Schenectady’s music scene spurred the channel that defined a generation.
“If it hadn’t been for the incredible music that surrounded me growing up in Schenectady, I would never have had the career that I have had,” said John Sykes.
In 1981, eight years after graduating from Linton High School, Sykes and a team that included Robert Pittman, Tom Freston and Les Garland founded MTV. 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 said. "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."
Sykes went on to co-found VH1, play a key role at iHeartMedia and, most recently, become chairman for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
During a recent interview with The Gazette, Sykes circled back to his Schenectady roots, crediting the Electric City for his start in the music industry.
“I grew up in a town that was filled with music. You had great radio stations, you had colleges that brought bands to play live and, of course, the most important influence in my life, musically, was Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The biggest artists in the world would come to the area in the summer to play what was at that time a one-of-a-kind venue — an outdoor shed,” Sykes said.
His parents, Leo and Martha, were Capital Region natives. Throughout her career, Martha taught at Linton, Hudson Valley Community College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, while Leo was a manager at the W.T. Grant Company. In the early 1970s, he opened his own business called The Country Peddler in Burnt Hills.
While neither of his parents was musically inclined, Sykes recalls his parents and his four siblings played records all the time at their Phoenix Avenue home. He readily admits his sisters had the best record collection among them.
“They turned me on to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Martha Reeves, Leonard Cohen. ... I remember my sister bringing home the first Elton John record [and] the first James Taylor record. I was very lucky that I had in the bedroom right next to me one of the greatest record collections,” Sykes said.
Growing up, he delivered papers for The Gazette and used his earnings to save up enough money to buy drums.
“I wanted to be a drummer and I played drums in bands locally. My friends talked about music all the time,” Sykes said.
They practiced at one another’s homes and played house parties throughout Schenectady, though Sykes said they were never quite good enough to play venues around the Capital Region.
Realizing his drumming skills weren’t going to cut it, Sykes turned to his first love: radio.
“When I was about 7 years old, with my allowance money, I went out and bought a transistor radio. I used to listen to it at night in my bedroom, because at night all the big stations from Chicago [and] New York, you could pick them up,” Sykes said.
So once he graduated from Linton High, he went to the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, where he got involved with WAER, the student-run radio station.
At WAER, Sykes reunited with John Cooper, who grew up right down the block from Sykes.
Cooper is perhaps better known locally as Dr. John Cooper. He’s a longtime disc jockey at PYX 106 -- an iHeartRadio station -- and a member of the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
He and Sykes were friends when they were kids, though Cooper’s family moved out of the area before middle school.
“It was funny, because when I got to Syracuse University it was the same year that John started, [and] he came up to me and reintroduced himself. It turns out we attended birthday parties at Hoffman’s Playland,” Cooper said.
They both worked at WAER, though Cooper also worked at WOUR in Utica.
“It was interesting because [Sykes] not only did radio, but he also was a college rep for some of the record labels. So he would be the one that would get some of the new releases from the record labels and play them for all of us, which was always a thrill,” Cooper said.
During his college years, Sykes took an internship at SPAC.
“Without Saratoga Performing Arts Center I know I wouldn’t be here, because that’s where I got my first break as a college intern. I used to pick the artists up at the airport. I would run the press releases from the publicity office. I would pick up the lawn chairs at the end of the night. I would hand out the brochures. Whatever it took. It really exposed me to the business,” Sykes said.
It was during college that Sykes was bitten by the TV bug. After graduating from Syracuse in 1977 and working for CBS for a few years, he, Pittman, Freston and Garland pooled enough money to launch MTV in 1981.
“What we wanted to do was create a music channel that felt counterculture to traditional television. We wanted to put on MTV things that at that time, a 16-year-old kid could [watch] and it didn’t feel like it was mass culture,” Sykes said.
The early days were modeled after the same format that radio had: The station ran 24 hours a day and focused on one genre -- rock ’n' roll.
“We soon learned that since we were the only music channel on television, we needed to widen the aperture of who we spoke to. We started to add a lot more urban and pop music, and then MTV became a mass-appeal channel,” Sykes said.
MTV eventually defined a generation and helped shape pop culture.
“We got lucky [that] MTV really exploded, but for me, it was [a] natural idea . . . because all my friends and I would sit around and wait for Friday night to watch a music show and it looked like our grandparents produced it. It didn’t speak to our generation, so my hope was to watch a network that really spoke to us, to our generation, which oddly enough became known as the MTV generation,” Sykes said.
Then in 1985, the station was sold to Viacom and Sykes decided to branch out.
