Colin Cowherd, Sports Radio’s Biggest Star, Starts a Podcast Network

As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the radio industry, Colin Cowherd got a call from IHeartMedia Inc. telling him good news: His show had sold out of advertisements.

Many other radio programs had lost 75% of their ads at a time with no sports and no daily commute, but his show couldn’t find enough slots for all the marketing dollars looking for an outlet.

Sensing an opportunity, Cowherd went to Julie Talbott, who runs IHeart’s Premiere Networks, and proposed a new partnership. He would build up a business that could give them 2,000 more hours of programming, and IHeart would sell the advertising. But rather than host more shows on the radio, he wanted to start a podcasting company.

Now that plan is taking shape. Cowherd, 57, is creating a new podcast network called the Volume, where he’s the owner and biggest star. Cowherd will host a new podcast, which will anchor a network featuring more than half a dozen shows in total, including a basketball series hosted by LaJethro Jenkins and Dragonfly Jonez, and an NFL-focused program with Aqib Talib.

It’s a sign of the growing power of podcasts that one of the most popular sports radio hosts in the country is willing to put millions of his own dollars behind a new company. It used to be that hosting a radio show was enough. But Cowherd now reaches more people with other media, such as Facebook videos, than radio. And he knows that most listeners under 40 aren’t tuning in to terrestrial radio or cable TV, even if those are the media that still pay his bills.

“We’re in an on-demand world,” Cowherd said last week, speaking by videoconference from Manhattan Beach, California. “You can do real-time commentary now with no barriers. I don’t have to drive to a studio, don’t have to put makeup on. I don’t have to go to a studio and get miked up.”

Cowherd grew up listening to radio on the rooftop of his childhood home in suburban Washington state, where he could find signals to games from up and down the West Coast. He worked for a decade at local sports stations in Las Vegas and Portland, Oregon, before Bruce Gilbert, an executive with ESPN, gave him his big break. Gilbert was conducting a nationwide talent search to replace Tony Kornheiser, the legendary sports columnist turned TV host.

Now Cowherd, who hosts a daily TV show for Fox Sports 1, wants to return the favor.

“I can age more elegantly if I curate talent,” he said. “I want to create this really smart, thoughtful podcast network where I do for young people what somebody did for me.”

The pandemic also give Cowherd more time to plan his next steps. An early riser, Cowherd would finish his daily show at noon and have nowhere to go for the rest of the day. He had no sports to watch, no friends to see and no kids at home anymore.

When he got home, he’d scour the internet for promising young radio hosts. At the suggestion of a friend in Chicago, Cowherd tuned into a broadcaster named Danny Parkins. After 15 minutes, Cowherd had heard enough and wanted to offer him a job.

Rather than let IHeart or Fox Corp. own his new venture, he wanted to be in control and test out a couple of ideas about the future of sports media. The network will feature a few shows about sports gaming, including one hosted by gambling fanatic Alex Monaco, and another hosted by Parkins. FanDuel Inc., one of the leaders in daily fantasy sports, is the network’s presenting sponsor.

As sole owner, Cowherd stands to benefit if the podcast network takes off — as it did for former ESPN colleague Bill Simmons, who just sold his podcast company, the Ringer, for $250 million to Spotify Technology SA.

The idea is to create off-the-cuff content that isn’t watered down by an army of writers and producers.

“This will be the rawest, most authentic version of me,” he said. “It’s me at home.”

This could lead to controversy. Cowherd has gotten in trouble before for comments about Dominican baseball players and basketball player John Wall. But Cowherd is hoping his new podcast network is a creative and business challenge that will keep him relevant to a new generation.

Fans under 30 know him through YouTube. His sister watches him on Facebook. People over 60 watch him on cable. And listeners in small towns hear him on the radio.

“It’s my job to figure out ways to get to you,” he said. “It used to be I didn’t care about that; you had to come get me. Now you control the experience.”

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