Linton graduate again at heart of historic fundraising concert
SCHENECTADY A Linton High School graduate was the heart behind the 12-12-12 concert that raised millions for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
John Sykes, president of Clear Channel, organized the concert in less than a month with two friends, the same friends who worked with him on the huge New York City concert to raise funds after 9/11.
“The three of us got together like we did 10 years ago and said, ‘Let’s do this again,’ ” Sykes said. “[It was] a couple days after the hurricane struck the Northeast, at the point where we realized this wasn’t just another rainstorm. ... It was wiping out homes, neighborhoods, forever. It was going to take years and years to recover.”
Sykes knows a little bit about slow recoveries. He grew up in Schenectady when General Electric was booming and the city was bustling. But as he headed off to college, General Electric began laying off thousands of workers. His hometown became a ghost town.
His father — who still lives here — keeps him abreast of Schenectady’s slow progress. But Sykes couldn’t find a job here, despite hanging around the WRGB parking lot in hopes of catching the news director’s ear.
He didn’t suffer too much for that. He went on to help create MTV, and by age 40 was president of VH1. Now he runs Clear Channel, which has the largest number of radio listeners in the country. The company also oversees live events, but nothing the size of the 12-12-12 concert.
For that, Sykes personally called performers, asking them to donate their time. His friend, James Dolan, chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, offered the famed arena for the event. Another friend, movie producer Harvey Weinstein, helped call musicians they had all befriended when the three worked together at VH1.
Dozens of celebrities agreed to volunteer, from Saturday Night Live performers to Paul McCartney.
“No one said no. Every artist said yes,” Sykes said.
Some, like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, agreed at once because they live there, he said. Others told Sykes they would perform for free “because they made their names here in New York.”
Before the curtain rose, the project had already generated $36 million in ticket sales and donations. Every penny goes to the Robin Hood Relief Fund, which will directly assist people whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed by Sandy.
Sykes said the concert was needed for more than just raising money — it had to break through the apathy of viewers who thought of Sandy as “just another hurricane.”
He has done concerts to raise funds for Haiti and other storm-tossed islands, but what he saw here told him that this time, the U.S. needed help.
“We felt people didn’t realize how bad it was,” he said. “This was the second worst natural disaster in the United States, second to Katrina.”
Many of the houses that were washed away or destroyed were owned by “hard-working, middle-class people” who could not afford to rebuild.
“If you’re not wealthy, it’s going to be very, very hard,” he said. “The U.S. needed a little bit of help.”
To tell that story, he needed time between sets, but he couldn’t make viewers wait a half-hour or more between musicians. So his company built a turntable stage, allowing crews to set up one band while another was playing. When the band finished, the crew turned the stage, and 30 seconds later, the equipment was ready for the next band.
“Then we just use five or seven minutes to get that band on stage in pitch black,” Sykes said. “We use the time [to] show them the pictures. We tell them the story, the magnitude of the disaster.”
It wasn’t easy. Five hours into the event, Sykes had spent so much time shouting over the music to be heard by his producers that he was hoarse. Two days later, he was still struggling to speak over a whisper. But he loved every minute of it.
“It was our goal to reach out to the region, the country, the world, that this was not just another hurricane. This one was bad,” he said. “I think we succeeded on Wednesday.”
Sykes doesn’t yet know how much money the event raised — the concert is airing internationally through Friday night, and the phone banks are still active.
“The phone banks were doing amazingly well,” he said.