This time of year is always a particularly busy one for Tom Poleman, iHeartMedia’s president of programming. Working from his offices in Tribeca, Mr. Poleman is one of the masterminds behind Jingle Ball, the annual concert devoted to all things big in pop thrown by radio station Z100. Now in its 19th year, the annual event has turned into a signature moment in American music. “For a lot of people, this is the first concert they ever go to and our goal is to spoil them for life,” says Mr. Poleman during a rare quiet moment about the extravaganza which takes place Friday night at Madison Square Garden. “It’s going to be extra tough to see a better show after this year’s. We have everybody who had a good year in pop, all on one stage.”
Mr. Poleman isn’t kidding when he says “everybody.” This year’s lineup, which features 16 performers in all, is the biggest the franchise has ever seen. From Sam Smith to Pharrell and Iggy Azaela to Maroon 5, the calvacade of guests scheduled to appear mimics a list of of the biggest artists in music, period. Said Mr. Poleman, “My partners in producing constantly say, ‘Really? You want to add another artist?’ (Other performers this year include 5 Seconds of Summer, Sam Smith, Calvin Harris, Meghan Trainor, Rixton, One Republic, Charli XCX, Rita Ora, Shawn Mendes, Nick Jonas, Jessie J, and Ariana Grande … and that’s not including surprise guests and presenters.) In addition, a night celebrating what’s hot in music would be nothing without the current queen of art form herself, Taylor Swift. “The show would sell out with Taylor alone,” Mr. Poleman explains of this year’s pick to close the bash, a slot usually reserved for music’s choicest artist. “She creates hit after hit and is America’s sweetheart. Plus, now she’s a New Yorker so I think this show is going to be extra special for that reason as well. It’s really going to be a moment.”
Mr. Poleman is well-versed in creating memorable moments in pop music. He was one of the original people behind the first Jingle Ball held in 1995. (The debut lineup: Blues Traveler, Alanis Morrisette, Goo Goo Dolls, Dave Matthews Band, Collective Soul, Soul Asylum, and Natalie Merchant.) Back then, Mr. Poleman was programming director for Z100 and helped usher the station from mostly alternative acts to its current perch as New York’s signature pop station. Since Jingle Ball’s humble beginnings, genres represented at the show throughout the years have changed as the taste of music consumers has changed, and the show is also known for breaking new artists as well. Justin Timberlake had a broken foot when he made his Jingle Ball debut as a solo artist in 2002 and Kanye West first appeared in 2005.
The Jingle Ball franchise has become such a hit that it has spawned sister concerts across the country that support iHeartMedia’s regional pop music stations—13 separate shows in all. While they all share the Jingle Ball name, New York’s show has the most stacked lineup and continues to remain the brand’s crown jewel. In addition, a highlight show on the CW featuring the event’s best moments airs annually, bringing the Madison Square Garden show to a national audience. “There’s an army of people that work to put this together,” says Mr. Poleman of the planning process, which usually begins a full year in advance. “There’s no lack of artists who want to do the show. The next challenge is predicting who is going to have a good year. You can tell when an artist is exploding and you usually get a sense for how much longevity they’ll have during the year. That’s just one of the things we specialize in; we’re able to stay on the pulse of what’s hot.”
The idea for numerous artists on one ticket was the revival of an old model of concert reviews that were the rage throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s. Back then, New York radio legend Murray the K welcomed the biggest acts of the day under one ticket at the former Brooklyn Fox. Obviously, the art of putting on a stage show has come a long way since. “What’s old is new again, but now we’re able to do it in a much higher-produced way,” notes Mr. Poleman concerning the mathematics of featuring in 16 artists and not letting the show drag on. “One of the things we use is a rotating stage, so when one band is performing, we have a whole team setting up on the other side. We can change the stage in literally two minutes.”
Mr. Poleman is looking forward to this year’s show much like any fan of pop music. “You come to a show because your jaw drops because it’s one incredible artist after another,” he said. “Pop music is always my favorite genre because you never know what’s going to be hot next. I mean, Meghan Trainor … who saw that coming?”