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Radio Facts Talks to SiriusXM Breakthrough PD Dion Summers

SiriusXM’s Dion Summers is not just a consummate pro at programming; he’s one of the nicest guys in the industry. He made a move from commercial radio to SiriusXM just in the nick of time, and it allows him a lot more flexibility when it comes to programming.

He’s very talented and not afraid to still be in the trenches by interviewing artists, hosting shows and making sure SiriusXM is on top of the game. Currently, he is the VP of Urban Music Programming for SiriusXM, and he runs eight stations and manages several programmers. 

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Kevin: Tell me about your past before SiriusXM? 

Dion: Okay. So, I was a childhood radio geek. I would listen to the radio in the passenger seat, wondering why did they play the songs they played? Why do they say number one for hip-hop and R&B? Why do they say Power? What the hell’s that to me? I was one of those kids. I wanted to dissect radio kind of and go behind the curtain. 

I interned in high school in Baltimore, where I’m from, at a local top 40 station. I went to Syracuse University, majoring in communications, and spent all my time in the campus radio station like the rest of the geeks did.

As you probably know, Syracuse was one of those universities where the college station wasn’t playing what you wanted to hear. It was a rigid top 40 format. We had a selected database, so we were all learning the biz from the ground up, more so than my curriculum.

After graduation, I got a job back in my hometown; Cathy Hughes hired me at 92-Q where I worked for nine years. I went from the overnight guy to the program director. About five years later, I programmed the station for under five years. I went from Radio One to (at the time) Clear Channel in Miami for four years. And then, XM radio came calling in 2005-2006, and I’ve been there ever since. 

Kevin: Were you a little nervous about making the switch from commercial to satellite radio? 

Dion: Yes, I was incredibly nervous; like everybody, all of my peers, friends in the industry, everybody thought I was crazy. iHeartRadio was Clear Channel and who was going to leave Miami. Like, who’s leaving Miami, right? Well, no, at the time, Sirius and XM hadn’t merged yet, so XM offered me a position first. XM was DC-based, and Sirius is based in NY. Now, as one company, we operate out of both cities now.

And you notice kind of around like the early 2000s, radio was changing and the autonomy that program directors had to legitimately program their radio stations, to select music based on smart programming decisions, based on empirical data and gut to target the audience, those ABCs of radio were leaving: programmers didn’t have autonomy anymore, programmers didn’t have the right to play the music that they thought was best for their markets anymore. 

That power was being taken from them. And we had a great team led by the awesome Doc Wynter, but at the end of the day, autonomy was being taken away, and it wasn’t fun anymore. 

And that comes with the fact that satellite radio was considered new media; like I said, I’m a geek with this stuff, man. I wanted to go behind the curtain and see what this deal was with satellite radio? One of the questions was, why are people paying for something that’s free? And I have the answer.

I found the answer by working for SiriusXM. It’s like compelling content always wins, like, same for cable and same for these streaming platforms. You pay Paramount+, don’t you? You pay for HBO, don’t you? If you build it, they will come. If you give the audience something compelling, that’s exciting, that’s exclusive, if you give it to them, hell, yeah, they’ll pay for it. 

So, with that in mind and embarking on this whole new media kick that really excited me, I wanted to be a part of that wave. And 16 years later, I’m still riding the wave. 

Kevin: But to add to what you just said, if you give them what they want, they’ll come, and if you don’t give them what they want, they’ll leave.

Dion: Oh, they’ll leave in a minute, especially being a paying client for your service, they’ll let you know. I’ve gotten hate mail before like all programmers get bad letters from listeners. But paying subscribers really will let you know how they feel about the product, and I love it; like, I want the feedback. I crave it. And so, yeah, I had no trepidation after a certain point about taking the leap. Even though, yeah, I was incredibly nervous about it, but I love it here.

I think at this point the haters or the naysayers; they get it, they get it because now you’ve got satellite radio, you’ve got podcasting, you’ve got streaming, you’ve got clubhouse content. It’s really about the content. 

Like all these different nuances are part of the same driver. It’s all about content through various mechanisms and different technology. But at the end of the day, it’s still the same content. And if you make it compelling enough, if you make it great, yeah, they’ll consume it. 

