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Steve Cohen on SiriusXM, the State of Sports Media and the BSM Summit

“That was very meaningful for us to be able to accomplish those things and create programs that we won awards for and were very, very well received.”

Derek Futterman

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Steve Cohen
Courtesy: Sway's Universe

When Steve Cohen stepped aside as the senior vice president of sports programming at SiriusXM, he was able to consider the accomplishments that he and his team garnered during his tenure with the outlet. Cohen helped launch a preponderance of sports content at SiriusXM, spearheading the creation of dedicated channels to appeal to different consumers and sectors of the industry. SiriusXM continues to offer a variety of sports talk programming in addition to live game broadcasts of marquee matchups across a variety of different leagues.

Barrett Sports Media will honor Cohen with the Jeff Smulyan Award at the 2024 BSM Summit in New York City, presented to an executive within sports radio who has made significant contributions to the format. Tickets are on sale for the premier sports media conference, a two-day event taking place on Wednesday, March 13 and Thursday, March 14. Cohen recently participated in an extended interview from Media Row in Las Vegas, Nev. to reflect on his time at SiriusXM, provide his thoughts on the future of the industry and convey his appreciation and gratitude for the forthcoming industry accolade.

What does it mean for you to receive the Jeff Smulyan Award at the 2024 BSM Summit?

“It’s an amazing honor for me because Jeff signed my first full-time radio check, and he created the concept of sports talk radio [and] I was right there, ground floor [and] ready to help build out his vision. And so to think 37 years later that I’m getting an award named after Jeff, a visionary, for a concept he came up with that has been a huge part of my life is rewarding. It’s an amazing honor that absolutely humbles me because we do these things — our goal as content creators is just to create content that people are going to love; to feed into their passions and to draw in the audience that will support our programming to keep us on the air, and so this is just an amazing honor for me that is still hard for me to fully embrace, but I’m sure on March 14 it’ll become a lot easier.

“In programming, when you give your people skin in the game to offer up ideas and concepts, whether I approve of them or disapprove of them, they’re not afraid to come to me with these ideas because I may have ideas that aren’t very good that they’ll be like, ‘Well Steve, I don’t know if that’s going to work for this audience or that audience,’ and it’s like, ‘Okay.’ I think collaboration makes us all better…. What makes me most proud of my accomplishments is the programming ideas that I’ve come up with; that I’ve collaborated with my people about that have come to fruition because of all of our team efforts. When I accept this award, in my heart I’m not accepting this as an individual. I’m accepting this for all the people who worked so hard alongside me; worked with me — not for me, with me — to come up with the ideas that we’re so proud of that we take so much pride in.”

From working at SiriusXM over many years, what is it like listening the subscription-based satellite radio outlet today?

“I think it would have been weird going back into my old office to visit the guy who took over for me if that guy’s name wasn’t Eric Spitz. And so now, I’m so happy for Eric, but I go in that office with a big smile on my face with my feet kicked up looking at my friend Eric and saying, ‘It’s all yours now, baby,’ and with that, I can exhale. When you work 37 years full time at this and then you finally take that step back, you get to smell the roses a bit, but you also get to take pride in what you’ve accomplished while also continuing to collaborate with the team on things that you hear because now when I hear things I have more time to listen intently to them and offer thoughts and ideas and constructive criticism. When you’re in the fast-paced world of daily sports talk programming, sometimes you miss that and/or you don’t have the time to be as thoughtful about things as you’d like.

“We’ve been doing live sports talk radio now for 37 years, and with that you become a bit scarred by the fact that everything that you do is about the here and now, and the immediacy of it all to stay on top of everything; to report on everything; to advance stories as they come up. And then I take a step back and think about doing some things that are very thoughtful that I can massage over time and it’s a hard adjustment to not react immediately to things because in sports talk radio, what we do today is outdated by tomorrow. But things that we worked on — winning sports podcast series of the year for 9/11 in sports 20 years later — that’s when we were able to take the time [with] very meaningful things and put a lot into it and do it the right way.”

Throughout your tenure, what do you feel made SiriusXM different from other audio outlets?

“We went deep on so many sports that the majority of sports talk radio stations around the country couldn’t do. They couldn’t dedicate that time to the various sports like NASCAR, the NHL, the NBA, the PGA TOUR, wrestling; so many things that only we could do because you really have to play the hits, especially in terrestrial radio, and those hits are decided on the market that you’re in. You really need to please the market you’re in; you can’t lose sight of that.”

When you look back, what is the one channel that you are most proud of among SiriusXM’s sports offerings?

