Not every storyteller in country music picks up a guitar or stands behind a microphone to sing. Drew Reifenberger serves as General Manager of Circle Network, a Nashville-based country music and lifestyle network launched in January 2020 just before the pandemic hit. The veteran executive views his role as someone who helps share stories and serves as a conduit to bring artists and fans closer together.
During an engaging conversation with Sounds Like Nashville, Reifenberger admits his job isn’t easily defined. “My kids keep asking me the same question,” he laughs when asked exactly what he does. “I just don’t know how to describe it. It’s really about putting together the team to create these memorable performances and great storytelling. Storytelling is a really big part of what we do. Everybody really focuses on, ‘Oh, it’s a music channel. You’ve got musical performances.’ And we certainly do, but it’s really about connecting fans with artists, and artists with fans. That’s my job. My job is to connect fans with artists they love and artists with the fans that they love and want to be closer to.”
Obviously Reifenberger is good at his job. An Emmy Award-winning producer, he has been featured by The Hollywood Reporter on its “Hollywood IT List” of top 15 Hollywood executives that really “get” the internet. Variety has saluted him as one of the “30 execs, engineers and visionaries who are shaping the future of entertainment tech.” Circle was named Pollstar’s No.1 Livestreamer for 2020. The network is currently entertaining more than 76 million users by partnering with streaming giants Roku, Samsung, VIZIO, and others to bring country music and lifestyle programming into homes everywhere.
“There’s no question people were looking for three things in this last year,” he tells SLN. “They were looking for escape and comfort and just to be entertained. We checked all of those boxes. We were a great place to escape what was going on and we hoped to have brought great comfort. Certainly the Opry did. The Opry has been about comfort and joy for 95 years and so at a time like this it’s just wildly reassuring to have this every Saturday night. People know they can go there for an hour to escape and be entertained and uplifted. We had a really important role in that, and if you watch our socials, it was self-evident. People are looking forward to it every Saturday night, and then we built out from there. We started doing our morning show and Circle sessions and some of these other things. So it was a very positive year in many respects for Circle.”
When he assumed the reins at Circle, Reifenberger brought a wealth of experience to his new role, including an 18-year tenure at Turner Broadcasting, serving as founder/CEO of Vunify and working on 5G deployment for Deutsche Telekom. He graduated from Auburn University with a BS in Business Administration and a Major in Marketing, but got a jump on his career while still in high school. “Somewhere in my senior year, I had an opportunity to move to LA and work on the Summer Olympics 1984,” he says. “I’d never even been on an airplane before. I was working for Coca-Cola, so it was all around promotions and street teams and hanging banners and all that kind of stuff you do in promoting a big event. I immediately knew that that’s what I really liked. I liked creating experiences, creating content that connected things. I found that fascinating, so all through college I continued to work on that.”
His association with the Olympics continued. “I moved to South Korea in 1988 to work on the summer Olympics over there,” he says, “so by the time I graduated, I actually had quite a bit of experience in what was then kind of an emerging sports marketing field. I was pretty unique in that I really got into it right out of high school. By the time I got out of college, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.”
After college graduation, his first job was at a sports marketing agency called The Strategic Group. “Sports marketing was emerging as it’s own discipline around that time,” he recalls. “Brands and sports had always gone together for a long time, but it really become an organized discipline. I joined a sports marketing agency and about a year into that, I got a guy named Ted Turner as a client and Ted was putting together the Goodwill Games. I had a lot of Olympic experience so a mutual friend hooked us up. I worked for him for a period of time and then he talked me into working full-time, so that was a beginning of an almost 20 year run working for Turner. I started in the fall of 1990.”
