Radio has never been more popular since embedding itself into American culture in the 1920s. As of 2015, 93 percent of Americans still tune into the airwaves everyday. And of the 297 million people that listen to AM/FM stations, 245 million listen monthly to iHeartMedia stations.
But the media conglomerate wouldn’t be what it is today, if it weren’t for the man who has been choosing hit songs since 1983. Tom Poleman may be the President of Programming for iHeartMedia on paper, but in person, he is as cool and humble as it gets…even from the 21st floor of his Manhattan-facing Tribeca office.
MiLLENNiAL met up with Tom at the iHeartMedia headquarters in New York City, where the energy was buzzing. It appeared the staff was happy to be there…or just excited to kick out for the company holiday party taking place that night.
As we walked through the halls to Tom’s office, iconic photos laced the walls, celebrating the memories with artists throughout the years. Each photo acted as a breadcrumb to the three-panel print of Chris Martin that hung above Tom’s desk – representing a particularly special moment.
As the President of National Programming Platforms for iHeartMedia, Tom is responsible for curating the most culturally relevant and iconic songs for the 850 stations belonging to the iHeart family. In addition to ensuring people like what is coming out of their speakers, Tom is also to thank for activating the radio experience through in-person events.
Some of the most recognizable iHeart parties he and partner John Sykes produce include the iHeartRadio Music Festival, iHeartRadio Jingle Ball Tour, iHeartRadio Fiesta Latina, iHeartRadio Summer Pool Party, iHeartRadio Country Festival, iHeartRadio Live and Album Release Parties, and the iHeartRadio Music Awards.
Leveraging His Way to the Top
Like most kids growing up in the 70s, Tom loved music. “I had always wanted to be a musician. I played guitar and piano as a kid,” he says, “but was never really good enough so I wanted to be close to music somehow.” Radio became his avenue.
Setting up a station in his basement, young Tom would broadcast his weekly countdowns to his family upstairs. Little did he know this passion would evolve into a lifelong career.
Years later, while attending Cornell University, he discovered the college radio station and quickly joined. He admits falling in love with the job on his first day. “I haven’t turned back since.”
To his advantage, Cornell’s program was one of 10 in the country to be modeled after a commercial station, meaning, “We didn’t get any funding from the school at all. We had to survive by getting ratings and then converting it into sales dollars. That was an incredible real life experience.”
Tom then learned to program the station in a way that would attract more listeners, which in turn, would entice advertisers to promote their products and services through the channel. “I learned more at WVBR (Cornell’s radio call letters) than I learned in the classroom.”
After graduating, Tom secured a position doing weekend spots at a radio station in Long Island. This was the launch of his professional career as a radio personality. “The one thing I would emphasize to anyone getting started in their career… is that it’s all about the contacts.”
He says the door was opened to his first real job when a friend, who had graduated two years earlier, was working as a broadcaster for the station and was able to refer him. “It’s connections, it’s timing and it really is you at the core.”
The Moment that Defined Tom Poleman’s Career
There is always that moment, possibly a fleeting moment of regret, when your career goes through an unexpected yet powerful change. For Tom, it was becoming the program director at iHeartMedia New York’s Z100 in 1996.
Having been an on-air radio personality for 10 years, he left his job in Houston to become the youngest program director in the station’s history. “I loved being able to communicate on a mass level while having personal communication with the audience. But at the same time, I wanted to get involved in the strategy,” Tom adds. He says he didn’t just want to be the guy who talked on the radio, but wanted to be the one who picked the songs.
Only a month into his new role at Z100, Tom discovered the ratings had been tanking. “I thought I committed career suicide…I had no idea how bad off the station was,” he reflects, “I had a hard time finding anyone that wanted to work there and I’m pretty sure there was an industry betting pool on how long I’d last.”
But being a 31-year-old in charge of the music, Tom assembled a team of twenty-somethings that “loved radio and wanted to win.” Within a year, the team had made Z100 the most listened to station in America. Today Z100 continues to be New York’s #1 hit radio station.
Looking back on the decision to stay, Tom says, “The riskiest most challenging moves always have the biggest payoff. What I thought was my biggest mistake ultimately became my defining career moment.”