“I think building the NFL channel was first and foremost because it was my first opportunity to put my stamp on something; to take the philosophy I had [and] put it to work in the form of a radio station. I was really proud of building out the NASCAR platform with the help of people like Daniel Norwood because I grew up a NASCAR fan…. Then I went on to produce NFL games for 13 years at stadiums, so I wasn’t watching NASCAR races anymore. When NASCAR came to SiriusXM — they came to Sirius; at the time they were with XM — and Brian France said, ‘We like the NFL channel that you’ve built so much. We want you to take our NASCAR channel — we want to bring NASCAR to Sirius, and we want you to build out the NASCAR channel in a similar fashion.’

“Well, it’s a little different. You can’t build it out the same way, so we went to races; we talked to the people who were part of the fabric of NASCAR, and we built it out accordingly because you couldn’t have hosts that weren’t at the races and stuff. They needed to be there, and so the fact that we became in the NASCAR world going from a small fish in a big bowl to one of their most trusted partners if not the most trusted partner because when the TV channels like Speed went away, we were the only 24/7 place to have NASCAR, and I’m very proud of that. Working with the people of NASCAR top to bottom has been an absolute pleasure — from the drivers to the pit crew people to the owners to the executives at NASCAR — so I’m really proud of that one.”

What was the challenge in balancing funds for play-by-play rights and sports talk programming?

“When you’re spending so much money on play-by-play rights, how much can you really spend on sports talk? Nothing beats the play-by-play — that’s the most important thing that we can bring is the games; the races [and] the matches live — so I’m not disappointed with the sports talk budgets I’ve been given because it’s really easy to basically go to the people you want to hire and say, ‘Look, will you do this for this amount of money?’ I’m not saying we were cheap in any aspect, but again as a fiscally-responsible company, how much can you spend on talk, especially if you’re going to build out more than a dozen sports talk platforms?”

SiriusXM NFL Radio

How essential is it for SiriusXM to have a presence at Media Row alongside other media companies?

“I’m very grateful to SiriusXM for providing us the budget to do things the right way. Whether it’s coming out to Radio Row at the Super Bowl; whether it’s giving us remote budget to be at every major sporting event in this country, covering it the way you should cover it and meeting the expectation of both listeners and subscribers. I’m really grateful for that, and I think from our first Super Bowl in Jacksonville, we’ve proved to management that if you spend the money on these remotes, we’re going to deliver programming that’s absolutely unmatched in our industry, and they’ve supported us.

“With the NFL — whether it’s the Combine; whether it’s the Draft; whether it’s the Senior Bowl [or] the owner’s meetings; all these things, we’re getting content nobody else is getting. When you pay for radio, you’ve got to get your money’s worth, right? It was a free medium. Look, it’s no different than television. You want more than your 10 free channels; 11 free channels? Well, you’ve got to subscribe to cable. You want movies? Then you’ve got Netflix and all those things, but I think what I’m most proud of is from a sports standpoint, we absolutely exceeded expectations and delivered on the value [proposition] that subscribers expect.”

How has the style of sports talk programming changed over the years in the format as a whole?

“At SiriusXM with all these league [partnerships], we have to be critical yet fair in our criticisms. That’s what we told all our league partners. We can’t be pom-pom waivers for you. Yes, we’re fans of your sport; that’s why we have a channel, but we have to be critical yet we’ll be fair in our criticisms, so that philosophy has really worked because if fans are upset, they pick up the phone [and] they want to talk to people about what they’re upset about. We’re not there to poo-poo their feelings, right? We’re there to listen to what they say and offer thoughts and opinions about what they’re saying to us, and again, that’s sports talk, right? We don’t have to agree, but when we do disagree, let’s do it respectfully.”

With the BSM Summit nearly one month away, what are you looking forward to in attending the two-day sports media conference?

“This will be the first time I can actually stay for a bit and not have to run back to our Sixth Avenue offices. That’s what the SiriusXM job had become — there’s no time in the day. Early on when we were building on NFL Radio, Nick Pavlatos was our program director, and we had to literally pull ourselves away from the studio to go get lunch; to refresh; to resharpen the blade so to speak, and then come back and work. The amount of content we created at SiriusXM is just amazing, and it hasn’t been until this year that I can kind of look back at all the accomplishments that we’ve had in creating dozens of sports talk radio channels and with that, during the most difficult parts of our lives, coming up with new concepts to keep the audience. What happened when the games stopped playing because of COVID? Well, those were some of the most rewarding times for us as programmers because we collaborated and came up with concepts that really worked, and it wasn’t as difficult as you might think because a lot of it was based on common sense.

