Circle’s Drew Reifenberger On Launching A Network—Then Revamping—During A Pandemic

Circle Network GM Drew Reifenberger

On Jan. 1, television network Circle celebrated the New Year by launching with a hefty slate of country music programming, with shows including “Craig’s World,” “Phil Vassar’s Songs from the Cellar,” and “Opry Live,” a two-hour program featuring performance highlights from the Grand Ole Opry’s week of shows.

However, just 2 ½ months into the network’s launch, everything from live concerts to television productions shut down as states began implementing stay-at-home orders and banned gatherings to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, March 12, Nashville’s leaders began implementing shutdowns throughout the city. Within approximately 36 hours, the Grand Ole Opry and the CIRCLE network pivoted. Even as the Opry had to close its doors to in-house audiences, the show continued its 95-year tradition of broadcasts, airing on Saturday, March 14, with a revamped, one-hour live broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry House, featuring Jeannie Seely, Connie Smith, Bill Anderson, Mandy Barnett and more.

Since March, CIRCLE has helped to bring viewers the live, one-hour broadcast each Saturday night—bolstered by performances from Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Luke Combs, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, Brad Paisley, Keb’ Mo’, and more. In the process, the show has become the only show of its kind during the ongoing pandemic, offering a weekly, high-quality production of live music from a public venue. The show is broadcast live on Circle and Gray TV stations, DISH Studio Channel 102, Sling TV and other TV affiliates, as well as live streams via Circle All Access Facebook and YouTube channels and Twitter, and aired on Nashville’s WSM-AM and SiriusXM.

“There was no planning for this,” says CIRCLE General Manager Drew Reifenberger. “But we were able to shift pretty dramatically, namely with the Opry itself, but also with a number of other programs that we’ve been able to produce in this limited sort of way. We have “Circle Sessions.” We’ve been able to maintain our morning show, “Coffee, Country & Cody,” obviously a lot more remote and with fewer artists in the studio, and then a series of live stream shows. So it was an adjustment for sure, but our mission and mandate never changed, how we do it just changed a little bit.”

Those decisions have paid off. A recent SmithGeiger research study from April 2020 showed that 43% of Circle Network’s potential audience was already aware of its existence and 83% had already viewed some of Circle Network’s programming. The study also suggested that just over half of Circle Network viewers who have never attended the Opry intend to do so in the future.

Circle Network also just announced season two of Vassar’s “Songs From The Cellar,” which is filmed at Vassar’s home wine cellar, will launch Sept. 10, with artists including Kix Brooks, Brothers Osborne, and more.

MusicRow caught up with Reifenberger to discuss how Circle Network has adjusted course—and even thrived— during the ongoing pandemic.

MusicRow: Circle Network and the Grand Ole Opry had to shift your game plan within a very brief timeframe once large performances were shut down. What was that like?

Reifenberger: In just over a day’s time, we said, “Hey, people can’t come to the Opry. We got to bring the Opry to the people.” We worked with the tools that we had. The Opry show wasn’t live at that point, we were doing the weekly compilation show. So we said, “Of course, the Saturday night Opry has to remain consistent, right?” Because with a more than nine-decade run, we weren’t breaking that on our watch. That was never an option. The show will go on. If it’s a camera on a tripod and an artist holding a flashlight, we will not break that streak, I assure you.

So we went live through the network and then we decided to open up a livestream, which we had not done at that point. We went to our affiliate partners and said, “Hey, would you like to take this live as well?” And, and over 80 of them signed on. The Opry is this place that brings people together, heals people. And the Opry has always been this steady community-oriented institution that brings that comfort, support, and frankly, a little distraction, which we all need at times right now. And so we never missed a beat. It was because we had a great team that could move on that dime, so to speak and take a format and completely change it in 36 hours. And then we’ve been learning every week since we’ve tuned and adjusted, but we never stopped.

How did the actual filming of the Opry show have to change?

It was a combination of a few things, not the least of which is we kind of deconstructed the master control, and we moved some people to different rooms to ensure the six feet of spacing. We added some plexiglass walls, those sorts of things. We just spaced everybody out that we needed to, then we stuck to the protocol of no more than 10 people in any one zone. As we moved on from [Phase] one, you’ve seen a little more onstage, with backup bands and supporting bands, than in those first few weeks where we were purely acoustic. We follow very strict protocols. We don’t want to have anybody to get sick, and some artists are more concerned than others and some like to take additional precautions and we support that. We’ve had staff and crew make certain requests that we’ve recognized and honored. We’re all getting through this together.

