The chart-topping 17-year-old singer-songwriter Billie Eilish wasn’t even born yet when Tom Poleman kicked off the Jingle Ball tradition at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1996. Helming New York pop radio station Z100 at the time, Poleman says, “We were the upstart radio station trying to claw our way back.” That first official Jingle Ball show starred No Doubt, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan at MSG — its Manhattan home. Now, nearly a quarter century later and with Jingle Ball in a dozen markets every holiday season, the stars who’ve grown up with the annual extravaganza are headlining it and the show has become a signature and nationwide event on the music calendar.
“I was just having this conversation with Billie last week,” he says of the Billboard Woman of the Year who performed alongside Katy Perry and BTS at the Los Angeles iteration of Jingle Ball at The Forum on Dec 6. “It’s cool to have artists aspire to want to do this show.”
For the Ithaca-born Poleman who studied radio at nearby Cornell University and later hopped around the country “doing everything from producing promos to DJing and going out in a van,” Jingle Ball at its roots is a vindication of the power of pop. “When I joined Z100, they had been experimenting with alternative and [the station] was left on an island without a clear music position,” he says. “This was at a time when everyone said Top 40 was dead.” Righting the ship as early champions of then-newbie artists like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, Poleman also shuffled the station’s on-air personnel. “We moved Elvis Duran into the morning slot and shifted back to a pure pop position. We proved to the world that pop wasn’t dead and there was a massive appetite for what we were playing.”
The aftershocks of Poleman’s successful early days (within two years he doubled the station’s ratings) can be felt up to the current cultural moment. “Having been in radio since 1983, I’ve seen so many music cycles that they’re pretty much like clockwork,” says the executive, who worked his way up to president of national programming at iHeartRadio and also produces its marquee events such as the iHeartRadio Music Festival and iHeartRadio Music Awards. “Once pure pop wears out, it goes into the outer fringes and then takes about 10 years to come back to the middle.”
Aside from iHeartMedia’s focus on pure music through their events, radio stations and iHeartRadio app, Poleman notes the company has also dove headfirst into podcasting, acquiring hits of the medium like How Stuff Works. “Radio is in a unique position to podcasting as it’s an extension of what we do so well,” he says, noting with their deep resources iHeart has become the No. 1 commercial podcast publisher and provider. “Podcasting is absolutely exploding and we’re in a perfect position to be the leader in it.”
But music will always be the foundation of iHeart, with Poleman currently putting the finishing touches on the company’s final big event of the year: the centerpiece Jingle Ball show at Madison Square Garden on Dec 13. Celebrating her 30th birthday with a performance, Taylor Swift will headline with support from Jonas Brothers, Lizzo, Halsey, Camila Cabello, Nial Horan, Monsta X, Lewis Capaldi, 5 Seconds of Summer, Dan + Shay and Fletcher.
“To be a pop star, you not only have to have great songs and great talent, but great charisma,” says Poleman, pointing to Lizzo, one of both radio and Jingle Ball’s freshest and buzziest names. “It was easy to initially think that maybe she’d be a novelty, but once you hear her sing, you realize she’s akin to our generation’s Aretha Franklin…. Once she performed at our iHeartRadio Music Summit for our programming directors everybody got it. What radio does so well is it can take somebody who’s bubbling under and give them the life they need.”
Adds Poleman: “Once you light the match at radio, you get to a whole new level of exposure.”
The best advice I’ve ever received is always stay grounded, humble and treat people with respect. I have always lived my career like I could lose everything tomorrow. People expect us to be a lot more arrogant at iHeart because we’re in a power position, but we view ourselves like a startup. It’s a different mentality.
Something most people don’t understand is that Z100 almost changed formats in 1996. In my viewpoint at the time, it was a fight for survival.
The easiest thing is talking about our people, radio stations and personalities. Because I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the best of the best.
Dealing with musicians is a pleasure. That’s often one of my favorite times of the day, because I love music and am intrigued by their process. It’s so much fun to talk to people who are truly the best at their craft.
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