Kevin: What do you think about commercial radio today?

Dion: There’s always going to be a place for commercial radio. There are always going to be people who want to hear how the weather will be in their market, even though they can get it on their phones. There’s always going to be people who want to hear about the local state fair, who want to hear air talent that sounds like people in their city with accents that sound like their city, and that level of authenticity. So it’s not going to go anywhere, but obviously, the audience has been fragmented. 

I talked to a lot of young heads who don’t have a favorite radio station like you and I had growing up. They don’t have a favorite DJ that they’ve modeled themselves after coming up in the game. That has no place for them. Moreover, whenever I interview and talk with young artists, they too have that disconnect from commercial radio; they don’t know how groundbreaking Hot 97 was or Kiss FM. They don’t even know what the call letters mean. So it’s a matter of just going back to the basics. I keep saying, like, make the content compelling, and they’ll come. Like, stand above the fray and they’ll come. 

I think that commercial radio needs to switch up its game and diversify its techniques. 15 years ago being here at SiriusXM, Kevin, if I wanted to find the next big star, I looked at a small market guy or female, who’s kicking ass in the afternoon drive in Topeka in the morning, in Biloxi. 

Now, we’re still looking at those guys. But I’m also looking at the podcasters. I’m also looking at the social media followers with almost a million followers because from a business standpoint, I want those followers to become my subscribers. 

And with their level of content, they don’t have a lot of the radio baggage that we came up with. They don’t have to have a slick voice, and hit a post and people don’t care about that kind of stuff anymore. Like can you relate to your audience? So I think they need to widen their talent pool and go kind of outside their comfort zone a bit and find those engaging talents because that’s where we’re headed. Like the youth drives the culture, always. 

Kevin: But you know what, I always ask programmers this question because this has been brought to my attention before that they are trying to find podcasters to put on the air, and the first question I always ask is podcasters have the advantages that we didn’t: the corporations are coming directly to them, they’re making a lot more money, they have a worldwide audience, they work for themselves, they can do everything from home. What is the appeal to go work for a radio station?

Dion: In our situation to offer a podcaster the platform that we have will take their podcast to a different level. We recently acquired Stitcher, a podcast company so we’re officially in the podcast business, which is another reason why SiriusXM attracts me so much because the company always has stayed on top of where the trend is going. 

We acquired Stitcher. We acquired Pandora. We’re now in the digital space. So we’re not resting on our laurels because at the end of the day, our earliest adaptors are now arguably in their 60s. So if we didn’t reverse age our platform, our business would suffer immensely. 

So, now when I encounter a podcaster, I say, okay, we will align you with our podcast company. We’ll enter into a revenue share with you as a podcast host. Additionally, we’ll give you added audience by allowing you to leverage your podcast content on our radio platform. 

So we can offer these different lanes that commercial radio can’t to make these guys more amenable to coming on our side. Because you’re right, like they’ll look at us and say, who are you? And there’s the answer. 

Kevin: Have you tried it already? Where you brought podcasters in? 

Dion: We have, yeah.

Kevin: How has that worked? 

Dion: It’s still in its infancy. We’re still trying to figure out from a business standpoint how to make it make sense for the company and make sense for the host. 

We have taken those strides. We’ve looked at some of our internal talents with high numbers and high listenership, and many followers that we can convert over to the podcast side. So we’ve done it. 

It’s still a work in progress. But we all realize that that’s where it’s going instead of the overnight to the morning shifts. Like that’s going to bring people on and reverse age on a platform back from the 60 year old white man, the gadget guys that we initially appeal to back in our infancy.

Kevin: Right. What is your exact job at SiriusXM? 

Dion: I am VP of Urban Music Programming

Kevin: Okay. What does that entail? 

Dion: So basically, I’ve got a team of eight programmers who directly report to me about the programming, the music selection, the talent selection, the marketing promotion of their radio stations. 

I directly program one of the stations and I am a player coach. I directly program The Heat, which is our flagship, mainstream hip-hop and R&B station. And then, we’ve got 13 other brands that play hip-hop, R&B, gospel, classic hip-hop, current hip-hop, classic R&B, current R&B, Afro beats. We have a few artists targeted stations curated by Kirk Franklin, LL Cool J. Drake. And I oversee the programming team that builds and maintains those radio stations.

