iHeartMedia’s Programming Big Kahuna Tom Poleman and EVP Brad Hardin are huge radio stars, and the company’s tremendous reach and influence in Pop formats is widely celebrated. But less has been said about another area of their success—their enormous impact on the shape of Alternative and Rock. We recently sat down with the pair to shred on air guitar and find out why they’re so amped about iHeart’s profile in the land of the loud.

Your company’s status in Pop and Country is well known. What kind of reach do you have at Alternative and Rock formats?
Brad Hardin: We are often considered the premiere CHR and Country company, but we are the biggest Rock company too—along with Urban and several other formats as well. When you combine all of our Rock assets—Rock, Alternative, Classic Rock across multiple platforms including broadcast stations, online via branded digital sites, mobile and social—we’re reaching more than 100 million listeners a month. No one else is even close to that, including cable networks, magazines, etc. So if an artist or management company wants to get their word across in this format, we’re the partner to do that with.

Tom Poleman: We also have a collection of really strong, distinct brands, like ALT 98.7 in L.A., which is consistently now neck-and- neck with KROQ. We also have The Edge in Dallas, The Buzz in Houston, Radio 104.5 in Philly, DC101, RDA in Atlanta and TCL in Denver. They’ve woven themselves into the fabric of the local communities, which is the first key part of the equation. But the second thing is that we can get all these radio stations to work together for the greater good of artist development.

BH: The stations that Tom mentioned are not only the Rock leaders in their markets, but also very competitive with other contemporary-format stations in their markets. I mean, they have a massive listenership. Those are just our biggest stations.

How many total terrestrial properties do you have in the Rock and Alternative world?
BH: We have 139 total Rock properties: 36 Rock, including Active and Mainstream; 32 Alternative; 70 Classic Rock; and the mighty KBCO in the Triple A lane.

So how does the terrestrial work hand in hand with the digital platforms?
TP: I think every one of our programs has a digital extension to it. Look at our world premieres, our On the Verge or artist- integration programs. It starts by what you hear on a radio station, but there’s also a deeper digital extension. We also have some digital-only assets, and those are great ways for consumers to get a deeper connection with the artists. Our goal is to use every one of our assets to make that connection. Sometimes you do that in an auditory way, but then you augment that with behind-the-scenes photos or interviews that only exist on our digital assets. It’s a brand extension first and foremost, because our company is really built on those strong, individual station brands. But the iHeartRadio platform satisfies the long-tail Rock consumer—it allows us to go deeper with digital-only channels, custom channels that are curated by rock artists, and so on.

BH: When artists stop by, our individual markets will capture that content and use it across the appropriate iHeartRadio channels and our digital assets. So not only do we do a lot of those events when they visit our New York HQ, but they bubble up from these other places as well.

How is capturing Rock listeners in general different from capturing listeners at Pop or other formats?
BH: Rock listeners are different and are at different stages. You have the Classic Rock listener who’s attached to icons like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, etc. You have that next generation that has those attachments with Nirvana, Pearl Jam—you know, all the great ’90s core audience. When you get into the ’00s and beyond, there are fewer iconic, legendary bands. As listener tastes have changed and there have been more choices as digital and everything has become available socially, etc., today’s listener has a much broader palate. They may have Dr. Dre, Pearl Jam, and whatever in their personal music collections. As far as capturing new listeners, I think they have broad taste. Country is Country; Urban is Urban, and you have Urban AC, so there’s two; CHR has two with Mainstream and Rhythm. But when you look at Rock, there’s Classic Rock, Active Rock, Mainstream Rock, Alternative and Triple A. When you slice and dice it that many ways, it becomes difficult to have a cohesive target listener. I think we make it more difficult than it needs to be with that many Rock formats.

TP: Those different subgenres all need core artists as well. We recognize that and try to build those core artists with programs like the Icon program, where we have Tom Petty, who had his first #1 record. We just did something with The Rolling Stones. We’re doing stuff with U2, John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, Led Zeppelin—we just had Jimmy Page in our theater—James Taylor and others. On the more contemporary side, we’ve had Foo Fighters, Muse, Death Cab for Cutie, Three Days Grace, Incubus, Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, Nate Reuss, The Black Keys, Twenty One Pilots and Milky Chance. Having great artists who mean something to our core listeners is critically important; it’s incumbent on us to use our platform to build them.

BH: This year, our theater has been incredibly busy with Rock and Alternative artists. We’ve had so many shows this year, from the up-and-coming acts to superstars. I remember back when I first started in radio, you had the superstar concert series, like the King Biscuit Flower Hour—those live radio events that kind of went away. We’re trying to bring that back to our listeners through the L.A. and New York theaters, and by having these exclusive special performances on air in our digital space.

TP: One thing Pop and Rock have in common is that you want to make pop-culture events around artists and their releases. So if you can make an event out of a new release from a great artist and you do the world premieres every other hour, or however frequently our programmers 
deem appropriate, that makes it that much more of an event. When you have the Foo Fighters take a break from their arena stage tour and do an event in our iHeartRadio Theaterin L.A., that becomes a pop-culture moment and makes the artist into a sort of lightning rod for the format. That’s the kind of stuff that radio is supposed to do, because we’re curating music, programs and events to our fans on a daily basis. Brad, Mike Kaplan, John Allers and all our great programmers are bringing that back to the format, which is good for everyone.

