The satellite vet on firing an "Opie & Anthony" host, adding EDM channels and sharing data.
This article first appeared in the July 26th issue of Billboard Magazine.
Running programming for 140- channel-strong satellite radio service SiriusXM calls for always thinking on one's feet. Scott Greenstein, 54, the company's president/chief content officer, takes that responsibility literally. From behind his standing desk on the 36th floor of New York's McGraw Hill Building, the New Jersey native runs meetings with dozens of program directors, spitballs new formats and, occasionally, has to discipline an unruly employee - most recently: "Opie & Anthony" co-host Anthony Cumia, who was fired July 13 for racist remarks he made on Twitter. Such decisions never come easy, but ever the diplomat, Greenstein insists the company's M.O. is "we have dialogues. We don't yell."
Ten years into his SiriusXM stint, the former movie executive (who has held senior positions at USA Films, October Films and Miramax) has seen the business grow from 400,000 subscribers to 26 million, while at the same time ringing up $3.8 billion in revenue in 2013 and $377 million in net profit. It employs nearly 2,200 staffers. It hasn't always been smooth sailing. A merger with XM in 2008 and a takeover attempt by Liberty Media in early 2014 preceded the publicly traded company's latest economic uncertainty: the issue of mandated performance royalty payments on music released before 1972 -- a cost that could significantly affect its bottom line. (SiriusXM is being sued in California and Columbia, Md., where labels and artists are demanding it pay up.)
The reggae and golf enthusiast, who is married with teenage sons, talks to Billboard about SiriusXM's influence when it comes to breaking artists and genres; how it views streaming services; and the company's stance on containing costs, possibly at the expense of classic tunes.
How has your experience in the movie industry carried over to your radio career?
Not all of it translates from visual to audio, but the part that did was appreciating individual artist talent, whether they be musicians, actors or writers. When we first started as a [paid] subscription service, we were able to look at [celebrities] from all walks of life -- Marky Ramone, Tony Hawk, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Barbara Walters, Phil Jackson and Nancy Sinatra among them -- who had never done radio before and they turned out to be interesting hosts. I also learned from indie movies to let talent and content do their thing and then figure out how to market it. Don't create a marketing idea and look to fit talent into it. The creative process should be as pure as possible.
Anthony Cumia's firing made news; Howard Stern is equally controversial. When you took this job, did you anticipate dealing with such extreme personalities?
There were some pretty extreme personalities when I was in the movie business and they turned out to be great colleagues. Occasionally things happen, like with Anthony, and you deal with them as carefully and considerately as you can, but you've got to deal with it. You can't let it fester. I [was] fine with what they have done up until this incident, or they wouldn't have been on the air. But we made what we think is the right decision, though it was a difficult one.
Which of your former bosses have helped shape your management style?
I've worked for a lot of superstars, from Barry Diller to Harvey and Bob Weinstein and Mel Karmazin -- all had tremendous careers balancing content, creativity and marketing with a strict business regimen. So I learned you have to be 50 percent creative and 50 percent business, and you don't really want to go out of whack.
In rejecting mandatory royalty payouts for pre-1972 music, SiriusXM has taken an aggressive stance. Artists and labels are suing, arguing that, while federal copyright law didn't exist then, recordings are covered by state laws ...
We are not aggressive; we are just following the law. You can't be aggressive with the law. You either follow it or you don't, and we do.
SiriusXM doesn't rely on advertising and radio ratings; how do you measure success?
The old-fashioned way: How many people are subscribing, and are we growing every year? Also, we offer a menu of channels that is different. Our listeners can have five or 10 favorite channels, and sometimes they change. Like we're just launching Y2Kountry, country music from the new millennium; Utopia, dance music from the '90s and 2000s; and Venus, pop hits from the 2000s until today. We created the YouTube15 on Hits1. YouTube is sourcing the data for us based on what their biggest music videos are, and more importantly, what the big emerging videos are.
Labels speak highly of SiriusXM, but a common complaint involves audience data, such as how many people are listening to Hits1 at three in the afternoon. Any plans to share that intel?
Not particularly. Data can be great in a lot of ways but it can also cause programming reactions. This service was built to be a fan service. It was meant to be programmed and curated for fans, by fans. Our ratings come when our subscribers are growing.
How does SiriusXM view other developments in the music space?
Is a Pandora-like service or streaming a la Spotify in its future? If we get to a place where it makes sense, then we will do it. We like two things about our business: We like our position in the car where seven out of every 10 new vehicles sold in the U.S. have SiriusXM installed - 60 million cars on the road today are SiriusXM-enabled, and that will double in five years. And we like that we're not overly dependent on computer algorithms. We have human beings with really great experience. You couldn't put an algorithm together and get Little Steven's Underground Garage. That's the difference: We'll take Steven Van Zandt programming a station for us and everybody else is welcome to use a computer.