When Bob Pittman took the reins of Clear Channel in 2011, he had a vision for the company as a 21st century multiplatform entity seamlessly fusing traditional and nontraditional media, with a particular emphasis on the iHeartRadio online initiative. The next step was to locate the innovators who could best bring that vision to fruition. He first looked inside the company, naming renowned radio veteran Tom Poleman President of National Programming Platforms for Clear Channel Radio. Pittman then turned to one of his oldest friends and colleagues, fellow MTV trailblazer John Sykes, who was given the job of President of Entertainment Enterprises for Clear Channel Media Holdings. These two all-stars immediately clicked, and together they’ve unified Clear Channel and built iHeartRadio into one of the foremost brands in new media, creating the iHeartRadio Music Festival, a star-studded spectacle now in its fourth year, and this week will oversee the first annual iHeartRadio Music Awards. In the following conversation, HITSTodd Hensley and Bud Scoppa nod their heads and pretend to comprehend what Sykes and Poleman are talking about as they go into detail about their partnership and what they’ve managed to pull off by pooling their resources.
On a day-to-day basis, what are you trying to accomplish, what set of skills does each of you bring to the job, and how do you combine your respective areas of expertise?
Tom Poleman: Both of us want to drive revenue and ratings—it always comes down to that, first and foremost. But what John and I really focus on is thinking about radio in new ways, and how we can use our platform to do things that nobody else can do. It’s not always easy to take a company that grew up with individual brands to work as a national platform that has local identity and local capabilities. But we’ve been able to do that really well in the last several years at Clear Channel, and we find that when we do things at the same time and we use the collective strength of the company, it allows us to do things that haven’t traditionally been done in radio. You can be in our smallest market, and those listeners can still have a shot to go to the iHeartRadio Music Awards and see all the biggest artists from Paul McCartney to Drake to Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry, or go to the Pool Party. So it allows us to do things differently.

As for our partnership, John has this massive experience in the world of TV, and I’ve been programming radio stations for about 30 years or so, and that combined experience is a unique skill set that we both bring to the party. And what we can create is really unique and powerful.

John Sykes:
The real strength and magic of the partnership that Tom and I have come from the fact that we can be local when needed and national when it’s more effective for our stations. So Clear Channel can operate 850 very powerful local brands, but when entertainment enterprises and national program forums come together, we can aggregate and create national brands like iHeartRadio. That’s the world I come from, and it excites me to work for a company like Clear Channel, which is the biggest media company by reach in the world. Before it was centralized, it was a collection of very strong brands, but now, when it needs to be, it can actually send out one unified voice that can really energize music. And if we energize music, then we win, because our audience wins, the musicians win and the advertisers win. In that case, all boats rise, and music is really at the center of what we do. So when we come together and we create a lot of these events or these national platforms, whether on radio or other media outlets, it’s really about delivering the consumer a bigger-than-life experience with the end game of selling more records and concert tickets, and enhancing an artist’s career, because then we all do well.
How do you bring together the various media that you’re dealing with—terrestrial radio, online radio, in-venue and TV/syndicated?
Now that we have Tom heading up NPP and I’m in Entertainment Enterprises, it really works well, because Tom has formed strong relationships with the key programmers at our stations, and there’s an incredible communication system whereby the programmers are finding music that they find exciting and bring the information back to Tom, and he actually can push back too with ideas that he has, and it’s an incredibly healthy relationship where information flows both ways in this company. What we do in building a multiplatform experience is really a natural progression in following the audience, because today viewers are now going to multiple platforms to find their content, so we have to be in that business. So although radio is the core of what we do, if our audience is watching television, we want to be there; if they are streaming, we want to be there; if they’re on a digital platform, we want to be there with iHeartRadio. So what we’re doing, really, is just following the consumer and delivering what they want, which is driven by the biggest media platform in the world—radio.

TP: If you look at an event like the iHeartRadio Music Festival, and you look at all the components, you see how it’s really a multiplatform experience. To John’s point, that’s how consumers digest media. It’s done not just in a one-dimensional way; it needs to be digital, it needs to be social, it needs to involve radio, it involves TV. So the iHeartRadio Music Festival is the most important promotion that we do. For three months or so leading up to it, we use it as the mechanism to drive ratings on our radio stations by giving appointment listening times for people to tune in and win trips and tickets to the show. And then, the show itself becomes an incredible live event experience. But it’s not just for the people in the venue; we broadcast it in every single city that Clear Channel is in. So it’s a new way for people to experience a concert. We also create a stream so you can see it as well, and then there’s that huge payoff with a great TV broadcast. Along the way, there’s a lot of digital integration and a lot of social, and it gives us a central focus for all of our stations to be pointing towards to be a great pop-cultural moment, a great platform for artists to show the world what they’re all about.