Setting the Trends for Pop Culture
Identifying the next big single is a tricky process. The sounds that play on the radio often characterize a generation. Tom describes what he looks for in distinguished tunes, “The best songs are the ones that push the envelope a bit but come back in a melodic way.”
Today the fusion of genres is crossing boundaries in a way that creates a burgeoning new sound. As Tom puts it, “Every era’s pop sound comes from what is happening on the fringe or deep in the clubs, and then the right people figure out how to make it sound mainstream.” We see this with the tropical house influences in Justin Bieber’s new single “What Do You Mean” and tech house giants Disclosure bringing popular artists like The Weeknd onto their latest album.
But to help funnel the circuitry of pop music, radio personalities are used as the public’s trusted guides for musical direction. “Radio creates a social experience alongside the music,” Tom emphasizes, which helps to impact the preferences of fans. “At the end of the day, the listeners choose the songs, I just help curate them.”
Adding some indie love to iHeartMedia
One of the first media companies to tackle the progression of Internet radio, iHeartMedia wisely created iHeartRadio in 2011. The platform allows anyone to tap into thousands of their favorite live radio stations across the country no matter their location, in addition to also being able to aggregate music based on specific artists and genres with the Custom Station feature, which is similar to Pandora.
To push the company a bit further in introducing new music to listeners, Tom launched the iHeartRadio Music Summit in 2010. This biannual three day event enables record labels, managers, and artists to present new music to a room full of radio programmers, executives, and press.
Without the help of radio plays, some of the most beloved artists would never have a chance of gaining popularity. “Great music needs a chance to be heard regardless of record label ties,” he says. The iHeartRadio Music Summit was his way to champion unknown talent. “It makes me crazy that great music sometimes never gets heard.” Over the years, the summit has been a launch pad for artists like F.U.N., 21 Pilots and Bruno Mars.
The Importance of Giving Back
While the glitz and glam of the music industry certainly has its allure, it doesn’t mean nearly as much until it is put to good use. As a true steward of humanity, Tom makes it a priority in his life to giveback to those in need.
“I get to interact indirectly with 245 million people per month and with that power comes a certain level of responsibility. We all have to remember to giveback and do something good with the positions that we have.”
He sits on the board of Musicians on Call, an organization that “brings the healing power of music to the bedside of people in hospitals.” Through this nonprofit, Tom is able to be a rockstar for those who appreciate it more than anyone else.
He often joins known artists as the backup guitarist to play for children with chronic illnesses. “To see the children and their families start to break down because they are so happy is really moving.”
Another special organization Tom has worked with is the Ugandan Water Project. When his father passed away in 2014, Tom and his siblings got together and decided to giveback to something their dad cared about on the 1-year anniversary of his passing. Their father was a professor of International Agriculture and Economics at Cornell University, and had moved the family to Uganda during a one-year sabbatical in 1967.
“Working with the Ugandan Water Project was such an incredible experience,” he tells us. His job was go into the community, understand their needs, and show them how to use new resources that had been donated to their cause. An added bonus was being able to “interact with them and be part of their lives.”
A Wise Man Once Said…
Learning something new is a motto and philosophy that guides Tom’s life. He insists throughout his career that he tried to be a sponge and absorb as much as possible. In the process, he picked up on a few key principles.
“It’s always important to stay grounded, keep things in perspective, and don’t base who you are by the title on your business card.” One of the biggest leadership traits he picked up from a former employer and mentor was “being a compass behind somebody while still letting them make mistakes and learn on their own, then helping them course correct along the way.”
And in today’s millennial world, Tom has learned and agreed that being transparent and authentic is the best way to gain trust with his audience and employees. From his perspective, “The moment you feel you’ve learned it all is the day you are setting yourself up to fail.”
It is this mindset that keeps him looking young, acting wise, and pushing iHeartMedia to greater heights.
If you can’t experience a Jingle Ball concert live, Z100’s Jingle Ball in New York will video stream live exclusively on Yahoo at Yahoo.com/iHeartRadio for fans nationwide and broadcast live on iHeartMedia Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) stations across the country on Friday, December 11, at 8 p.m. EST, and will also be featured as an exclusive nationwide 90 minute broadcast television special on The CW Network on Thursday, December 17, at 8 p.m. EST/PST.