanside High School in 1969. He shares his memories of OHS and how he became one of the most successful businessmen in the industry, helping to build Disney into a world-wide entertainment and media phenomenon. Mr. Iger is currently the Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board of the Disney company until the end of 2021 when he is set to retire.

Thomas Harmon: What kind of things did you do for fun around Oceanside? Did you have a big group of friends or a tight circle?

Robert Iger: I was actually part of a few tight circles of friends…I had a group of people I considered very close friends of mine, some of whom I’m still very close with. I have more friends that have endured throughout my life from high school than from any other aspect of my life. Oceanside friendships have lasted a long time, [a] lifetime really. And in terms of fun, you know we did things typical teenagers did at that time. We played a lot of sports and basically extracurricular sports all the time. We were also all into music…we all went to concerts, listened to a lot of music, but I was also very involved in school activities. And so, a lot of what we did together was either supported by, organized by, or sponsored by Oceanside High School. 

TH: You said you were big into extracurricular activities. I read somewhere that you also wrote for the school newspaper. Is that true?

Iger’s 1969 OHS Yearbook photo

RI: No, I was sports editor of the yearbook and I was president of Key Club. I don’t know if that still exists anymore.

TH: Yes, it does.

RI: I was heavily involved in student government, and I acted in the school senior school play.

TH: What was the play? Do you remember?

RI: Yes, The Crucible.

TH: That’s what we’re doing this year. 

RI: Interesting. I had a very minor role; it was Francis Nurse. And it’s interesting, I never acted in my life, and I never had any interest in acting, but I thought it would be fun to try so I got a part in it. Which was nice. 

TH: When you got your first job, was it here in Oceanside? 

RI: My first jobs were in Oceanside, yes, but they were summer jobs or extracurricular jobs. I worked in a hardware store on Long Beach Road at one point. I painted houses. I worked as a summer janitor getting schools ready. I did that for two summers, scraping gum off the bottom of desks. So, I had a lot of Oceanside jobs, but my first official job was not in Oceanside; [it was] after college. 

TH: Becoming CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world is a great accomplishment. You were the Disney CEO for over 15 years. During that time, movies changed, the way people consume media changed. What do you think is your biggest accomplishment during your time as Disney CEO?  

RI: Well, I tried to do three primary things, and I’ll give you examples of all three: First, I wanted Disney to build out its library of higher quality entertainment. Basically, for us to increase our production of high-quality entertainment and to do that we ended up buying Pixar and Marvel and Star Wars, and ultimately the assets of Fox, 20th Century Fox (not the news essence,). That enabled us to make many more films and television shows — and there are countless examples of that – The Mandalorian and Black Panther, Up and Wall-E, Inside Out and more Toy Story movies — you name it. So, if you look at the content side of our business, I achieved what I wanted to achieve which is a substantial increase, not just in volume but in quality. Secondly, I believed, and you referenced it, that the world was going to change because of technology, and how we distributed our films and TV shows, and how people consumed them would change. I wanted to use technology to modernize the way we delivered our content because that’s how the world was going, and the best example of that is Disney+ [which] we created and launched in 2019. We also bought control of Hulu. And then the third thing I wanted to achieve was to grow the company globally and in other markets, and to basically be more successful outside the US than we had been, even though we were well known. One great example of that is building Disneyland in Shanghai, the People’s Republic of China. There are many other examples of that as well. 

TH: What challenges or transformations in media do you see happening in the future? 