Leading up to the festival, we’ll do what we call the "Road to Vegas," which is a chance for you to really get to know the artists more and put a face to the music. But it’s all those things combined around one event that really creates a multimedia experience. And that’s just one example. We do that for all of our theater shows, you know, the great small, intimate venue where you’re seeing an artist like you never typically would see a major performer, but it’s a great intimate setting. But then we also broadcast that live across all of our radio stations and create that stream and TV. So I look at the medium as a multimedia experience. And it’s the best possible way to get music to consumers.
Pittman talked about integration with the labels and creating marketing opportunities for artists in general terms, but you guys actually implement these initiatives. How do you go about that task? Can you give us some specific examples?
When we develop more artists and more songs, it makes our product stronger. It’s interesting to see the evolution of the relationship between radio and records through the years. We’ve gone through phases where we viewed ourselves as enemies. Then there are times where we’re our greatest allies. We’re big believers that for our industry to continue to thrive, we have to view ourselves as allies. One of my primary focuses over the past three or four years has been to come up with ways that we can again use our platform to grow artists and breed more music that will be hits for all of our stations. So one of the first things we did was develop what we call the Clear Channel Music Summit. We get all of our programmers in a room, and we invite labels, managers and artists to showcase what they have coming up over the next six months or so. We put our Blackberries and our iPhones down for a couple days and really focus on the most important thing for our products, which is the music, and that has been an incredible experience. It seems like a simple concept, but when we started doing it, everybody was like, "Oh my God, I can’t believe you guys are really taking the time to listen to the music and give us feedback." So that’s step one.

"It’s not just the airplay that breaks a record, it’s hearing the hook, and when we put that hook in different spots and other pieces of our content, it starts to seep in and connect with the consumer faster." —Tom Poleman

Then, once we decide which music we love and want to champion and bring to the consumer, we have a lot of different programs that we’ve created. So the first main one we did was the Artist Integration Program, which is basically a two-week advertising campaign featuring the artist that gives them an opportunity to put in their own words what their music is about. One of the first ones we did was The Wanted. Steve Bartels had come to me and said, "We wanted to get The Wanted exposed last summer, and it didn’t connect, for whatever reason. We still think that there’s something there. What can you do to help us really bring this one home?" And we made them one of our first Artist Integration Programs, and then, sure enough, with the weight of all those impressions, consumer awareness increased dramatically. It’s not just the airplay that breaks a record, it’s hearing the hook, and when we put that hook in different spots and other pieces of our content, it starts to seep in and connect with the consumer faster. With Ed Sheeran, fun., Dan + Shay and Jason Derulo, in each case you see the direct impact in sales. We also see it in our music research, because those multiple impressions breed familiarity. And when you’re setting up the records with a bit more of a context, that helps as well.

JS: That’s a very important point. In pop culture, the audience is exposed to so much information—movies, TV, music—that the hardest thing to do when trying to break an artist is to get the audience to notice and connect with them. Unfamiliarity has always been the biggest challenge for any record label. So by contextualizing new music with information, background, excitement—making it sexy and interesting—we can speed up that awareness curve and get the audience connected to music earlier, and that’s how these songs can become hits and sell. The biggest challenge, really, is getting an audience to accept something new. They know what they like, but with every hit record, it’s about cracking that code. So rather than just playing it until they eventually stumble on it, we serve it up to the audience and give them the back story, and that makes for a quicker road to awareness.

TP: One thing that we’ve certainly learned is repetition works. That’s just another way of looking at a way to reinforce that hook over and over again.
Every label seemingly wants to be involved in artist integration, the On the Verge program and release parties. How do you decide which acts to single out and focus on?
TP: Well, there’s one thing that we’ve developed over the past couple months that we call the Clear Channel Music Meeting. Every week, our brand manager for each of the current base formats will send out a survey of five or six new tracks and ask the programmers, "Do you like the song? How do you think it’s gonna do? And most importantly, is this one that you think that we should get behind as a company in one of our programs?" I don’t want to be the one who’s deciding this from the center. The greatest strength of our company is the people, right? We have these incredible programmers in each market that have been doing it a long time, and they have great ears, and we want to know what they think we should be featuring. So we get this survey back, and I can see what’s rising to the top. A great example was Katie Tiz very recently at CHR. She’d done the promo tour when she was with Republic and got to know a lot of people. She told me that she’d just recorded a new song, "Big, Big Bang," and I said, "We’re doing this Music Summit; why don’t you come and play it for everybody?" So she got up on stage, and she got a big round of applause. We took a vote after she left the room, like, "Hey, is this one that we should get behind?" And everybody said yes. It was very organic. It’s our programmers deciding that this is something that they would be proud to put the Clear Channel stamp on.

You’re not always gonna get every programmer to agree. The best organizations have a lot of different ideas. But when one bubbles to the top and we all collectively decide to go at the same time, wow, that’s a way of looking at radio in a whole different way. It’s no longer about one station championing a song; it’s the whole company. When you get over a hundred CHR stations going at the same time on an artist that isn’t on a label, that has a tremendous impact.

But to answer your question, the way we do it is by asking our people. Because every record label comes to me and says, "How do we get a pick one of our artists for On the Verge?" I say, "Go talk to our programmers. They have a vote every week to let us know what we should be championing."

