iHeart’s Tom Poleman on the Jingle Ball Concerts (Q&A)

Even before the Christmas decorations go up in the mall, the first sure sign the season is upon us is the announcement of the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball holiday show lineups. Those lineups often reflect what’s the hottest of hot in pop in any given year, and often a preview of which tours will top Pollstar’s tour charts long after the tree comes down.

Tom Poleman
– Tom Poleman

Tom Poleman is president of national programming group for iHeartMedia, the largest owner of radio stations in the country with more than 850.  But iHeart is more than terrestrial radio – its iHeart app is the largest such digital platform for music listening and its social media reach is massive with billions of impressions.

Even though radio shows have been a staple since the days of Elvis and Buddy Holly, Poleman and his team have transformed the experience into a thoroughly contemporary franchise. Just ask your Alexa. As radio itself has changed, so has the radio show from local one-offs into can’t-mass touring franchises.

Make no mistake; Jingle Balls aren’t your typical concerts. The price of talent alone for a similar tour in multiple major markets of superstars like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Demi Lovato, The Chainsmokers, Sam Smith, Niall Horan, Fifth Harmony, Liam Payne, Camila Cabello and more would make a typical concert promoter blanch. And they’re taking place at a challenging time for the media conglomerate.

iHeartMedia is struggling with nearly $20 billion in debt as a result of its leveraged buyout in 2008, with about $8.4 billion coming due in 2019. But Jingle Ball and other live events are a bright spot, according to the company’s financial reports. With sponsors like Capital One, Verizon, Macy’s and many others, the franchise is credited with driving the division’s $2.4 million increase in revenue in the recent third quarter, according to iHeartMedia.

In this extensive interview Poleman explains how Jingle Ball and other iHeartMedia efforts are worth the cost in terms of building the brand and creating value – as well as lifetime concertgoers.

Pollstar: Tell us about how the inception of the Christmas radio concerts. 

Tom Poleman: I’m chief programming officer for iHeart but I started with the company as program director for Z100 in New York City. When I joined the station in 1996, we did our first Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden as a celebration of all the biggest pop artists of the year coming together for one big year-end holiday show.

When I got my new role, what we wanted to do is make it a consistently strong brand across all these different cities where we’ve been doing radio Christmas shows and give it a common brand. We’ve worked to ensure really amazing production quality.

Jingle Ball is more than a concert. It’s a tour and a TV show, among other events, how  has it evolved?            

When you look at how far radio shows have come, we like to think that at iHeart we’ve been able to up the game so they are more than a “radio show.” That they’re an experience for the fans, because they are always the first priority. Then, the artists have a great experience because, lets’ face it, there’s been some shows with lesser production quality that haven’t always been great experiences for the artists.

So we like to make sure they know when they are doing an iHeart show that they are going to have the best audio, that the lighting is going to be great, and they are going to have a real tight show. And, of course, for any client and sponsor activations, they know that they are going to

How did you move beyond being a college “jock” at Cornell University to a major market programmer and then major executive?

I became program director of New York’s Z100 at 31. I felt like a baby in the industry, moving to that station at that age. Then I bounced around on Long Island, and Connecticut for a while, circling the New York market and becoming a student of what all those different stations sounded like. You learn by listening. Then I moved to Texas and programmed a station there for five years.

When I went to Z100 in 1996, it was having some really hard times. It was ranked 18th in the market and we had to reinvent it. We made some programming changes and became very Top 40 focused but we also created events like Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden. Doing it at an iconic building like MSG, it’s all part of the magic of an event in New York.

Wasn’t that during the Clear-Channel era before the wave of consolidation and mergers?

When radio companies began to grow, and got bigger and bigger, we were part of a block of about 30 stations which was then the biggest at the time. Then ownership rules changed and we kept merging with other companies and I picked up additional responsibilities along the way, to the point where I was working with all the New York City radio stations. Then the Northeast radio stations. Then eventually CEO Bob Pittman joined the company, about seven or eight years ago, and he said, “Tom, I’d like you take the role of chief programming officer and working with all of our radio stations and personalities.” Part of that was coproducing events like the Jingle Ball tour, iHeart Music Festival, iHeart Country festival, and an alternative show that’s going to be at the Forum in January called Alt Ego. That’s my journey.

How do these shows now come together – who books and how?  What’s the process?

A lot of it depends on artist availability – they’re touring or need to travel, so all those things play into it. We try to have a common thread with a lot of the artists throughout the shows. It’s a little bit different in each city. New York and Los Angeles are the most similar with Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, The Chainsmokers, Sam Smith, and Halsey. New York has Fall Out Boy; Charlie Puth is on both. Niall Horan is on both. You get the picture.

