An in-depth look at ESPN Audio and the future of sports talk radio
One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is sneaking a small radio into bed at night and spinning the AM dial in hopes of landing on sporting event. Like many sports fans of my era, I often fell asleep to the sounds of Jack Buck and Hank Stram calling Monday Night Football. My love of sports radio also goes back decades and I was fortunate to co-host a daily afternoon sports talk show on a 50,000-watt station in Buffalo as one of my earliest jobs. Eventually, my partner and I were replaced by the syndicated G. Gordon Liddy Show, which I always like to think of as Nixon’s revenge for my liberal mother.
Today, I continue to consume sports radio in mass quantities, though I do so now through various mediums and innovations including podcasts and satellite radio. One of those entities is ESPN Audio, which not surprisingly is the country’s largest sports radio network. Bristol management claims a remarkable statistic: 60 percent of the people in the U.S. who listen to sports talk radio listen to ESPN Audio.
I’ve been wanting to do an in-depth Q&A with a member of ESPN Audio management for some time (if you read this column, you are more than familiar with my likes and dislikes on that network). Last week I sat down with Traug Keller, who oversees all aspects of the ESPN’s audio business including talent, staffing, national programming content, scheduling and event production. After a couple of emails with ESPN PR, conditions were agreed upon: I agreed to ESPN's request that an ESPN PR staffer (Diane Lamb) sit in on the interview. ESPN agreed that the interview would be on the record at the start and anything off the record would happen only after SI.com's questions were concluded. We met at a midtown Manhattan pastry shop. Over the course of a 45-minute interview, Keller answered all the questions I asked, which I respect, even when I felt he was selling me The Bristol soap. Our conversation is below.
SI.com: Let me read you a quote from someone: "If you're not getting in trouble once in awhile you're not pushing things enough.” Who said that about sports talk radio?
Keller: Let’s see. I said that at a conference sponsored by Sports Business Journal. That’s what happens when they let me off script.
Why do you believe that?
Don’t take the literal translation of that, but what I do believe is you have to push your opinion out there, even if it makes people uncomfortable, including your own bosses. It doesn’t mean you need to be nasty or you need to be degrading. But it does it mean you need to kind of talk the talk in what I believe is a very authentic medium.
How would you define the line between pushing the envelope and going past that line? Is there a line you have in your mind that ESPN Audio on-air employers cannot cross?
This should be all our lines: Whatever you do, don’t make anything personal. We can’t preach that enough. Do we always succeed? No. Do we constantly have to remind ourselves that it is a privilege to have the microphone? Yes. You can be critical but you cannot be personal. I know it happens, but at least we strive not to do that.
How would you define the overall content philosophy of ESPN Audio?
I fall back on—and it is not a fallback, it is what I believe—that we take what we cover seriously but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I do think it needs to be fun. If you look at the front page of today’s newspaper, whether it is ISIS or immigration or Homeland Security or gridlock, I do believe people come to sports talk radio as an escape. We need to keep the fun quotient. Not that today’s sports is not really helping us out, but we need to be relentless in trying to strive for that.
How many listeners does ESPN Audio have per week?
We are just over 20 million a week.
What is the male-female breakdown?
It is a pretty heavy male to female skew: 80-20 male.
How many stations is ESPN Audio affiliated with today?
More than 500 affiliates and there are three owned-and-operated stations.
Let me ask you about some specific ESPN Audio personalities. In New York City, the nation’s biggest media market, the WFAN's morning team of Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton averaged a 7.9 share in for the last ratings period, nearly doubling the 4.0 for your national show featuring Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg.
In Philadelphia, Angelo Cataldi and his Morning Show have nearly double the local listeners of Mike and Mike among men 25-54. In Chicago, ESPN Radio gets beat in the morning. This is not to be pejorative about Greenberg and Golic who obviously have a national following, but why have you not been able to get traction in certain major cities with your morning programming?
Let’s take a step back. Sixty percent of the people who listen to sports radio in aggregate across the country listen to us. So we look at it in total. We also look at it in terms of our brand. We think Mike and Mike does a good job extending the brand of ESPN. We are not going to do what Boomer and Carton do on their show. It is just a different show.
Are you talking about doing local content or being more provocative?
Being more provocative. We can’t do that. I will tell you that a litmus test of mine for Mike and Mike and how it fits in with the brand is I want Mike and Mike to be able to be on with the moms driving the kids in the backseat to school. We get feedback on that, and it matters. It matters to our brand. Do we want to have the sports show of record where commissioners want to come to get their point of view across? Yes. All that stuff matters. It actually allows us to deliver an audience that advertisers feel very comfortable in and more and more today advertisers are trying to stay away from controversial talk.