“We’re all living the same life now, so what can we do to take our listeners and make them understand that we’re all in this together now and to band together and talk about our challenges; our struggles; our triumphs. And so that was very meaningful for us to be able to accomplish those things and create programs that we won awards for and were very, very well received.”

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WWE’s Paul Heyman Joins the 2024 BSM Summit

“I am thrilled to share that on Wednesday March 13th in New York City, we will welcome a man who has experienced every part of the wrestling and entertainment business both on-air and behind the scenes.”

Jason Barrett

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The final few weeks leading up to the BSM Summit are my least favorite time of the entire process. Between last-minute preparations, unexpected changes, laying out a schedule that fits everyone’s schedule, giving speakers direction, and handling the creative for the banners, programs and what appears on the screen, it can be overwhelming. This event isn’t created and produced by a large organization. It’s done by BSM’s small team and a few volunteers. There is no production team. That’s me. There is no sales team. That’s Stephanie. The creative squad that brainstorms ahead of the show? That’s me peppering Dave Greene, Demetri Ravanos and Stephanie Eads with every single thing that pops into my head.

I share this because on Monday I’ll be releasing our full schedule for the 2024 BSM Summit. You’ll find it on BarrettSportsMedia.com/Summit. If you type in BSMSummit.com it will take you to that page. I’m also hoping to announce our final collection of speakers. You guys will like some of the folks coming to speak who we’ve yet to announce.

Booking this event month’s in advance could be easily done. I could execute a radio conference in my sleep. But I’m not interested in easy. I’m focused on delivering a two-day event that unites professionals across the entire media universe, many who you may never share space with again. I believe in this concept because it helps you learn, stay sharp, discover what others do to create success that you may not have thought about, and in the process, you build new connections.

Creating an event that dives into radio, podcasting, social media, newsletters, television, video execution, sales and promotions, the economic climate, and programming strategy, requires thinking outside the box and swinging for the fences. Think about it. Where else are you going to hear the CEO of a radio company one minute, two local sports talk show hosts the next, four digital executives after that, four social media superstars once they’re done, and cap it all off with discussions about business, entertainment, and the future? It may not be perfect or rolled out the way a few would prefer but it works for us. By the time we hit the stage on March 13-14, that’s when the six months of hard work pay off and the fun begins.

Speaking of fun, if you’ve been to a Summit before, you’ve heard me connect the world of sports media to professional wrestling. The battle for audience attention, understanding how to leverage social media, incorporate advertising, create interest in on-air talent, and design programming to capture ratings are something the two world’s have in common. We’ve been fortunate to have Shawn Michaels and Eric Bischoff speak at prior shows but never have we had a speaker involved who’d be part of the upcoming main event for WrestleMania.

I am thrilled to share that on Wednesday March 13th in New York City, we will welcome a man who has experienced every part of the wrestling and entertainment business both on-air and behind the scenes. It is an honor to have the great Paul Heyman joining us at this year’s Summit.

If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Heyman, here’s the cliff notes version of what you need to know. Currently, Paul serves as the special counsel for WWE Universal Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns. Reigns has been world champion for 1269 days, and the storyline he’s involved in (The Bloodline) has been a massive hit on television and digital for the WWE. Roman will be competing in the main event at the WWE’s largest show of the year, WrestleMania with Heyman in his corner. The event has become so big that The Rock has returned to become part of the story.

As an on-air character, Heyman is gifted in his ability to command the audience’s attention. His promos are always well thought out, well executed, and interesting. Learning about his process as a talent and what goes into creating a compelling monologue is going to be a real treat for on-air folks in the room.

In addition, Paul is an accomplished writer, executive, promoter and booker. He’s served as the lead writer for both WWE RAW and Smackdown, leading both to the top of the ratings charts. He’s also been on the other side as the leader of an underdog promotion (ECW) tasked with building a brand and competing against the top dog, WWE. Paul is also well versed in advertising having co-founded the Looking4Larry Agency, which is known for its wildly imaginative campaigns for 2K Sports, NASCAR, Smart Cups, Monster Trucks, EA Sports and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Las Vegas.

Talent have praised his creative ideas and ability to design and structure compelling television. Audiences have emotionally connected to his on-air commentaries, and on Wednesday March 13th, BSM Summit attendees will learn what it takes to create, cut through, and command the room’s attention when I sit down with Paul Heyman for an in-depth conversation.