So it’s something that our team works to book together. Myself; John Ivey, our president of the pop format and also KISS in LA; Rissa Morris, who heads up artist relations, and many others. We collaborate with the program directors at each of the radio stations to try to book the biggest artists that have been on each station, so there’s always nuances in every market. That’s the process and we work on it probably nine months before the show when you have the sense of who’s having the biggest year. It’s a nonstop process.

You have huge names on most of these shows, top to bottom, and we know they command a nice paycheck touring on their own. What does the artist get out of performing a short set on Jingle Ball?

Jingle Ball has become synonymous with the biggest pop artists of that moment. So many artists have said to me that that to end the year on the Jingle Ball tour means that they had a great year. It’s the event that the biggest pop radio stations in the country are talking about months before the show.

If you have a new project out, like Taylor Swift for example, it’s going to be super top of mind for music buyers during the holiday season. So there’s an enormous amount of promotion that we put behind them and it creates a tremendous social footprint. I think the LA social impressions from Jingle Ball were something like 12 billion impressions. You have a CW network TV show that will air Dec. 14, a 90-minute special.

This show is about creating a lot of cool pop culture moments. The song that’s now starting to blow up for Taylor Swift is “End Game” with Ed Sheeran and it was performed for the first time at Jingle Ball. Capturing that on TV is a pop culture moment. IHeart is a pop culture phenomenon, and it’s all part of the whole. It’s great for the radio stations; we build our brands as the place where the artist gets to you. This is the live version of what you get on the radio, and it’s a great fan experience. Many say it’s their first experience. We like to spoil them early.

One thing I’ve learned is it’s the ultimate advertisement for that artist’s tour. Because we have so many artists on the bill, we never have time to do their full sets. But it’s a sampling of what they are about live. It doesn’t kill a tour date for them in that city because they played four or five songs and they’ve won over a lot of new fans that see them performing. We air one of the shows live on all of our Top 40 radio stations. We did that [Dec. 1]. And that becomes a nice promo piece for the artists, and for people who want to go on and see their full tour.

These have to be expensive to produce, and there is a lot of sponsorship. Let’s talk about the economics of Jingle Ball.

We spare no expense and a typical promoter would never put on a tour the way we do. They are so expensive to produce. But we use them as image builders for both the radio stations and artists and we tie in sponsors who become part of what we do on air as well, with the promos leading up to the event. But the events aren’t money makers unto themselves. We pay so much for artists and the production.

What struck me looking at iHeart’s financial reports is that these are bright spots for the company, despite the cost. 

It’s one of the best ways that consumers are engaging with our platform. There’s so much passion surrounding our brand and our events and music in general. We monetize that in different ways with our brand and I’m sure you’ve heard before that the operating structure of our company is incredibly strong and incredibly healthy. It’s due in part to great events like this.

The sponsorship part of the show manifests itself in a lot of different ways. For example, what we do on the air months before the event, there’s all sorts of pieces to that puzzle besides the show itself. So we can justify it on a business level and they are incredibly important to the brands of our radio stations.

There’s more to iHeart live events than Jingle Ball. How do summer shows, country festivals and other events fit into the plan?
We’re not just in the concert business. It’s a piece of how we bring our brands to life. If you were a straight concert promoter trying to sell tickets, it’s not the kind of show promoters would do. It’s a very different value proposition that we are creating for advertisers. It’s all the pieces of our platform. We’re on air, we’re radio, we play commercials. There’s a lot of different ways brands get brought to life through the Jingle Ball, both through the live event but what you see digitally, what you hear on the iHeart Radio app, what you hear our personalities talk about on the air as well.

Concert promotion can be a notoriously thin margin proposition but I’m sure promoters would love to have those kinds of ears delivered to advertisers to make the whole thing run, how are you trying to grow your reach?

When you think about it, Alexa is the new clock radio and that’s another way to consume the radio brand—only we in the industry probably call it “radio.” To the normal person it’s Z-100 and they don’t care if it comes out of an iPhone, an Alexa or whatever device you’ve got. We’re available on about 2,000 different devices and that’s what we’re focused on. We want to keep the brands big and the connection with music, and that’s what I work on as chief programming officer, working with our programmers to sustain that. And then how we actually deliver it to people, we’re actually agnostic on that.

Alexa is my go-to now. I have a boom box with a CD player collecting dust and I can tell Alexa to play such and such, and more likely than not it goes to iHeart Radio.

Exactly. And that’s the kind of stuff we’re focused on. When you want it, it gets served up on whatever device the consumer wants to use. You have to be wherever the consumer wants to be.