We feel good about the brand we are putting forth. Now ratings are absolutely important. We added Cris Carter in the fall [to Mike and Mike] and it absolutely helped move the ratings. We’ve brought in [His and Hers co-hosts] Jemele Hill and Michael Smith from time to time and that has helped. We are doing things to constantly tweak the ratings. I’m not ceding it but I am telling you there is a larger picture.
How would you counter the perception that Mike and Mike is too vanilla for morning talk?
I think you can have that perception and in some ways we have had that perception. The changes you have seen in the fall are a reflection of that.
Mike and Mike’s content can sometimes come off as auxiliary PR or marketing for ESPN and a safe landing spot for guests as opposed to other sports shows where the hosts are more challenging of subjects. Fair or unfair statement?
I don’t agree with that. I think if you go back and listen to interviews, both Mike and Mike go about questioning differently, which is good, and you will see Golic get right in there. I would counter that tough questions are asked. Is it Outside The Lines? No. Is it meant to be an entertaining morning sports show? Yes. But I would say these guys are good questioners and astute there.
How personally disappointed were you with Bill Simmons that he took a public shot at Mike and Mike? [Simmons was responding to Golic, who called him an attention-seeker.]
Sometimes, like the sports we cover, we like to keep things in the locker room. That’s my answer.
What is a realistic timeframe for the full run of Mike and Mike? Fifteen years in an incredible run in sports talk radio on a national level. Is there a post Greenberg-Golic plan in place or is way too early to think about that?
I think it is too early. We have some exciting things that we are thinking about that will keep that show energized and dynamic for certain.
Let me read something to you:
“I could argue that if you still live in Cleveland at this point, you’re bringing unemployment on, couldn’t I?”
“If you live in Youngstown, Ohio should I have no sympathy that you’re unemployed? You’re kinda bringing it on yourself.”
“If you live in Ohio or Indiana rurally, you’re kinda bringing unemployment on yourself.”
As you know that’s Colin Cowherd talking about socioeconomics, or his version of it. Does the commentary I just read reflect the values of ESPN Radio?
I would say no. It does not reflect our values. We want our hosts talking about things that bring people in and get their interest, right? At the same time, we don’t want to make things personal. And we have conversations when things get personal.
As the head of ESPN Audio, how would you define management’s tolerance level when someone like Cowherd goes into areas such as socioeconomics, race, gender issues and areas that can become problematic for a Disney company?
I think if you look at Colin’s work on the whole, the total balance, it has been a very successful show for us with legions of fans. Three million people per week listen to it and another 1.1 million per week are watching [on television]. There are 750,000 people streaming him weekly. Part of the reason he has a big following (Keller said that Cowherd’s show had 1.4 million streaming minutes and 16.5 million podcast downloads in 2014) is he talks about a little bit of the intersection of sports and society. And there are times when some of that conversation is uncomfortable. Is it nearly as uncomfortable as what is happening in the rest of talk radio? No. He does push it a little bit. But he does engage people and that gets response. It produces loyal listening and also brings people in who don’t agree but are listening because he is piquing their interest or enraging them.
Do you believe this it is his opinion on-air or a radio act intended to provoke?
It is him. One of the things about radio is you have to be authentic. You cannot fake it for three hours with an open mic and no script. One of the great things about radio, I call it the great revealer. I have had the privilege of Paul Harvey and Tom Joyner and they revealed who they are. His is not a scripted act.
When it comes to specific comments from Cowherd, say about John Wall or Sean Taylor, there is a perception that certain talent at ESPN have a Jordan set of rules and he is one of them. Fair or unfair?
I would disagree on the Jordan set of rules. Colin is a unique talent. When you think about the amount of live, unscripted talk going on, there are always going to be times when things cross the line. However, I would not want to harness Colin’s energy and passion because it is what makes him.
So that we’re clear: In your opinion, he has never crossed the line where something like a suspension was warranted?
Not that I can recall.
What was your reaction to Cowherd calling out one of your former ESPN Radio employees, Dan Patrick, on the topic of work ethic?
I will not get into the locker room-type conversations.
Did you speak to Cowherd about it?
I did not. But that’s been an ongoing back and forth and to hang [just] Colin on that is unfair. But it is good fun and good radio.
