iHeartRadio’s John Sykes on the Podcast Boom, Why Curation Matters and Course-Correcting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Also on the latest music-themed episode of "Strictly Business," a talk with iHeart brand manager for Rock and Alternative Lisa Worden, who exited KROQ to program competitor Alt 98.7.

John Sykes Lisa Worden
Courtesy iHeartRadio

As iHeartRadio’s reach holds firm among a slew of streaming options, reaching nine out of 10 Americans every month across its radio, podcasts, digital and social platforms, according to the company, president of entertainment enterprises John Sykes is leading the charge when it comes to live events, television productions and new business development across a multitude of digital options.

Sykes’ career began at MTV, which he helped launch 40 years ago alongside iHeartMedia’s current chairman Bob Pittman, who hired Sykes while in his twenties. Sykes went on to lead programming at VH1, where he was named president in 1994, and returned to MTV in the mid 2000s. In between, he held jobs at an agency and a record company, before committing himself full-time to the broadcasting trade. He joined iHeart in 2011.

Sykes’ reputation in the music industry as an accomplished executive is one part of this story, the other is his commitment to philanthropy, dating back to his VH1 days when he helped launch Save the Music, a charity aimed at funding music programs in schools. When there’s been a national crisis, you can be sure Sykes will lend a hand, as he did in the wake of 9/11 and more recently in response to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

Just before the world shut down, Sykes was named chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and committed the organization to change and diversify under his watch. True to his word, the class of 2021 was revealed last week and represents a gender parity that so many female artists have lobbied for, with inductees that include Tina Turner, Carole King and the Go-Gos in addition to Jay-Z, Foo Fighters and Todd Rundgren.

As John Sykes marks his 10th year at iHeart, we thought it was an ideal time to check in and hear his thoughts on the podcast boom, the importance of curation, and how the company is moving on from the pause inflicted by the pandemic.

Also on this episode: a talk with Lisa Worden, vice president of rock and alternative at iHeartMedia and program director for Los Angeles’ Alt 98.7. Hers is the sort of radio experience that fewer and fewer get to call their own: after helping build L.A.’s KROQ over a period of nearly 20 years, during which the station ruled Southern California airwaves, she left to go across the street and built a new destination on the dial that has swiftly gained in audience share.

As dissected in a piece published byVariety in 2020, the twists and turns of KROQ’s management style, talent retention and whiplashed playlisting have made for a wild ride the last few years, which Worden got to witness from the sidelines. She reflects on that experience and how it’s changed her approach to programming in the highly competitive second-biggest radio market in the U.S.

Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. A new episode debuts each Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and SoundCloud.