On Friday, MTV co-founder and iHeartMedia executive John Sykes was handed the key to the city that inspired it all.
The Electric City native accepted the key from Mayor Gary McCarthy at City Hall and spoke about how growing up there led him to the music business.
“I grew up with arts, culture [and] education everywhere and it really changed my life,” Sykes said.
At a young age, he went to see The Beach Boys perform at the Union College Field House and The Who play the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Opportunities like this made him realize how much he wanted in on the business and as a teen, he landed an internship at SPAC.
“As an intern, I would drive to SPAC and I would run contracts in the morning, write press releases in the afternoon and take out the garbage at night,” Sykes said.
His parents, Leo and Martha, were Capital Region natives. Throughout her career, Martha taught at Linton High School, Hudson Valley Community College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, while Leo was a manager at the W.T. Grant Company.
During his speech on Friday, Sykes thanked his four siblings for inspiring his love of music and for introducing him to now-legendary artists like Bob Dylan.
After graduating from Linton in 1973, Sykes attended the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University and got into student radio. In 1981, just eight years out of high school, he co-founded MTV, alongside Robert Pittman, Tom Freston and Les Garland.
The first video they played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, and later in the day came “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” by Blotto, a popular Capital Region band. The station quickly took off, with millions of viewers tuning in.
“We felt it was going to be successful,” Sykes told The Gazette in 2019. “We had no idea it was going to be that successful. I remember the first time we saw it on the cover of Time magazine, we realized we might have something there.”
Throughout his career, Sykes continued to play major roles in the music and television industries. He went on to become the president of VH1 and later rejoined Pittman in building iHeartMedia, where he has been the president of entertainment enterprises since 2011.
At the start of last year, he became the chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. There, he’s made it a point to bring in more diverse artists including Tina Turner, Carole King and Jay-Z.
“My goal coming in was to not make it just all white rock bands but really make it the sound of young America, whatever the sound of young America is that’s what I want to honor,” Sykes said.
Shortly after stepping into the role, the pandemic hit and plans for the traditional induction ceremony went out the window. They instead filmed a documentary, delving deeper into the stories of the artists behind the music. While they hope to bring back live performances in the next induction ceremony, they’ll also incorporate more storytelling elements as well, according to Sykes.
On Friday, McCarthy said Sykes’ was an example of the great talent that has come out of Schenectady.
All these years later, Sykes said he believes “Schenectady still is the city that lights the world.”