Kevin: I was going to ask that question too. When I see like LL Cool J has a station, does he actually come in? How does that work? 

Dion: Let me tell you, because people ask me that question a lot. Like, every artist is different in how they engage with the radio station. LL Cool J is that rare jewel, Kevin, where he is so in the weeds on his radio station. When we built Rock the Bells radio, and we flew out to LA to visit him and his team about six times over the course of about four months, right, some back to back weekends, where I would literally get on a plane, get off in LA, go right to the conference room, be there all day, then leave, on a red eye back to the east coast. 

And when this guy goes song by song, every single song was vetted by him. Yes, no, maybe come back to it. You know, every single song, every production piece, every specialty program, he is so involved in the running of that radio station to the point where if he hears a song that he knows he didn’t vet, he’ll make a call on it.

Like, he’s that laser-focused on his brand. And I love it. Like, as a fan, you knew the guy. Obviously, he was smart; he wouldn’t be where he is if he wasn’t. But his attention to detail is like second to none. So every artist is different.

He and Kirk [Franklin] are similar in the sense that he very much is into the curation of his music and the songs that are played on Praise (Channel 64), but he is not as involved in the imaging aspect in the production aspect of it. But very, very linked musically to like making sure that every song on Praise kind of reflects himself, and that we’re playing hits, and are appealing to a younger audience, but by the same token, not leaving out the older audience.

Kevin: I know that you can’t tell me who but have you ever had any disasters? 

Dion: In terms of what, artists-curated stations? 

Kevin: Yeah.

Dion: Yes. 

Kevin: And so how do you examine that situation and make sure you don’t make the same mistake? Or is it possible to do that because it could just be based on ego or whatever else? 

Dion: So what we do is let them know like we’ve done this so many times. We’ve done this pop up, permanent channel, we’ve done this, so much, Kevin, the spiel is always the same at the outset. Like what we didn’t do, we didn’t do the spiel early on. Like premerger, there was an artist, a noted classic hip-hop icon that we partnered with for a brand new channel. But we didn’t have the talk about the music, the imaging, the branding, the marketing, the promotion. It’s not like we’re going to give you a logo and slap your name on our lineup in that stack. With us, it’s a deeper thing. 

So we’re going to have that conversation early on with that particular artist. So it was a very hands-off approach. So when we built it with his hands off of it, and they heard it, he or she, they heard it, and they weren’t a fan of it, like, well, we tried to tell you from the beginning like this is what we do. 

So now we’re very specific about exactly what we’re doing. And it’s a buy-in thing like we want you to do the buy-in to the concept that we’re doing, but give you enough leeway to let your brand shine. So ultimately, we signed you up for a reason, right? We signed you up for your brand, so we don’t want to infringe on that; we just want to bring the radio element to it.

Kevin: So, how’s the company doing overall? 

Dion: Overall, surprisingly, and I think, surprisingly, in the kind of year that we’ve had, the past year(s) of COVID, very well. We have our most recent earnings call; subscribership is up, revenue is up. And praise God, you know what I mean, it turns out that being quarantined in the house really worked for us. And it was a pleasant surprise because historically, our bread and butter have typically been in the auto industry. 

So it goes the auto industry. So it goes SiriusXM. You get a free trial on your rental, you get a free trial on a new and used car, and after that 30 days, you love us so much that you begin to become a paying subscriber to the service. 

So the auto industry has been the main driver for years. But like I said earlier, going into a younger space, we have to diversify how we attract and retain subscribers. So we become a lot more in-depth into the app space, the online space, and the acquisitions of Pandora and Stitcher, like I mentioned earlier. It just made us more attractive. And being that we’re all at home wanting to listen to music and have escapism from when we work in the office, we’ve managed to do well. 

And I think that’s the combination of our diverse portfolio. But also, I go back to it again, the compelling content. I’ve got as many artists on my roster between the LL Cool J’s and the Eminems and the Kirk Franklin’s as my peers on the rock side and the country side and the pop side. It’s about building compelling content that makes people want to come in.

