Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up next: Daniel Norwood, who heads SiriusXM Radio’s NASCAR channel. This interview was recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read. Full disclosure: I occasionally do some work for SiriusXM Channel 90, so this could be viewed as a conflict of interest (but that’s not why I did the interview).
What falls under your purview for the NASCAR channel at SiriusXM?
First of all, thanks for inviting me to do this. I got my hair done. I hope I look good on the podcast. When you write the transcript, make sure I look this good, OK?
I’ll put in parentheses: “(Has nice hair).”
Thank you. I appreciate that. Make me look taller, if you would.
I am the Senior Director of NASCAR Programming, which is really a big fancy title. In radio terminology, it means I’m the program director. I always boil it down to say I do the hiring, the firing and decide what goes on the air.
So when shows come on like “Happy Hours” with Kevin Harvick, you’re the one that’s going out and got that and decided to put that on the air?
Yeah, you know, everybody has a boss. I have a great one, Steve Cohen. He has bosses, the President and CEO (of SiriusXM), and so forth. But yeah, it’s largely myself and my team working with Steve Cohen, and we just try to find something that’s unique and creative.
And in those particular cases (with Harvick), they actually came to us and said, “We have an idea. We’d like to see if you would be interested.” Of course, we were immediately interested. Then you’ve got to go out and try to find some sponsorship and find a way to pay for the show, and that’s kind of the genesis of how those things begin. It’s usually just with the passing of a conversation, usually at the garage or something.
That one came about because of the success of Tony Stewart Live. Tony used to do a show with us. He did a weekly program back in the early days, maybe back in 2007 when the channel first started, then dropped down to a handful of times throughout the year. But we got a lot of attention. I think they saw that, and of course Kevin is working on his broadcast career for the future when he hangs up the helmet and thought this might be a good place to go.
That’s pretty interesting. So obviously, there’s only one job like yours where you’re deciding all the NASCAR programming and all the hosts and all the shows. How did you get to where you are today? Did you grow up wanting to be in radio at all?
No, it was never in my mind in the early days. I wanted to be a psychologist, which in some ways I actually am today. “Sit down and tell me about your problems,” that’s a lot of times what we have to do in a managerial role. But that’s what I wanted to do for as long as I remember, I wanted to be a psychologist.
Secretly — and I never really said this to anybody other than my wife — I always wanted to be a comedian. That was my dream. To this day, if I could get over my stage fright — I never told anybody, I don’t think, but I’ve been writing comedy for 25 years. I write it every day, and it might just be a line, sometimes it might be a couple of pages, but I write stuff and I put it off to the side. I don’t know. One day, maybe. A friend of mine, I used to write, he used to perform, and it was a lot of fun.
Like stand-up material kind of thing?
Yeah, that’s what I enjoy the most, and when I’m away from the racetrack you’ll find me, if not in the movie theater, then in the comedy club or something like that. I just love to live in those environments. I find the more I’m around it, the more ideas that come my way.
But nevertheless, I was exposed to NASCAR as a kid. My dad is an architect. He works in Charlotte for a company called Metrolina Builders. And they were instrumental in doing some designs here at the (Charlotte) racetrack. They did things like the condos that were going up here at Charlotte Motor Speedway, they put on the siding and they put on the roofs and things like that. They also built the original Jeff Gordon shop — the 24 shop — they built the museum and a whole bunch of stuff over at the Hendrick campus, the original.
I would go to the racetrack because my dad would get tickets, and I remember vividly sitting at the track one time. I was not a NASCAR fan, didn’t know anything about it, but I remember very clearly this car going off around the turn, and the next thing you know he’s bumped someone and he bumped somebody behind him, slowed up, bumped somebody behind him, and he made this space. And I remember thinking, “I’ve never seen something like this.” But I couldn’t pronounce his name, I couldn’t remember it. It was Earhair or Airhart, Amelia, I don’t know – it was Dale Earnhardt, of course. And I never forgot how cool that was. But I never thought I would be doing something in the NASCAR world.