Earlier, you touched on Alternative and Rock being long-tail formats. As the Alternative format exists now, the panel averages around 35% currents, and your stations are even less than that. How do you balance new music in the Rock world?
BH: At each station, we try to keep whatever the gold-current-recurrent ratio is competitive. Alternative has been very rich with new talent in the last three years, much of which has crossed over to CHR and Hot AC. Look at artists that that got played on CHR radio: Walk the Moon, Milky Chance, even KONGOS. As a Rock programmer, I love it when the other formats play our songs—that means we’re playing hit records. For a while, Rock and Alternative were kind of the same format, and the other formats weren’t really playing our music. Now, CHR is playing the biggest hits from all the formats, which is good for Alternative. On the Rock side, to be frank, there’s a lack of new superstar rock artists. I’m sure in some garage somewhere the next Guns N’ Roses is happening, but we haven’t found it yet. I want to find that band!

Programs like On the Verge spotlight new music. How does that integrate between terrestrial and digital platforms?
BH: It’s about the programmers. Tom and I don’t want to decide what the next On the Verge artist or song is; we want our programmers to tell us what they’re championing. Our first On the Verge at Alternative was KONGOS, which happened because John Allers and Nerf were playing it and having success from it. They were raving about it, we shared it with the other programmers and they felt the same. It became the #1 song and crossed over.

As Tom said, everything we do on the air has a digital peak, and we’ve been really successful with the Alternative OTV songs and artists that our programmers have picked. Most have been Top 5, several of them #1, and most have crossed to other formats. I’m really proud of that. On the Rock side, we really haven’t done that many, because our programmers haven’t championed as many acts. Royal Blood was one, and I think they’re one of the best new bands to come out today; their next album will probably take them to the next level. The Struts are really the only OTV artist that we’ve done at both Rock and Alternative, and one that all of our programmers got excited about. Tom and I got excited about it and we decided to make it the OTV song; we even agreed to put them on The Village at the festival. You know, they were not signed in the U.S.; lots of labels paid attention to that, and they’re going to be with Interscope moving forward. We need more of these Rock artists like The Struts that are going to excite both formats.

TP: We’re excited to look at the stats of the artists like Milky Chance, who went from #20 to #1 while the program was in place. With Twenty One Pilots, we really embraced it, did a lot of artist integration there. We premiered the song, did a performance for iHeartRadio LIVE and they had their first ever debut at #1. I think it’s about having our programmers identify those key artists. The consumer is always going to want that balance of new music to recurrents and golds. But we can make the ones that we do support stand out that much more, and use the collective reach of our radio stations to have a stronger imprint nationwide. More and more, we see artists and managers of these Rock artists looking to us to build their marketing campaigns.

Are there any points of perception you’d like to address about iHeart’s presence in the marketplace with Rock, Alternative and Triple A?
TP: If we didn’t have all these Top 40 radio stations, I think we’d be perceived much more as the go-to Rock company. I think we need to wave that flag a little bit more. When you look at those stats, you see that we talk to nearly 100 million rock listeners on a monthly basis. I think that’s compelling; it’s a story that needs to be told.

BH: Our CHR stations have worked together better than our Rock stations have, with our Jingle Ball tour and the sharing of talent, whether it be Ryan Seacrest or Elvis Duran. Our Country stations have started to do that. We’ve begun it with our Rock stations with Edgefest in Dallas this past year, which is a big show for the company and is one of the last radio festivals that are standalone with the radio stations, as Coachella, Lollapalooza, Firefly and so on have grown into big festivals. This year, Edgefest was presented by iHeartRadio. We invited every Rock station that wanted to be involved to talk about the show and send its listeners. That was a first step in integrating multiple stations with a well-branded event that one of our local stations actually had, and it all worked out great. The winners, who came from multiple cities, had a great time and a great experience, and we look to grow on that.

You’ve got Ryan on the Pop side and Bobby Bones on the Country side. Do you see the same kind of a concept of a morning show working in the Alternative and/or Rock formats?
BH: Well, first I want to talk about Nikki Sixx. In our fifth year of the Sixx Hits program, we’re well over 100 affiliates; many are ours, many are others. That show is in the 7-to-midnight space on Classic Rock, Rock and some Alternative stations—it really crosses boundaries. We have some great morning talent, like Elliot Rover and Rod Ryan; The Woody Show is growing in Los Angeles. Many of our Rock stations were built on that big morning-show brand, and in addition to the guys I just mentioned, we have big shows in local markets. But Tom and I are always looking for that next star, whether it’s just for their own market or on multiple stations.

TP: Look at Harms on 98.7. We really started to leverage him in the company as the host of our iHeartRadio live shows. When we kicked off the U2 tour in Vancouver, he was backstage with the band right before they walked onstage and was painting the picture as we broadcast the first three songs on all of our Rock stations. We’re using him a lot more—he’s a good example of a great jock who connects with artists and listeners and can serve as that conduit between artists and consumers. We’re always looking for more people like Harms to play a role—not necessarily as a syndicated morning show-type role, but as someone who can create big Rock moments on our local stations.•

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