How has content been affected for other Circle programming?
Certain shows can be done remotely, because it’s all based on library archive footage put together in a very contemporary, fresh approach. But those producers and editors can all do that via phone and Slack. We’ve gotten very good at that remote editing, producing. So anything that comes that is library-based, we’re very good at it.
Others, like Circle Sessions, which is a new show we created, is actually potentially very freeform, because every week’s kind of a new adventure. And we build the show around the artist. Some perform, some don’t perform. Some are interview-centric, some are storytelling-centric. And that we’ve been able to do, initially in a more of a Zoom sort of format, and then as the world opened up a little bit, we’ve been able to do it in person, obviously social distance. And then live streams. We’ve done mid-week live streams too, outside of the Opry, with our friends Dailey & Vincent, and some others that have been very successful.

Artists can’t be on the road promoting their music, for the most part. What have those conversations been like with artists as far as Circle being able to offer them a way to get their music to the fans as things have kind of been scaled back with touring and other areas?

I think back to, for example, the “Circle Sessions” show. If you’re releasing music right now, there are not a lot of options. I mean, there’s plenty of radio shows you can call into, but that’s about it. So the ability to come on and do a Circle Sessions, the week you release some music, is just a win-win for everybody. The same thing with “Coffee, Country & Cody,” having a three-hour live morning show that, they can really have some meaningful involvement with, is been of great interest to the artists, managers, agents, and so forth. And then the Opry itself, as we’re streaming the Opry now, artists themselves are also cross-posting and doing a bunch of streaming activity.

It is interesting how the Opry feels very full-circle right now, as fans and the industry gather together—virtually—to watch one show on Saturday nights.

I completely agree. Look, I spent the last 20 years trying to condition people away from appointment viewing. And I am now working on one of the biggest appointment viewing shows going right now, for sure—a live, weekly show. We have so much feedback from people, saying, “Thank you for doing this. I look forward to this, it makes my week.” And it’s a responsibility that we and Dan [Rogers] and Gina [Keltner] and the team up at the Opry take very seriously, because a lot of people are counting on us.

How has the Opry’s popularity right now helped Circle Network in terms of new opportunities?

There’s no question that it’s elevated Circle. In a way, I wish it wasn’t the case, from a standpoint of this being during a global pandemic, but it absolutely elevated us in such a way that people are noticing us probably at a faster rate. From a sponsor standpoint, there are not many doing live original things like we’re doing, that they can get involved in. So it’s helped us for sure to attract some additional advertisers and sponsors.

When you announced the launch of Circle in January, that included a full slate of programming. What is ahead in terms of programming?

We started with a very strong slate and frankly, that’s why we’ve been able to stay as fresh as we have without being in original production. We started with 17 signature series, which is a lot for a network, and it’s quite intentional because we were trying to make a statement. And at the time, that’s why we did it and now it’s turned out to be invaluable in that we had a lot of fresh content to take us well into the end of the year. So that’s the medium-term plan. The short-term plan is we are identifying a few more original shows that we think we can produce responsibly, that don’t require audiences, and don’t require big production crews.

What have the viewership numbers been like during this time?
We did do some research, just a few weeks into the pandemic that showed 43% unaided awareness among country music fans, and that’s really high. I think it speaks to the thesis that country music fans are just so underserved. I think it’s really interesting that we’ve gotten so much done so fast. And that’s really before Opry sort of took off, and really before some of the bigger names, before Garth and Trisha, and Blake, and Keith Urban. We were sitting there with 42% unaided awareness. And those who’d seen us were 83% likability, that’s really high.

You relocated to Nashville to begin working for Circle. What have you enjoyed most about working in Nashville?

There’s a lot of humanity in this town that you don’t get in other aspects of entertainment and sports, and the way they support each other. You don’t see that quite so much in New York and L.A. Also, the way they help younger artists up. I think they just, everybody has a very similar background, with the exception of maybe some true overnight successes. They had some hardscrabble experiences, playing the lousy sets early on, or sleeping in a car. That struggle doesn’t seem to leave them—it stays and it creates a real level of humility that I’ve never seen in sports or other parts of entertainment. And at times like this, where you see it come out and people are asking, “How can we help? What can we do?” and that’s without being asked. I’m not saying that there’s not plenty of celebrities doing plenty of important things right now, but I think it’s just a different feel here.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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