You asked specifically about radio. I never thought that I would be working in a NASCAR radio environment, but I started as an intern. If anybody is reading this and trying to figure out how to get into this business, I highly recommend an internship. It’s certainly easier when you do it like I did when you were pretty young.
Who were you an intern for?
In Charlotte, there was a program that originated from here but it was nationally syndicated, it was called Allan Handelman Show, and I started as an intern with Allan. It was so cool because I got to meet people like AC/DC, Jay Leno — he got the most interesting guests on that were relevant to the rock culture, but not specifically just rock and roll. He would have presidential candidates, but he would also talk about subculture things like pot or aliens or whatever he could do to entertain an audience late at night in the middle of the night.
And I found it fascinating, and from that, I got a part time job running a board. An interesting connection — it’s one of those six degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of things — the guy who gave me my very first paid job in radio was a guy by the name of Chris McKee, and Chris now runs the Motor Racing Network, MRN Radio. He paid me $7 an hour to come in and run the board and that spurred off into a full time job at another station — I worked in all-sports (radio) — and it kind of kept going from there. So it was all from an internship and who would have thought I would be here today? It’s been 22 years now I’ve been in radio.
As your career is progressing, what did your goals change into? Were you starting to think, “Wow, I’m moving up. Now I know how a show runs, now I know how a station runs.” How did that evolve as you were moving up?
It’s funny. I think most people that get into our business want to get on the air. And that’s obvious. That’s what you know. When you’re listening and you’ve never really thought about this business, you just assume that’s all there is to a radio station. You don’t realize that there are accounting people and there’s a receptionist at the front desk and there’s somebody that has to make all the commercials happen and the production department and there’s a ton of people behind the scenes, producers and board operators.
I wanted to be on the air, and I was at 99.7 The Fox here at Charlotte, it’s the heritage rock station in town. There’s a flagship morning show there called the “John Boy and Billy Big Show,” which is huge throughout the Southeast. If your readers haven’t heard of them, TheBigShow.com, you can check them out. They’re really a unique morning show and they do a lot with the NASCAR community.
So I started at The Fox and ran the board and worked my way up to being on the air and I thought, “Man, I’ve made it.” There was never any thought of going beyond The Fox. That was the dream.
Got on the air and it was the worst train wreck you’ve ever seen in your life. I was horrible. Awful. Terrible. The worst radio that’s ever happened. People love free stuff, and they would call in and if you’re giving away pencil erasers, they would just go, “Please give me a pencil eraser.” I was doing the middle of the night (shifts) and I tried to give myself some sort of consolation that maybe it had something to do with the time of day, but I think it was just that I was horrible.
I had a pretty good prize, it was like concert tickets or a CD or something like that, and “Caller No. 9 gets the package and we’ll tell you about it next.” We go to break. I didn’t get one single phone call. Not one. It told me that night, there’s not one person listening to me right now. Because if there was even one person listening, they would have won.
But it kind of put it into perspective that I was trying too hard. I was trying to be the guy that knows everything about rock and roll, when in actuality, right before we would come on the air, I’d be scanning through a book trying to learn about the song. I don’t know anything about The Cars or Eddie Vedder, so I’m going to read about it and see what I can say to make this a little bit more interesting. And it was not good.
But I found out by failing at that that I was good behind the scenes. I’ve told people many times when they try to get into this business and ask me for advice: “It’s OK to chase your dreams, but try really hard to listen to the universe. It will tell you what you’re supposed to do, and if you’re willing accept that, I think your life could be a lot better.”
Had I continued to chase that dream of being on the air, I probably would not be in radio right now. But I accepted that I was good behind the scenes and built a career out of it. And I’m really proud of the fact that after 22 years of being in radio, I’ve never once applied for a job. Every single time, I’ve been recruited. I like to think that’s because my work speaks for itself, and certainly I’m not doing it by myself — there’s a lot of people that are here to make me look good. But you asked about sort of the trajectory, and that’s sort of was the path that I took.
How did the Sirius thing come about? Was the NASCAR thing starting up and they’re looking for someone, and maybe you had a good reputation?
