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“I still think great stations are built by great programmers being as local as they can be, with the best possible personalities and a music mix tailored for that market. Our job, from the center, is to give them the resources to pull that off.”

HE HEARTS RADIO

Clear Channel Media and Entertainment National Programming Platforms Chief Tom Poleman Dishes the Super Bowl of Music, Digital Deals, Smashed Guitars and Turning Off the E-Mail
by Simon Glickman

“Radio needs to remain the epicenter of music discovery,” says Clear Channel Media and Entertainment National Programming Platforms President Tom Poleman. “Nielsen released a statistic a little while ago stating that most people find new music from radio, and it’s incumbent upon us to live up to that expectation.”

Poleman says Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman has helped keep the emphasis where it ought to be. “From the time he came in, Bob was passionate about making music the focus of the company and doing events around music wherever possible.” That passion extends throughout the chain and finds its purest expression in CC’s regular music summits, which we’ll circle back to in a moment.

At the same time, Poleman adds, the company’s burgeoning digital properties offer the potential for unprecedented reach. “We’re connecting with people at every touchpoint,” the programming vet explains. “That’s one of the big reasons we changed our name to Clear Channel Media and Entertainment.”

He points to the iHeartRadio platform as a major component of that expanded capability, and to September’s all-star iHeartRadio Music Festival as a perfect illustration of how broadcast, digital and event components add up to a sum much larger than its parts.

“It’s kinda hard to do it justice if you didn’t see it,” Poleman says of the festival. “It was absolutely the concert of the year—the Super Bowl of music.”

The proof is in the pudding: In addition to its live audience, the fest reached more than 17 million people via various electronic avenues. It earned the CW its highest ratings since last May, won Yahoo its largest aggregated concert in total U.S. audience live streams, and garnered the highest U.S. viewership ever for a live event on Xbox. 850 Clear Channel stations and their assorted digital entities talked up the event beforehand, resulting in a staggering 3.9 billion impressions.

Poleman cites an array of high points from the show, including Gwen Stefani sharing vocals with P!nk on No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”; Prince joining Mary J. Blige as guest guitarist; Taylor Swift’s enthralling set; special guests Britney Spears and Olympic swim champ Ryan Lochte; and perfs by Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull, Linkin Park and Green Day.

He refers to the latter band’s set (which culminated in Billie Joe Armstrong’s pre-rehab tirade) as “awesome,” indicating that iHeartRadio’s sensibility is elastic enough to embrace the unexpected. “Billie Joe smashing his guitar generated a whole lot of buzz, and I think it’s great,” he notes. “Everybody was talking about it. It was fun to have Green Day back as that punk band everyone knows them to be. If they didn’t do something rebellious, they wouldn’t be living up to their brand.”

The growth of iHeartRadio demonstrates how listener-directed digital properties and traditional, hands-on programming can find ample common ground. “We know our consumers want to consume our stations in lots of different ways,” Poleman insists, “and our mission statement is to be wherever our consumers are with the products and services they expect.”

Yet despite big growth in the digital sphere, he points out, 93% of all radio listening occurs in the broadcast realm. “I’ve always been a programmer focused on creating a great radio station,” he says. "That hasn’t changed. Our programmers are in the business of creating great stations, but how they’re delivered is really up to the listener.

“Digital will continue to grow and we’re very excited about it. We talk to 239 million consumers per month via broadcast alone, and as we grow, the iHeartRadio platform we’ll reach more people. We just need to make sure we’re keeping pace and making our brands a part of any new technology that comes along. Right now iHeartRadio is a great way to expand that reach. Who knows what it’ll be tomorrow? But we need to make sure we’re a part of it.”

Making listeners feel like a part of it—and a part of the artist experience—has been a big factor in Clear Channel’s Artist Integration Program, whereby the chain's stations create custom spots to provide context about the acts, online assets featuring the artists, on-air interview segments and other collateral to raise awareness and interest.

“The great thing about our position is that we can wrap those assets together, because we’re truly a multimedia platform now,” Poleman elaborates. More than 35 such initiatives have taken place so far, most recently a massive push for Swift’s million-plus-selling monster Red. A Ryan Seacrest-hosted 25-minute iHeartRadio “album release party” was followed by streaming of the entire album, among other enticements. Other Artist Integration subjects have ranged from superstars like Coldplay and Carrie Underwood to bubbling-under artists like K’Naan.

Decisions about likely candidates for the program are bandied about at thrice-yearly music summits in New York and Nashville. These confabs put programmers from throughout the chain together with major and indie label execs. “For 48 hours we turn off the e-mail and just listen to music,” Poleman enthuses. “It’s a great experience. Programmers raise their hands and say, ‘This is a project I believe in and that we should get behind as a company—it would be good for our format.’ It’s organic and all about the passion they hear. That’s what we like about our jobs; we got into this because we’re passionate about music.”

As it regards the future, and particularly the growth of digital, Clear Channel has entered into revenue-sharing deals with Big Machine and Glassnote that Poleman believes provide a “sustainable” model. “The current system is broken,” he says. “We’re not incentivized to grow digital radio.” Thus the deals, which pivot from a per-play structure to a participation model, offering labels (in this case the ones behind mega-sellers Swift and Mumford & Sons, respectively) a percentage of revenue. That said, Poleman emphasizes that he supports legislative efforts, including the Chaffetz-Polis bill (introduced in September), to implement a consistent system for streaming royalties (see related HITS article here).

“This is an investment in the future,” he emphasizes. “It's not cheap to do these deals in the short term, but we think it’s important—and we want Clear Channel to be taking the leadership position. It’s nice to see the rest of the industry coming along; Cumulus did a similar deal with Big Machine, which we think is fantastic. We’re sure there will be more deals with us and with other broadcasters. The important thing is that we need a model that’s set up so our businesses are aligned.”

It’s been about a year since Poleman ascended to his current post, so he’s naturally feeling reflective. “I’m continually impressed by how Clear Channel has transformed, and the things we’ve been able to achieve, using our company in different ways,” he marvels. Yet he underscores that certain fundamentals haven’t changed. “I still think great stations are built by great programmers being as local as they can be, with the best possible personalities and a music mix tailored for that market. Our job, from the center, is to give them the resources to pull that off.

“I’m excited by what we’ve achieved in the last year...but there’s a lot more opportunity ahead.”

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