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RAINMAKERS:
TOM POLEMAN

At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, iHeartMedia identified a community in desperate need of help and recognition—the frontline workers of America’s healthcare systems.

Tom Poleman, the President of the National Programming Group for iHeartMedia, and John Sykes, iHeart’s President of Entertainment Enterprises, quickly assembled an hourlong special for Fox TV, packing the ad-free collection of musicians performing in their homes to benefit Feeding America and First Responders Children’s foundation. Elton John was the host; Alicia Keys, Sam Smith, Backstreet Boys, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Tim McGraw were among the performers.

As is so often the case in iHeart’s charitable efforts, Poleman is leading the way behind the scenes, executive-producing Procter & Gamble and iHeartMedia’s Can’t Cancel Pride: A COVID-19 Relief Benefit for the LGBTQ+ Community and backing First Responder Fridays during the early weeks of the pandemic.

“I get to interact indirectly with 245 million people per month, and with that power comes a certain level of responsibility,” Poleman told Millennial magazine in 2015. “We all have to remember to give back and do something good with the positions that we have.”

Poleman has been a leader of a generation that transformed radio. Inheriting a system in which relations between labels and stations were largely adversarial or transactional—and programmers were often inaccessible to promotion execs—he set a new standard of accessibility and accountability based on the idea of a shared goal: to break artists and bring great records to ever bigger audiences. In other words, Poleman was part of a new breed of programmers who, rather than seeing the radio business as wholly separate from the record business, identified as part of the larger music business.

“It’s interesting to see the evolution of the relationship between radio and records through the years,” he reflected in HITS in 2014. “We’ve gone through phases where we viewed ourselves as enemies. Then there are times where we’re one another’s greatest allies. We’re big believers that for our industry to continue to thrive, we have to view ourselves as allies.”

This identification meant developing initiatives (splashy premieres and hourly plays of new singles, for example) that turned new music, whether from established stars or breaking acts, into an event. In service to these and other programs—and this really can’t be overstated—Poleman has earned a reputation as a guy you can get on the phone, who’s excited to debut that new cut, to jump onstage and introduce a breakthrough act at an intimate showcase.

As a child, Poleman aspired to be a musician, studying piano and guitar. He fell in love with rock ’n’ roll, especially The Who, and, not surprisingly, the radio, the subject he studied at Cornell. He still plays guitar and is keen to jam with industry folk whenever possible.

His first PD job was in Ithaca, N.Y., at WVBR, where he learned to program with the goal of increasing listenership. That led to a weekend on-air gig at WALK-FM on Long Island, which was followed by an APD job at WKCI in New Haven, Conn. When he was promoted to MD, Poleman did double duty as the afternoon jock. He left the Northeast for Houston in 1991 to be Assistant Program Director at KRBE; he was upped to PD in 1993.

He had that job for three years before returning to New York, this time with the daunting task of remaking the then-struggling Z100 at the age of 31. He was only the third PD in the station’s history.

Then owned by AMFM but acquired by Clear Channel in 1999, Z100 was on its heels, a heritage station on the verge of a format change, attempting to maintain listener share with a rock-leaning playlist that lightly mimicked Alternative giant WXRK, which was then dominating the airwaves. Poleman—who credits the insight of radio veterans like Scott Shannon and Shadow Steele in devising his strategy—immediately grasped that the station needed to re-establish its CHR bona fides in order to win. Fortunately, by the mid-’90s, a new, highly rhythmic style of pop was gathering steam. This was essential to Poleman’s plan to restore Z100 to its former glory.

“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,” he told Millennial.

He assembled a team of twentysomethings who “loved radio and wanted to win” and within a year made Z100 the most-listened-to station in America.

“The riskiest, most challenging moves always have the biggest payoff,” he told Millennial. “What I thought was my biggest mistake ultimately became my defining career moment.”

Read the entire profile here.

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