Yeah. 2006, I got a phone call, I was standing at WFNZ radio, I was working the all sports channel here. Mark Packer was the host, his dad is Billy Packer from CBS Sports, and we had a little bit of a regionalized sports show, syndicated in probably five markets in the South. I had made kind of a name for myself within that little world. Your listeners, your readers, they don’t know who I am, but in that community, it was kind of a big fish/small pond scenario. And I was really happy. I wasn’t looking for much else. It was just kind of like with The Fox: “Hey, I never thought this was going to happen, but here I am. I’m going to ride this for as long as they let me stay on board.”
And then it turned out that the phone rang one day in 2006 and a guy by the name of Steve Cohen, who was the senior vice president of sports programming at SiriusXM, he called and he said, “Hey, listen, we’re about to launch an all-NASCAR channel. XM currently has the rights. Sirius is taking over the rights.” This is before their merger back in 2009, 2010, something like that. And Steve calls and he says, “I already have the guy that I’m going to hire for this channel, but two people have told me recently you’d be smart to talk to Daniel Norwood before you pull the trigger.”
One of them was David Poole, who was a long-time writer for the Charlotte Observer, who went on to be the first host of “The Morning Drive” on what was at the time Sirius NASCAR Radio. David was highly respected in this business, I think you would probably agree with that. So he got Steve’s ear. It just so happened that David was one of my co-hosts on “Primetime with the Packman” on WFNZ, so there was some overlap there.
The other was a guy named Chris Weiller. Chris Weiller worked for the Charlotte Bobcats at the time, they’re now the Charlotte Hornets. It just so happened that Weiller is Steve Cohen’s best friend. And so two people that I knew recommended me to Steve and he made a phone call.
He said, “I already got the guy, but I’m just talking to you.” Before the end of the phone call, he said, “Would you like to come work for us?” I don’t know what I said or what I did, but for some reason it changed his mind. He said, “Before I can officially offer this to you, you’ve got to meet with NASCAR.” There was a vice president with the name of Paul Brooks, had to go meet with Paul. Met with Paul, and before I got back to my car, the phone was ringing and Steve made an offer and I was able to accept it.
So was there any hesitation at the time? Sirius now is a household name and satellite radio is clearly a dominant force. But at the time, was it as clear-cut for you, the decision?
Not at all. I was scared to death because, like I said, big fish, small pond. I felt like I had carved out a little niche for myself, and I was gonna jump outside of my comfort zone big time. I was worried about being exposed. To this day, I don’t consider myself a NASCAR expert. My hosts are experts. Our producers are experts. It’s not really part of my job to be an expert on the sport, that’s why we hire good people.
But I met with my uncle, who passed away right before the job started in February of 2007. And he told me at the time, “You’ve gotta do this.” He was a big NASCAR fan. He said, “You gotta do it.” He was a great mentor, he said, “Even if you do it for a year and the whole thing falls apart, you’re gonna have that on your resume for the rest of your life.” And he said, “National. Think of all the people that you could meet.” And I thought boy, I don’t take chances very easily, but there’s something about the way he said it.
And I had another mentor, Terry Hanson at the time, who was great with business, he was Ted Turner’s right-hand man and he sat down with me, we went through it. He helped me negotiate my salary — which by the way, thank you Terry, you did a great job. It was one of those kind of deals, where fake it ’til you make it, and I think that’s what we were able to do and now hopefully I’m not embarrassing myself too much and people like what they’re hearing.
So on a day-to-day basis now, you have your hosts, your have your regular shows that you’re putting on, and then people need to fill in so you’re looking at that. You’re trying to figure out what’s next for your channel and your hosts and your shows. What goes into your day-to-day job?
I spend a lot of time at the computer. To me, that’s not really what radio is all about, and that was kind of one of the problems with transitioning into this role. I’ve always been in a studio, and I’ve always assumed that that’s where you had to be in order to do radio. But I spend a lot of time in front of a computer doing email. I work remotely.
One of the things that a lot of listeners may not know is that our business model is such that the majority of our hosts work from their houses. Our producers and board operators are based in Washington D.C., and as the program director, I’m based in my home just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina in a small place called Lake Wylie, South Carolina. And so I work in a little small office at the house constantly creating schedules, listening to the channel, offering suggestions.
