Clear Channel's John Sykes On Why We Need Another Award Show (Q&A)

Wednesday’s news that Clear Channel would be entering the highly competitive TV awards arena on May 1 with the iHeartRadio Music Awards, airing on NBC from 8 p.m.-11p.m. ET/PT, has been expected since September. But the relatively quick turnaround from announcement to airdate has made it a surprise contender in the run-up to the summer album and tour season – particularly coming just 17 days before Dick Clark Productions’ Billboard Music Awards (both Billboard and DCP are owned by Guggenheim Partners.) 

John Sykes, Clear Channel’s president of entertainment enterprises, insists it was just a matter of scheduling and logistics. “It was never part of a plan, but we now have the iHeart Country Music Festival on March 29, then our Ultimate Pool Party in late June, then we’re onto the announcement of the iHeartRadio Festival in July, and the Jingle Ball concerts in December, so the only time to do this was right now when we could tie into the new album releases,” he says.
Sykes, no stranger to awards and TV events as a co-founder of MTV Networks and former president of VH1, is executive-producing the show alongside Clear Channel programming chief Tom Poleman, Ryan Seacrest Productions and Hamish Hamilton of Done and Dusted Inc. He spoke Wednesday afternoon about that other music awards show in May, the IHeartRadio Music Awards’ unique voting process, lessons learned from NBC’s Radio Music Awards of the early ‘00s and why Usher and Coldplay may be among this year’s performers.

Billboard: First of all, as a Billboard employee, I have to ask why you chose May 1 as the timing for your first show?
John Sykes: We’d been looking to find the venue and the right place, so it was really about a time where we could support artists who had music coming out, beyond just the ones who played the Festival last year. The reason the Festival works so well in the fall is it’s the time going into Christmas when artists are setting up their records, so this was as good a time going into the summer records coming, when Coldplay and Usher and everyone will be coming back. There was no other room – if we waited until June we’d fall right smack into our Ultimate Pool Party, which is our version of [MTV] Spring Break, so it had nothing to do with Billboard. This was the only two-month period where we could promote a new awards show.

There’s already the Grammys, the VMAs, the AMAs, the BBMAs, four different country music awards and countless ceremonies for film and TV – do we really need another one?
The more events that celebrate music, the better for artists and the industry. I know there’ll be people saying it’s this or that, but in the long run if there’s another that highlights and puts a spotlight on music and keeps it on pop culture that’s got to be good for everyone. Yes, I wish that we had different spacing, that would make it would easier for all of the film events and our own events, but it was the only time. NBC is really focused about getting it on when we have the promotion time, and we can give them all of March and April promotion, which we couldn’t do in May and June [with our commitments to the CW.] Plus, being able to celebrate the music and incredible deep music culture of southern California we thought would be a cool subplot in the show to actually celebrate the city. We’ll be streaming performances from other venues across the city, which will allow us to showcase the personality of Los Angeles and how so many artists got started there.
The voting process sounds like a complicated mix between on-air, digital and fan-voting data. Can you simplify it for us?
The way it’s set up is it favors the artists who’ve had a great year in terms of on-air and IHeartRadio listening data, but fans can come in and tip the scales with their voting. There’s not going to be a way for people to flood votes – it’s secure on that front.
You haven’t any announced any artists at this time, but how are you approaching bookings?
We have some confirmed and are confirming more daily. Artists are very excited about the idea of celebrating the California sound as a subplot. And we’ve worked so well with them on IHeartRadio events the rest of the year they know what to expect. We put through a lot of time and energy into making these really state-of-the-art music events, so for us it’s less about building the IHeart brand and a profit-making venture. It’s about creating yet another great platform to showcase music. For us as a business we’ll do better as the artists do better in their careers.
This is not the first time a radio music awards aired on NBC. In the early aughts there was a show called…the Radio Music Awards. What lessons did you learn from that previous show’s demise?
Very little information came back on that, but I think because at that time it was a bit of a generic show called the Radio Music Awards we didn’t choose to go and check out anything about it. This is so much more tied into the brands of our company and the national IHeart name, so it’s just a whole different experience and a whole different venture. And social media wasn’t even a factor nine or ten years ago when they had those awards. If we can be lucky to create another success in music, it would just help more artists sell more records and listen to the radio and go on IHeartRadio as a digital platfornm. For us it keeps the circle going and it reinvests back into music.
Will you have a host?
We’re thinking of having a host as we get the artists together and finalize the personality that the show takes on. We have a shorstlist of hosts that we like, but we want to see how the show comes together first. And as that takes shape we’ll reach out to our list.
Ryan Seacrest will be co-exec producing, and he is a guy who really has so many talents and the ability to multi-task like no one I’ve ever met. He’s just so valuable to this company in every way, not only as on-air talent but as a thinker as a strategist and entertainment executive. He’s truly the left-brain/right-brain music executive.