“I wanted to do something else entrepreneurial, so I left and went to Los Angeles to get into [the] film business and went to CAA [Creative Artists Agency] which I loved,” Sykes said.
Soon after, Sykes ran a record company called Chrysalis Records and managed artists such as John Mellencamp, Mariah Carey, Carly Simon and others.
However, television called to him again, and in 1994 he joined Viacom as the president of VH1, which first aired on Jan. 1, 1995.
“We knew at MTV that we couldn’t grow old with our audience, because MTV was really based on being the sound of young America. So we saw an opportunity to launch VH1 as a place for MTV graduates,” Sykes said.
VH1 played bands such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Elton John and others.
“[We] took the audience that had just moved through MTV and we built a pretty successful channel that allowed fans to just elegantly move right through MTV. VH1 took off with shows like ‘Behind the Music’ [and] ‘VH1 Storytellers.’ We created a whole brand that spoke to an underserved generation, the same generation that went to MTV 10 years earlier because they felt like they had no place to go,” Sykes said.
During his time at the channel, Sykes started the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which bolstered music education programs in public schools across the country by donating millions of dollars worth of instruments.
That program was listed as one of his major accomplishments when he was inducted into the Schenectady City School District Hall of Fame in 1998.
“When I was going to school in Schenectady at Elmer Avenue or Oneida or Linton High School, if you wanted to play music there was an instrument. The schools were so healthy they would give you an instrument to play. They would teach you for free,” Sykes said.
He stayed with VH1 for nine years before moving on to join the board of Shazam, an app that identifies songs, and to become CEO of Playlist, a social media platform for music lovers.
But a few years later, Pittman called to ask Sykes’ help in disproving what they’d declared during the first day of MTV — that video did not, in fact, kill the radio star.
“Oddly enough, radio is stronger than ever now. So radio has survived and it really hasn’t lost any of its ratings or any of its attraction with fans, so radio has gone the long game,” Sykes said.
In 2010, Sykes joined Pittman again and became president of entertainment enterprises at iHeartMedia, a company that reaches 260 million people a month through its 880 radio stations. Each year, Sykes organizes the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball, the iHeartRadio Country Music Festival and many other national events.
“I still love every day of my job like the first. I always say to my friends, 'I’m still doing today what I loved in high school,' ” Sykes said.
Most recently, though, he landed an additional job he’s perhaps even more excited to take on: Sykes was appointed chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I had no idea it was coming. I literally fell out of my chair when the appointment was announced. . . . Following Jann Wenner is an incredible honor. He founded Rolling Stone [magazine], which I used to read up in my bedroom in Schenectady when I was 15 years old. With three partners, [he built] the idea for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and grew it into a true institution. So as a board member, I was always in awe of what Jann had achieved. The idea that I’d actually follow in his footsteps was not only an honor, but also a total surprise,” Sykes said.
He’s been a board member for 25 years, helping select the artists who are inducted into the hall. Over the years, many artists — perhaps most notably Steve Miller — have criticized the Hall of Fame's induction process, claiming it doesn't give women enough of the spotlight. Others have said the Hall snubs artists of color and certain genres within the music industry.
When Sykes starts his new position in January, he'll be making a few changes. Moving forward, Sykes said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame won’t just be celebrating a genre of music, but a spirit.
“With hip-hop and alternative music now changing culture, those artists are getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So it really shows that Rock and Roll is about a spirit and not just a format,” Sykes said.
“I go back to the logo that was written on every Motown record in the '60s, which said ‘The sound of young America.’ I think that nothing could describe rock 'n 'roll or any kind of music that connected with young America better than that. That’s really the mantra that I’m going to bring to the hall, is that it’s not about [the] style of music or color of the artist, it’s about which artists truly created the sound of young America.”
Sykes lives in New York City with his son and two daughters, who often provide him new music recommendations. "My kids grew up going backstage and talking with Sting or Bono or Chris Martin and Coldplay. I remember a couple of times Bono giving my son a name check in the audience or Taylor Swift talking to my daughter about what her next single choice would be. I've been very lucky to have kids who love to do what I do," Sykes said.
Though he doesn’t have family in the Capital Region, Sykes still keeps in touch with a few friends from the area, including Cooper.
“We went to grade school together, we went to college together and now we’re in the same company,” he said.
According to Cooper, Sykes hasn’t changed much from the time he knew him in college, describing him as creative and energetic.
“It seems like that’s the same now as it was then. He’s been extremely successful, and his success is deserved because I know he works extremely hard. . . When you think about some of the things he’s put together over time it’s pretty incredible, some of the concerts, the shows and the benefits,” Cooper said.
Of course, Sykes is the first to say, “It all comes back to my hometown.”