RI: In all likelihood, whatever I do next will not be entertainment oriented. I’ve done that a good chunk of my life, well over half of my life. I’m looking forward to some different experiences. You know, I think the world is changing in more profound ways and faster than ever before, ever in our lifetime, in yours and in my lifetime. If you just think back to five years ago for instance, or ten years ago, and think about what didn’t exist then that is now part of your daily life right now. Uber would be a great example of that, or Netflix, or Door Dash. We can name a lot of them. And I think what you’re seeing is far more disruption of traditional businesses and consumer habits than ever before, whether it’s in travel or tourism, or how you get your food or how you get your entertainment. So, I think the biggest challenge for Disney is to continue to innovate and to continue to either be ahead of trends, create them, or continue to be with trends that enable Disney to continue to be relevant and vital and successful. There was no question that telling great stories and making great content is the best way to do that. Because the one thing that we’ve proven over the years, because all the way back to when Walt Disney created the company, it doesn’t matter what the technology is or even how people consume product. They still love storytelling and they’re going to find ways to get it no matter what — and that’s an enviable position for Disney to be in. But it’s important for Disney to know how to be not only relevant but accessible, maybe making sure their stories are as accessible to as many people as possible around the world, and using technology to do that is the best way.

Thomas was joined by Oceanside Superintendent, Dr. Phyllis Harrington, during the Zoom call.

TH: Everyone uses it, so, yeah. 

RI: Much more comfortably too. Even the pandemic hastened that. You know before the pandemic there were still a lot of people that weren’t as comfortable with app-based television viewing in the home, and now it’s become much more commonplace. 

TH: And most people have at least one or more streaming channels. 

RI: That’s right. And that includes Smart TVs and Apple TV boxes or Roku’s and or mobile devices, and everybody’s far more comfortable using all of that than they were before, and that’s an example of a hastened change or disruption. In that case probably pandemic oriented, pandemic created. 

TH: So, let’s come back to Oceanside, you went to School 8, Fulton Avenue? 

RI: I did. I went to Fulton Avenue School number 8, through 6th grade. Elementary school, in Oceanside, was K-6th. And then I went to Walter Boardman Junior High School from 7, 8, and 9th.  There were two junior highs in Oceanside at the time. And then I went to Oceanside High School for 10th, 11th and 12th grades. 

TH: Did your mom work at 9E or Boardman?

RI: She worked at Boardman, yes, the middle school…My father was, at one point, president of the Oceanside Board of Education. And my father was very involved with the Oceanside school system, president of the board in mid 60’s. The Oceanside school system was very much a part of our household.

TH: Have you been back recently? 

RI: I went to Oceanside High School one Christmas a couple of years ago. I just pulled into the driveway just to feel it, but that’s it. I’ve not been in one of our schools, I don’t know, in probably in 40 years or so. Let me just say that growing up in Oceanside when I did was of significant value to me in my life. The friendships I made, the families my family was friendly with, the education that I got, the teachers that I had, were all very, very important and integral to my ability not only to be successful from a business perspective but to lead a happy healthy life. I have not only extremely fond memories of Oceanside, but I have very fond memories of my school experience from elementary school. My favorite teacher in the world is a man named Irwin Lictor who was my fifth-grade teacher. I can still remember every one of my teachers from kindergarten through my junior high experience at Walter Boardman which was a brand new school at that time. And of course I remember being in Oceanside High School where my favorite teacher was a man named Ray Sobel (who taught social studies). We were a particularly politically active class and a lot of the conversation in class had to do with what was going on in the world, including at that point the Vietnam War. It was an enriching experience for me, and being able to be involved in school activities not only connected me better to school but rounded me out and help prepare me for the world that I was entering post-Oceanside. I have nothing but fond memories and appreciation. 

TH: A lot of the seniors in the high school are Disney fans – even my friends who you wouldn’t think would be fans. If you like Marvel now, if you like Star Wars, if you like any of the 20th Century Fox content, I think you’re kind of a Disney fan because you guys are the ones that produce most of the movies and television shows. What advice would you give the senior class as we embark on our education and careers?