A reminder, tickets for the 2024 BSM Summit are on-sale through BSMSummit.com and the BSM Store. Prices will increase on March 4th so act now and save money before it’s too late. I hope to see you in NYC in three weeks.

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Sports Broadcasts Should Remain Political-Free Zones

There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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A cartoon depicting political candidates talking sports
Credit: Maia Lathrop / Clarion

Political thoughts and ads are everywhere. It seems like everything these days is politicized. Sports hasn’t escaped either. Athletes take stands, some commentators have made their political positions well known too.

In this case, politics is more of a catch-all term. It doesn’t just mean Democrat or Republican, it can mean making a comment on any hot button issue in America or anywhere else. Controversies that create a public stir. We’ve had a few over the course of the last few weeks that drummed up lots of emotion and certainly could have been avoided.

The most recent example took place last weekend at the NBA All-Star Saturday on TNT. As I’m sure you know by now, Kenny Smith had some things to say about the Steph Curry/Sabrina Ionescu 3-point shootout. Such choice things as, “She should have shot it from the women’s line, that would have been a fair contest.” Ionescu more than held her own, with 26 points which would have qualified her for the men’s finals in the event. Smith’s partner Reggie Miller didn’t make things much better, when he chimed in, “According to you, you want her to be playing with dolls.” Smith’s response: “Playing with dolls is good, too.” The fallout was swift thanks to social media.

Smith went on to Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN show earlier in the week to defend his commentary. “I think it’s much ado about nothing, honestly,” Smith said, when asked about the controversy. “Most people who know basketball understood what I was talking about. Actually, I was advocating for her, more than anything else, because basketball is muscle memory. So, he practices from one range, she practices from another.” Smith further explained, “Most people just don’t check the tape, they want to just check the bait. My history and track record speaks for itself,” Smith said. “I was clueless why people thought I didn’t want equality.”

Can. Worms. Opened. I get it, social media can make things appear one way when they are intended in another. My question to Smith and Miller, why make the commentary at all in that moment? Ionescu is a terrific basketball player and shooter. Everybody knew the rules going into the exhibition, so why make a stink about it? Or, if the need outweighs the caution, how about putting some notes down on paper so that you aren’t taken out of context? There are ways to make the commentary smoother. It’s not like the event was a surprise.

Talk shows fall into a different light. That’s all about opinion and it is likely up to each individual to understand how far to push it. Hosts should know their markets and from there can figure out what may or may not work. Topics like these generally lead to more fan engagement, because everyone has an opinion. It’s up to the host or hosts to keep the topic ‘on the rails’ or it becomes a free for all.

When it comes to announcers, hosts and reporters in the industry, mistakes can happen. I get that. It’s live and sometimes thoughts can go awry. We’ve seen it countless times. My question is this, why even go there? What is the benefit? Some like to try and make a name for themselves, to be controversial just for the sake of “look at me” or “listen to me” and trying to make headlines. That’s kind of sad to me. There is more to lose than to gain in these cases.

We’ve seen cases of misspeaking and/or controversial ‘hot button’ statements made on air that have proven costly to livelihoods. One of the more recent moments took place in May 2023. Glen Kuiper and the A’s were in Kansas City and had visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum earlier in the day. He was discussing the visit on air when he dropped the n-word. His claim was that his pronunciation of “negro” was misheard. After an investigation, he was fired. Kuiper was one of the best local television announcers.

Before that Reds announcer Thom Brennaman was caught on a hot mic, making a homophobic remark. Brennaman was pulled from the broadcast mid-game and suspended. The Reds later told Brennaman that he would not be returning, which prompted his resignation. To his credit Brennaman owned it and is trying to improve himself as a person. He’s been forgiven by the LGBTQ+ community in Cincinnati, after he attended several meetings with leaders. They weren’t easy as he told me a couple of years ago, but he made the extreme effort.

If there’s one entity in sports broadcasting that needs to stay out of the fray, and be ‘politic proof’ it’s the sports broadcast and telecast. The booth needs to remain pure. It needs to be a sanctuary for fans and broadcasters alike. There aren’t many fans that are tuning into a baseball, basketball, football or hockey broadcast to learn about your opinions about anything else but the game. Fans look to escape that when listening to or watching a game. Sports is the place we go to forget about the real world for 3-4 hours at a time.