JS: There’s a healthy exchange of ideas going back and forth between Tom and the programmers across the country. Primarily these are local stations that are connecting with audiences, but because we live in a world of mass-appeal stars like Pharrell and Pitbull and Shakira that are being played across so many stations, there are times when the reach and the scope of our aggregated audience can really deliver more, not only for the artist but for the stations themselves.

TP: Craig Campbell is an On the Verge artist who has exploded at Country, and KONGOS was a really big one at Rock. I believe that was the fastest a new band has ever gone to #1 at Alternative.

JS: There are examples of past, present and future of how On the Verge helps to break careers; Lorde was in there; Sam Smith is in there now. Sometimes Clear Channel is pegged as CHR, which we are amazingly powerful at. But we also have these other formats—Urban, Alternative, Rock, AC and Hot AC—that are juggernauts in their own right. The work we’ve done with Arcade Fire and KONGOS this year at Alternative has been very effective. So we have the luxury of reaching virtually every audience segment in America, and we can put together packages for artists to really help market their music on all platforms.
Tell us about the iHeartRadio Chart. What does it measure and what is its usefulness?
The iHeartRadio chart reflects what we feel consumers are really focused on these days. It measures digital, social, airplay and sales. We want the chart to reflect what’s hot with consumers. We want to make it as accurate as possible, and then do a weekly show that packages that up. And then it culminates as the data we use to help us come up with the iHeartRadio Music Awards. Then we throw that extra spin on there where the listeners get the final say and they do that final vote, which we felt was something the whole awards-show world was in need of. It gave us a different angle—a show that had the people celebrating the artists.

It sounds like a good portion of your day is spent acting like a concert promoter. How do you balance that with your other responsibilities?
I had done Jingle Ball and a ton of different events, but I had never really ventured into TV. But I discovered there’s not that much difference between programming a radio station and this, and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing.

JS: It was an easy transition for Tom, because these events are really tributes to the artists and the music that they play every day on the stations. And the ideas and the experience he has as a programmer, which is about connecting with an audience, translates perfectly to television.

"I feel the same exact excitement today as I did 34 years ago when we started MTV." —John Sykes

John, you did radio a little bit before you went to MTV, right?
Yeah, I wanted to be a programmer, but I went to work for CBS Radio, which then had a huge record company. So I got a chance to experience what a record company goes through trying to break an artist, and at the core of it was radio airplay. So when we started MTV, it was really a radio station on television.

TP: Bob programmed NBC Radio right before MTV. So at the end of the day, we’re a bunch of radio programmers. But we also have all of our programmers in the mix, as well as Rich Bressler and all of our great executives. We see the business from all different sides, because we’ve had players in all of the different areas from labels to artist management to TV. It’s a 360 perspective on the entertainment industry. And that’s extraordinarily helpful, because we can see what’s important to all of our partners.

With the number of year-round events, both national and branded local events like Jingle Ball, how much is too much to ask of the artist in terms of commitments? Have you noticed fatigue in any individual cases.
John and I talk about this a lot. Look, if we’re just coming and asking favors and there was nothing in it for the artist, we’d have a lot more fatigue. But there’s always got to be something in it for the artist, and we look at it as a fantastic marketing vehicle for your project. There’s nothing else like it.

JS: All of us are in the entertainment business, so we could just play records all day, which is fine. But we spend millions and millions of dollars every year constructing and building these events with music at the heart of that, so hopefully, the result is that we create that much more excitement around artists and their music that will connect them even closer to the audience and sell more records and create more excitement around tours. So although there’s always the fatigue of putting together a big event, if the consumer loves it and connects with it, then it’s a win for all parties.

Finally, what’s it like to work for Bob Pittman?
For me it’s like going home, because Bob and I started out together when I was 24 and he was 26 when we were developing MTV. And I learned so much from him back then and maintained a friendship with him my entire working life—whether I was with him professionally or not. I feel the same exact excitement today as I did 34 years ago when we started MTV. One thing about Bob that’s amazing was back when he was young he was able to connect with the older generation of business executives who had the money to launch MTV. Now that he’s older, he has the uncanny ability to think and connect with the youth market. He has a 360-degree creative and business mind that can work either way. That’s the perspective of a guy who has been with him his whole business life.

It’s like getting your MBA in a week, you know? I’ve never met somebody who has more vision, more intensity, more experience and brain power. He’s a unique guy; I don’t think I’ll ever work with anybody else quite like him. And you learn from him all the time. I love the fact that he started as a radio programmer, because he communicates with programmers in a different way than everybody else in the company, because you learn to think a certain way about the consumer and how you develop your products. So I love it. But he’s accomplished so much, and he demands the best. He’s a great guy and a very demanding guy to work for all at the same time.

JS: I’ve gotta say one more thing. The partnership I have with Tom Poleman is absolutely amazing. We really do fill in the blanks for each other, and his amazing programming and people skills really can complement everything that I’m doing out there. We have a rhythm after working together for almost three years, and this will be our fourth festival together this year. I can’t even imagine doing this without him at my side.


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