RI: Well, I was someone who kind of knew what they wanted to do early in high school. I wanted to go into television. Actually, I wanted to go into television news. I wanted to be a newscaster. But I don’t think it is necessary for people in high school to know exactly what they want to do. It’s fine for them to have a leaning or a certain passion, but I don’t think it’s necessary that they lock themselves into a career path when they’re 17 or 18 years old because there’s so many unknowns, both about the world and about themselves. So, I think I’m kind of an aberration in that regard. With that in mind, I think the best thing is to approach high school with great enthusiasm and commitment. And what I really mean by that is be enthusiastic about the next phase of your life in terms of learning. And that includes, by the way, personal learning that comes from social engagement outside the home and new friends and new experiences. But also, really taking college seriously to learn about things that you don’t know at this point, so that it either opens up your mind to opportunities and career paths or prepares you better for them. People often ask me “If you could do anything again, what would it be?” and I usually say “nothing”. I don’t want to change anything; it’s worked out just fine. I took advantage of college. I used college to help me become what I am, and to foster the beginnings of what became a really successful career. I wish I would have taken learning a little more seriously. I took practical learning seriously, and I did well in college, extremely well, so I took it seriously enough. But now that I look back, I would have wanted to collect even more knowledge back then. I guess my priorities were a bit scattered. So, I would say to everyone, take college seriously, be enthusiastic about it, and use it for what it is designed to do: to teach you more.

TH: You said you were interested in being in television in high school? Did you have a broadcasting program or a television media class or extracurricular club?

RI: No, interestingly enough, we had an ad-hoc radio station that we put together and we’d actually broadcast and play songs in the cafeteria at lunch and after school. And then I announced the high school football games from the sidelines and basketball games too. I also had terrible knee injuries early on, so I’m not suggesting I would have been a great athlete, but it prevented me from even trying. So I took to calling games from the sideline. I was the announcer at all the Oceanside football games, at least if I recall correctly, in my senior year in high school — and basketball games my junior and senior year. And it gave me a little bit of media experience, but more than anything, it convinced me that my interest in that field was even stronger than I thought it was. 

TH: Did you ever think about going into sports broadcasting?

RI: I ended up working at ABC sports for 13 years, interestingly enough, before there was any ESPN. No, I was mostly interested in news. Straight News. Yes, I was a weatherman and a feature news reporter because that’s the first job I was offered. I think it might be the only job I was offered after college, and I grabbed it. 

TH: How did you move on from being a weatherman?

RI: I convinced myself I wasn’t as good on air as I thought I would need to be in order to have a successful career, and so instead of continuing to pursue a career on air, I got a job as a production assistant at ABC in July of 1974. From that job I ultimately became CEO and chairman of the company. I just kept moving up and up and up, and I worked in news and sports and entertainment. At one point I was head of programming for our sports division, and I was president of our entertainment division in California. Then I was president of ABC, which was bought by Disney, and I became president of all Disney TV. I then became the COO (the chief operating officer) of Disney, and then ultimately the CEO. I probably had 15 to 20 jobs over the years. The longest one was the CEO job. 

TH: So you’ve lived the American Dream?

RI: In the 50s, Walt Disney had programs on television that he was actually part of, and so I would watch Walt Disney on TV build Disneyland and talk about Mickey Mouse and a variety of other things, and it was a part of my generation’s childhood. Who would think that a kid from Oceanside, New York who went to school 8 and Oceanside High School could grow up to be running the company that Walt Disney founded almost 100 years ago? In many respects, I consider myself the embodiment of the American dream. If you work hard and love what you do and have great teachers and mentors and treat people fairly and take advantage of opportunities, and have luck (because that is a part of it too), you know things can work out your way. It is possible! 

TH: What do you plan on doing moving forward? Are you still going to be a big part of Disney or are you going to do something else?

RI: No, I’ll have no ongoing relationship with Disney. I am leaving in a complete way at the end of December. I started with the company in 1974 when I was 23 years old. Just do the math: that was 47 and a half years ago when it was ABC [and] we were bought by Disney, so I’ve really never changed companies. That’s a long time to work for one company. I’m 70 now. I’ve got tons of energy and interests, but I haven’t made any decisions about what life will be like after Disney. I haven’t had a summer off since eighth grade. I’ve always worked. I’m looking forward to taking a little time off. I have five grandchildren that all live in New York. I’d like to spend more time with them, and just generally enjoy whatever is the next chapter of my life.

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