Reifenberger has fond memories of working with the media mogul. “When I started out, I was Director of Sports Marketing, but the insight that Ted had was that sports will drive distribution of our networks, mainly TBS and TNT. They’d done some sports over the years, but were ready to launch TNT as a national network and ready to get into sports in a big way so the team was assembled. It sounds silly today because sports is on cable, but in 1990 that was not the case. So we created the Sunday Night NFL package that was originally a package shared by TNT and ESPN. That was a big deal to get NFL on cable and the Olympics and all kinds of stuff like that, so we brought all the big named sports to cable. That was my first job and that was very successful.”
Reifenberger started Turner Sports Interactive and led the interactive media operations for NASCAR and PGA. During his nearly two decades with Turner, Reifenberger held different posts and earned a reputation as a visionary who was at the forefront of emerging platforms. “I ran kind of a multi-billion dollar programming portfolio and negotiated all the deals and that sort of stuff. I did that for some time and then we saw streaming coming in to what it is,” he says. “We recognized cable as this new way to serve audiences and I was on that early wave and we recognized digital and web and started that whole operation. Then we started recognizing streaming and video and started something called Super Deluxe, which was kind of a comedy studio and web operation. That was my last role at Turner.”
When asked why he left Turner, Reifenberger replies, “It was just time. It had been 18 years and two mergers. It was a different company. Ted was all about taking chances and trying things and I just love that so I was ready to do something more entrepreneurial.”
Reifenberger founded and served as CEO of Vunify, which he ran for three years. He then worked on entertainment programming and product strategies for Augmented Reality and 5G deployment for Deutsche Telekom. “Then [Circle] came along and this is the center of the bullseye for what I love doing— to get this insight of this underserved audience and then the big chess game of how do we assemble our product to serve them,” he says. “I’d always been interested in music and the business of music. It’s so intellectually and creatively interesting. Sports doesn’t create the product. There’s an event and rules and all that kind of stuff so you are really just doing the best you can to present the experience, but here you really get to produce the whole thing. You get to produce a show and the music and the stories you tell around it. I just love that. It’s so interesting and I’m really enjoying the industry in Nashville.”
Reifenberger is proud of the diversity of programming Circle offers and talks excitedly about such shows as Upstream with Elizabeth Cook, The Bellamy Brothers’ Honky Tonk Ranch, Phil Vassar’s Songs from the Cellar, Dailey & Vincent, Jesus Calling and of course, Opry Live. But he admits the pandemic has prevented Circle from creating as many new shows as he’d hoped. “The part we got hurt the most in is we weren’t able to build a bunch of our originals because of COVID, so that was a tricky thing, but we’re very proud of our originals that we launched,” he says. “And we’ve got a lot of classics like Hee Haw and Opry Classics. What you are seeing here is more than just the music. It’s the lifestyle. We believe that fans today aren’t simply fans of the music. [They] want to have a full experience with the artist they love. They can get the music lots of places, but they want to know about them—their inspirations, their background, their story, their kids, their interests, passions, foods, fishing. Our job is to bring all that together in a much more kind of complete picture.”
After a year on the job at Circle, Reifenberger couldn’t be more excited about the team of people he works with and the music and stories they get to share with their viewers. When asked to name his favorite memory during his first year at Circle, he responds, “My best memory I’ve had 100 times and it’s every time I meet somebody in the industry just how humble and human everybody is. I find the humility in this business dramatically different than anything I’ve experienced in sports or Hollywood. There’s just a tremendous sincerity and humility no matter how big you are to stop and take time to talk to people. They all have this common path—a lot of years playing run down places and all that kind of stuff—but no two stories are the same. It’s amazing.
“Obviously the early weeks in the pandemic with the Opry with no audience was very memorable, trying to navigate that. It was very emotional with this empty house,” he says reflecting on the times when there was no live audience in the Opry House due to the pandemic. “Those memories obviously will always stick with me for sure. But mostly it’s every time I encounter people, just how nice everybody is and how helpful. I’ve had some really, really kind people who have taken me under their wing. There’s been big names who are not too big to help.”
For information on how to tune in to the Circle Network, visit circleallaccess.com.