We had a major score when we landed the Drake channel this past year. That was huge. From an urban standpoint, from a pop standpoint, he’s a pop star, biggest pop star on the planet. So, great content always wins. And we just made it easier for subscribers to access that content. 

Kevin: You know, it appears that, well, you just mentioned Drake, I just thought about something else, a Lil Nas X channel. It appears SiriusXM would be prime to have a Little Nas X channel. I don’t know. Just something different, I mean, because I would see that more with a SiriusXM than a commercial radio station feature. 

Dion: Yeah,  You know, one of the biggest things from day one, man, and the thing that lured me away from commercial radio when I came on board was how aggressive this platform is, right? Aggressive in the sense that we don’t wait for add dates to play a record. We don’t wait for the label to tell us what the single is. We use our metrics, our research, sales data, streaming data, Shazam data, and good old-fashioned gut to make our programming decisions. And we like being aggressive. We like being a leader.

I always tell my programmers things like, you’re the most aggressive urban AC R&B programmer in the country. So we lead the charge, even on our goal-based channels. 

Soul Town, how many times can you reinvent classic soul? Through imaging, through your hosts, from being engaging through and having stars on who are in that world who can speak to coming up in that time, and playing music that resonates with that audience. Like, there’s always a more aggressive level that we can take to stay ahead.

And so to your point, someone like a Little NAS X, we would definitely look at for somewhat of a pop-up channel. I mean, his library isn’t as extensive for an actual 24/7 channel, but a channel with him and his influences.

Kevin: Now, the last time I saw you was at the BET awards, and you were doing interviews. I mean, with your status at this point, I guess I don’t want to say why, but is there a need for you to be in the trenches like that? 

Dion: No. But I love being a player-coach, right. And believe me, Kevin, the second that I get on the other side of that, I’m out. The second that it rings inauthentic, I’m out. But being on this side has always been my first love. 

And now, like I said, as a player-coach, I can be a boss on the sidelines, or I can suit up and play the game too. And I think that makes you a more well-rounded programmer, more in tune with your audience, or in tune with your radio station. So it’s like the icing on the cake for me. It kind of gives me that plus one advantage in being a programmer, and I love it. And the way things are now, I’m able to voice track my show more so, I mean, I’ve been voice tracking here from this apartment in Harlem for the past year. But I’m able to voice track myself. 

So it’s not like I’ve got a six-hour commitment throughout my day in addition to my VP duties. I could do a six-hour show in about an hour and a half, which leads me the rest of my day to do the actual job. So I think it makes me more versatile as a programmer, and I enjoy it. 

Kevin: How do you break away from all this? 

Dion: I’m going to break away. I’ll begin by saying that it’s hard to because I don’t say I’m working from home; I say I’m living at work. Because right now all the parameters are off, like after we wrap up, maybe like, you know what, I’m going to go schedule Wednesday now. Like there are no parameters anymore. But I’ve learned to recharge with the people that give you energy, people to provide you with life. I’m blessed to have a few of those in the industry.

I’ve got friends who are very much not industry, I’m very connected to my family still. I’ve got a very close knit family and was in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago, and I just recharge with like people that really, really matter because none of this is real. 

I tell my programmers, we don’t own any of these brands. I don’t own The Heat. I don’t own Hip-Hop Nation. I don’t own Shade 45, and I don’t own any of them. I’m the guy in the seat right now, maintaining and building a brand for someone else. And I understand.

Kevin: I can’t speak to that. But I understand what you’re saying. 

Dion: Yeah. I know my position. And I know my lane. So when I break, I break. Like, when I disconnect, I disconnect. But you know how this job is. You can’t totally disconnect from it. You can’t at all. But I try to unplug whenever I can. It’s family. It’s friends. I’m a very competitive Taboo player, very competitive games player, like that’s when I get in my like real zone, zone. It takes moderation.

Kevin: I’m learning to stop. Because in the process, I always say that if you want to keep living, keep working. Because I’ve seen so many people die waiting for a gig; for the 27 years I’ve been doing this. But I’m also learning. Okay, nine o’clock, cut it off. No matter what’s not done, cut it off. It is much better to have early mornings then late nights. 
Dion: Friends have told me that.

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