What I was able to bring to the channel was that I cultivated relationships over the years, I had about 10 years under my belt before I came to SiriusXM, and so those contacts have helped us to start the channel. If a new producer comes in, they don’t have those contacts, I have an open Rolodex. Usually they go, “What’s a Rolodex?” because they’re all so young. But we share resources. We’re always looking for new programming, we’re always looking for new talent, we’re always looking to take somebody who maybe isn’t an established name and hopefully create someone that can be our own. That’s the dream.
It’s a little bit more challenging in the world of NASCAR than it is in a stick and ball environment because NASCAR is in so many ways still a niche sport that you’ve got to convince people. They come to the track, they’re sold. They’re instantly sold and they’re coming back for life. But if they’ve only experienced it over the radio or television, some of them are apprehensive, and they don’t build that huge fan base, it takes them awhile. So it’s harder for us to find people. They’re already tied up with MRN or PRN and FOX, NBC, whatever the case. NASCAR.com, you know. But there have been a handful of success stories. People … that are willing to take a chance and get out of their comfort zone a little bit. You bring the NASCAR knowledge, so maybe let’s all work together to get you up to speed as a broadcaster. It works the other way as well. Bring me a seasoned professional as a broadcaster, and we can probably teach him the NASCAR stuff. But I always say, bring me someone that knows nothing about radio or about NASCAR and I’m very busy.
You mentioned earlier in the interview about internships and the importance of doing that. If someone has a dream of, “Wow, I’d love to decide who’s on ‘The Morning Drive’ 10 years from now or who replaces Moody in 20 years,” there’s a kid out there in college or something…
We are actively looking for the person that will help us replace Moody. Anybody listening, just in case he’s listening, I just want to make sure that that’s known.
So what advice would you have for somebody who’s looking to get their start and maybe follow in your footsteps one day?
Well, like I said, internships are certainly the best way. Some people are able to skip over that. But anything entry level, just get your foot in the door. Spending the time there, I can’t tell you how many times, whether I was being paid or not, how many times I’ve worked a night, a weekend, a holiday. I remember eating Thanksgiving dinner, sitting right there at the radio control board, and my family brought down a plate of food.
You know, it feels like it was, but I was having the time of my life because I was where I wanted to be. And, you know, honestly, if you can find people to support you, that’s a big deal.
I’m not embarrassed by this, but I’m not super proud of it either. So I don’t talk about it much, but I didn’t go to college. I was in high school when I got my internship, I was in my senior year, and it’s too long of a story to tell you here, but there was a program at school where they wanted you to do a project and a friend of mine did his on radio; I went with him, and that’s how I met the host that I got my internship from.
But I was going to be the first in my family to graduate college, and there was a lot of pressure: I’m an only child, and I just assumed I was always going to do it, especially if you’re gonna be a psychologist, they’d kind of like you to have a degree, right? So that’s what I thought I was going do.
When I found radio and decided that’s really where I wanted to go, I went to my folks, specifically my dad, and I said, “I’m loving this. And I had a conversation today that I never thought I would have.” Jeff Kent was the program director at WRFX in Charlotte and I went to him and I said, “Hey look, I’m going to be going off to college here pretty soon, my goal is to go to Carolina, I’d like to get a degree in communication and broadcasting.” As a matter of fact, John Boy and Billy had a scholarship program back then and I thought, “Maybe I could come back and work for you later on.” And he said, “Well, I have a job for you right now.” And I said, “Well yeah, but I’ve got to get this degree.” And I’ll never forget how he said this. He said, “Why would you leave a job that I’m offering you right now to go off to get a degree for you to come back and ask for the job that I’m offering you right now? Because this is what I would be offering you!”
And I’d never thought about it that way, so I’m back talking to my dad and he said, “OK, let’s not lose sight of school” — because at that age, the first shiny thing that you see, that’s what you chase after, and I think he was worried that maybe that’s what this was. So let’s go do this for a year, let’s not forget about school, then go get that degree. And that was 22 years ago. But the fact that I had my family’s support, without that, all the other opportunities that were presented to me really wouldn’t have meant anything.