NEW YORK (AP) — A 24-hour channel devoted solely to pro football? On satellite radio?
What was Sirius thinking?
Not even the people launching the station could be sure where it was headed. And a decade later, their dedicated listeners range from Robert Kraft to Mike Shanahan to Sean Payton. And from players on all 32 teams to truck drivers traveling the length and width of the nation.
“We were ahead of everybody,” says Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel director, current NFL draft consultant — and co-host of the very first program on Sirius NFL Radio on Aug. 2, 2004. “I marvel at it. I go into the grocery store or barber shop now, and even women are telling me, ‘You said this and this and this’ on the air.
“The allure is amazing.”
The NFL’s allure seems limitless, and Channel 88 on SiriusXM — the companies merged in 2008 — has built its impressive resume on it. When Steve Cohen, the current senior vice president of sports programming, and Brandt first went on the air 10 years ago, Sirius had 500,000 subscribers. A year later, another 1 million had signed up. By 2008, SiriusXM had 18.5 million subscribers.
Now, that number has reached 26 million.
NFL Radio isn’t responsible for all of that, not by a long shot with Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey among SiriusXM personalities. But it’s among satellite radio’s leaders in caller participation and, within the NFL itself, it’s become must listening.
“SiriusXM NFL Radio attracts fans of all ages with their insight from former players and coaches and some of the most respected NFL insiders in the industry,” Patriots owner Kraft says. “I am a regular listener. I try to listen to financial reporting and timely global news when I can, but most often, I tune in to … Channel 88. It gives me the pulse of what’s going on in my favorite sport seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
Cohen actually consulted with Kraft before taking on the challenge of building the channel. Cohen’s vision for it was to have professional broadcasters team with former NFL players or executives.
“Here was the hardest thing: hiring people,” Cohen says. “They couldn’t pronounce the name and hadn’t heard of this company.”
Yet he attracted Hall of Fame running back John Riggins and future Hall of Famers Shannon Sharpe and Cris Carter to become hosts, although they no longer are on the channel. Brandt brought considerable cachet because of his wealth of inside knowledge and endless array of anecdotes.
Former Jets personnel director Pat Kirwan also signed up immediately, and he’s become perhaps the station’s most popular voice because of his skill at explaining everything from the intricacies of the zone blitz to the dynamics of the salary cap.
“When I first started, I had no radio experience, had done some TV, but I knew enough about football to talk,” says Kirwan, who has partnered with former NFL players Tim Ryan and, now, Jim Miller. “And I had a lot of notions from TV that it was not addressing the needs of the fans who wanted to grow. The football guy felt there has been more than what these announcers are telling us, because TV appeals to a general audience.”
NFL Radio wanted to appeal to everyone who follows the sport. It came up with some unique ways to do so.
Not only has SiriusXM been broadcasting all regular-season and playoff games live throughout its deal with the league, which runs through 2015, but Channel 88 has brought listeners live to the combine, the draft, and to each of the 32 training camps during the summer.
The camp trips are among the favorite endeavors for NFL Radio’s staff (55 and counting), although they got off to a rocky start.
“The training camp tour started out small, three cities, and soon it became every team every summer,” says Adam Schein, Cohen’s first hire — at age 26. “You’d fly from Seattle to Denver to the Redskins’ camp in three days. Fly to Chicago and then drive to Bourbonnais, Illinois, or to Terre Haute, Indiana, and Nashville, and Georgetown, Kentucky. You go to Saints camp in Jackson, Mississippi, and the humidity smacks you right in the face.
“We were not staying at the Ritz Carlton, either, but that was something that made it so great — it increased the bonding with the guys.”
And with the audience. So much so that, at one point, Schein and Riggins had to cut a conversation short because the caller’s wife had gone into labor.
A little while later, they found out the woman had twins — and named them Adam and John.
Brandt has kept a log of each caller during his 10 years on the air, including where they are from. On a recent June evening, his four-hour program with co-host Alex Marvez featured nonstop full telephone lines. There were 37 callers from 19 states, 16 of them first-time callers.
“That is not even our best. One night we had 24 first-time callers,” Brandt recalls.
Many of those callers are truckers, and they’ve developed something of a SiriusXM NFL Radio cult, whether listening to 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon or Hall of Famer James Lofton. Not only do they phone in regularly as they drive the highways of America, but they now make a pilgrimage to Mobile, Alabama, in late January to the Senior Bowl.
Kirwan throws a bash for them there, even giving out awards, and conducts impromptu class sessions on football, recruiting assistant coaches on hand for the game to help out.
Cohen offers a reminder that there are far more days on the calendar without any pro football games. Yet, as his boss notes, the thirst for the NFL must be quenched.
“Having every NFL game is a very significant part of what we offer,” says SiriusXM President Scott Greenstein, “but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is having SiriusXM NFL Radio on the air all day, every day, 12 months a year, feeding the appetite of NFL fans.”
And feeding the hunger of folks in the league, too.
Scott Pioli worked in the front offices of the Patriots and Chiefs and now is assistant general manager in Atlanta. In between NFL gigs, he had the chance to be an analyst on the station.
He learned a lot being behind the microphone.
“Usually when you are listening to the radio, you are alone, so the hosts become companions,” Pioli says. “Now I sat on the other side and got the chance to see how the people behind the microphone actually cultivate relationships with people out there in radio land, and it is cool.”
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