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How Beyonce Shocked Radio, Too: An Exclusive Q&A With Clear Channel’s John Sykes

How successful was Beyonce's surprise "Beyonce" party, in which she suddenly, without prior notice or PR hype, released her new album at midnight (ET) last Friday morning (Dec. 13)? Even broadcasting…

How successful was Beyonce’s surprise “Beyonce” party, in which she suddenly, without prior notice or PR hype, released her new album at midnight (ET) last Friday morning (Dec. 13)? Even broadcasting giant Clear Channel received no advance word about what quickly became a record-setting seller.
John Sykes, Clear Channel Entertainment Enterprises president, who’s built his legendary resume with posts including founding MTV executive and VH-1 president, spoke to Billboard in an exclusive Q&A about his unexpected learning of the album’s existence, how the company immediately began exposing it (among the chain’s array of 840 radio stations, which draws 243 million monthly U.S. users, as well as its online iHeartRadio platform, which counts more than 20 million users) and how, ultimately, the release is a “win-win for all parties,” including radio.
Billboard: John, please tell us how you reacted upon, like everyone else, finding out about the sudden release of “Beyonce.”
Sykes: [Clear Channel president of national programming] Tom Poleman and his team run such a well-oiled machine that within minutes, five “Beyonce” tracks were playing on our stations across the country, as well as on other radio groups. It happened in an instant. Radio can react instantly, since it’s a live medium.
So, Tom and his team quickly had this new music downloaded and on the air. What’s great is that he can speak to our stations so quickly; they’re not operating on islands. Even if they’re locally programmed, when we want to coordinate airplay nationally, it can happen in minutes.
Unlike a typical, previously set-up album led by one promoted single, “Beyonce” is in its own category with, as you note, multiple songs being sampled on-air upon their release.
A great thing is that while “Drunk in Love” is leading the way at R&B/hip-hop radio, we had four other tracks on rhythmic, adult R&B, mainstream top 40 and adult top 40 formats all playing simultaneously. So, our listeners had five different reasons to go out and buy “Beyonce” in its first weekend.
It was a brilliant marketing move by Beyonce, and great for radio. It was kind of like, if something happens in hard news, people go to CNN. In this case, they went to their radio station.
It feels very old-school-’60s/’70s album rock radio, when a record would come out and radio would play whatever songs various DJs were intrigued by. At the same time, it’s invigorating to see it done now in an age of PR saturation.
It’s old school, but it’s fresh. Beyonce took a page from what the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Who would do: just drop an album and radio would start playing multiple cuts at one time and fans would go out and buy the record. She really set it up great for radio. It became a great weekend for radio. If she’s successful, all boats rise. It’s good for radio, it’s good for her record company. We’re excited for the next great idea an artist will have to make new music pop-culture news.
I will say that not everyone can try this. This is really reserved for the biggest names in music, because only those names that are newsworthy can make fans rush to the radio to hear them.
Following its incredibly well-received start, the long-term success of “Beyonce” will, in no small part, be decided by its presence on radio, like most albums that sell consistently over many weeks.
At the end of the day, you still need radio for people to really hear an album, for them to keep going out and buying it online or in record stores. If you look at Nielsen research, the No. 1 platform for discovering new music is still radio.
After the initial splash of release-weekend buzz and airplay, what’s Clear Channel’s plan going forward with “Beyonce”?
Now, it’ll be about songs developing on-air, and the response from fans. But, already, “Beyonce” has gotten a great early audience.
This is a win-win for all parties. It’s a tribute to the music that Beyonce put out, her incredible career, and radio, because we’re able to immediately connect with an innovative marketing idea and get music to Beyonce’s fans.
We love the fact that artists are coming up with these brilliant ideas that can create excitement. That’s what the music business is all about.