We all have opinions about things in the sport and out of it. Opinions about the game you are broadcasting is what you’re there for, right? For example, I can’t stand the ‘ghost runner’ at 2nd base in extra innings in Major League Baseball. It’s gimmicky and takes away from the way the game was meant to be played. Me expressing that opinion as the game heads to extras is appropriate, as long as you don’t lose track of the game. My thoughts on the Presidential race or a Senate race is inconsequential in the scope of my baseball broadcast. Be engaging to your audience about things they care about in the moment, the game.

I hate when people tell us in the industry to “stick to sports”. Nothing grates on me more. I keep thinking, oh, because I talk about sports, that’s all I know? So, all that doctors know about is medicine then, right? It’s a simple-minded criticism, but I have to say, in these cases, in a booth, we should stick to the sports aspect of things.  There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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Jeff Rickard Understands The Benefits of Attending the BSM Summit

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Jeff Rickard is one of the truly familiar faces of the BSM Summit. He’s not involved in the planning or with the company, but it’s an event he never misses.

“It went from a small group in Chicago the first year to recognition from everyone in our industry, and there’s a lot to be gained when we all get together from different markets and cities,” said Rickard of the event’s growth. “We’re not competing against each other. Instead, we’re there to bring each other ideas, lift each other up, and give each other not just support necessarily, but different ways of looking at and doing things. It allows you to kind of take some energy from another building and bring it back to your own.”

Since the BSM Summit first launched as an invite-only event, Rickard has held jobs in Indianapolis, Boston and Charlotte. In fact, it was at the 2022 Summit in New York where he had his first meeting that would lead to him taking the reins at WFNZ.

Different jobs have come with different situations. Rickard has been able to talk with fellow attendees about translators, transitions to FM, and building digital strategies. He appreciates the networking opportunities that exist at the Summit, but the access to new points of view have helped him grow as a programmer.

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot,” he says. “In the last, I don’t know, three to four years, I think BSM has helped that along the way.”

The “radio is dying” narrative is a popular one. We can pretend that it only exists outside of our industry, but how many of us know someone very much inside the industry that exclusively speaks the language of doom and gloom when asked about future goals and plans? 

Rickard says that coming to the Summit is a necessity for anyone stuck in or around that mindset. Radio may not be as popular as ubiquitous as it used to be, but there is still enthusiasm for sports radio. That is something to feed off of!

“Local sports radio, if done right, will always attract an audience, because [listeners] can go to Sirius XM and they can go to ESPN and they can get the main stories of the day, and they can talk about the Chiefs winning another Super Bowl, and they can talk about if the Golden State Warriors being past their prime,” he says. “That’s all great, but if you’re in Indianapolis or Charlotte and you want to hear about respectively the Pacers or the Hornets, you know that we’re going to be talking about them. I think we’ve learned about the things that our local audience is going to want.”

Lessons Rickard has learned at past BSM Summits have had a major impact in Charlotte. WFNZ’s cume isn’t just up since he arrived. It has nearly quadrupled. 

According to Rickard, that is the result of valuing all perspectives. He’s a programmer, but that doesn’t mean he is only paying attention to sessions featuring other programmers. He also isn’t focused only on executives that could offer him the next opportunity. Rickard encourages any programmer that attends the BSM Summit to come and take notes when talent from other markets are on stage. 

“You have to realize that they’re not on a level below you. They are in large part you’re partners,” he says. “I always enjoy listening to guys that are highly successful, at those summits, talk about what motivates them, what they’re thinking about, how they go ahead and put a show together. There’s a reason we hire those talented people because they’re really good at what they do. They’re really good at attracting an audience, and they’re better at holding that audience. That’s why they’re speaking at a conference like BSM.”

Day-to-day operations are always on the minds of the people that attend the BSM Summit. When Jeff Rickard comes to New York next month though, he wants to hear conversations about the bigger picture. Whether it is from the stage or at networking events, he wants to be part of the conversations that are fundamental to the future of radio as a medium and broadcasting as a business. The one at the forefront of his mind? Audience measurement.

“We’ve been dealing with Nielsen for a long time,” he says. “There’s good, there’s bad. We all understand the system and how it works. But with so many of our listeners coming to us now through an app or coming to us by downloading what we’re doing online, they’re coming to us straight to the website. We’re starting to be able to kind of pick and choose our own numbers. We can see with certain day parts and certain guests or certain topics that, ‘wow, a lot of people checked into the app at that particular time.’ 

“So I think moving forward, the biggest thing for our industry is how do we continue to more accurately assess who our audience is and what’s really happening there on a moment to moment basis. I think we’re getting better every year, but I’m curious to see what the industry believes is the future for the next ten years, because I don’t think we’re using it now.” 

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