I appreciate you answering those questions on Cowherd. Moving to another show: Scott Van Pelt-Ryen Russillo have received a lot of critical praise, and younger demos seem to like the show’s content. But the show appears not to have nearly the same external push that Mike and Mike and Cowherd get. Why?
Here’s what I will tell you: They are a great example of the new order of audio. The listener is in charge and you look at their streaming numbers, the downloads of their podcasts and their numbers on SiriusXM, they are excellent. Colin has a certain kind of audience, Mike and Mike have a certain kind and Van Pelt and Russillo have one. Their audience is younger, listening online and downloading the podcast. Do we have to do a better job of marketing it that way? Yes. It is a business issue with those guys. Have we figured it out to a degree with which I am satisfied? No, we have not.
They don’t have a third hour simulcast on television, correct?
They are on Watch ESPN. But I will tell you that if you look at the numbers on Watch ESPN, their demographic is on the cutting edge. You can make the argument that the Watch ESPN audience which continues to grow is in their sweet spot.
How critical can ESPN Audio hosts be of ESPN?
I think if you listen carefully, you hear it. You hear it if you listen to The [Dan] Le Batard Show and Colin has been critical and so have Van Pelt and Russillo. If we can’t poke fun at ourselves, then we are not staying true to our mission.
You recently changed your Saturday and Sunday programming dramatically including adding Sarah Spain and Prim Siripipat to the lineup. They are the only national show hosted by two women. How would you evaluate the current lineup of ESPN Radio?
I will tell you that the report card, which are the numbers, is very good. What is particularly good is our growth in streaming. You cannot just look at Arbitron and now Nielsen numbers. You need to look at the streaming numbers as well and that as a report card is we are doing well. I’d say given what we are getting back in terms of demo information and audio information, it is good. The weekend is a place for us to kind of bring people in and give them a chance and hopefully that is our bench. Honestly, there is a lack of female on-air talent. It’s a market issue. We are really doubling down on that. Women are increasingly more and more sports fans and they are underserved. There is growth there. Hispanics are underserved. There is a real opportunity there.
One of the things that came up when I asked for Qs on Twitter for this interview was the suggestion that Michelle Beadle would make for an excellent sports-talk presence. What woman might we see on ESPN Audio in the future?
Well, let’s first talk about Beadle. She started at ESPN Radio in New York. She worked with Michael Kay and Don LaGreca [the current afternoon team in New York for ESPN] and she was great. We were every excited about her. The folks on the TV side saw that, too. We are always looking. With the Rangers doing well in New York, Linda Cohn will absolutely have a role on ESPN Radio in New York as the playoffs come around. She’ll probably also do stuff nationally on hockey.
Okay, let me specific about Beadle. Do you see a day where she will be on ESPN Radio?
Right now she is as busy as anyone can be, so no. But we are talking to people outside of ESPN about opportunities. I see bringing in good, talented female hosts is a way to grow our audience.
Who are the people at ESPN Audio who make the decisions regarding which talent gets on the air?
From a business standpoint, Dave Roberts runs the network programming and content and reports to Mo Davenport who runs the network business and Mo reports in to me. Also, our owned and operated station program directors also ID people.
If there is one weekday part where you have had trouble establishing a personality, it is overnights. Right now the show is essentially SportsCenter for radio.
Look, we think about it all the time. Do we want to put in the added expense of a fully produced show overnight and keep people up all night long? It is a balancing act. Have we nailed it? No. But do we want to have a place where people can hear scores and SportsCenter updates, so for right now that is what it is. Also, the potential audience at that hour is so small that we want to have something brand worthy, but sinking a lot of expense in those hours is not worth it.
Your network has had a much bigger impact in the marketplace than CBS, Fox or NBC’s sports radio endeavors. Why have your national competitors been unable to have a similar impact on a daily basis?
We had an advantage of an early start. It’s the 10,000 hours thing. We have been at this for 10,000 hours so we better be good, we better have a lead. So I think it is a function of that and it speaks to ESPN in general. We treat every platform equally and I am not sure that is true everywhere. Audio is as important as anything here and I think that matters for the listener.
This is a local question, but it also speaks to your national talent lineup. In New York City, Mike Francesa is tripling the rating (7.5 to 2.5) over Mike Lupica when they compete against each other. New Yorkers have clearly stated that they do not find Mike Lupica a compelling radio voice in his home market. He has a long history of getting beat in New York City radio. Why put a guy on nationally who can’t draw in his own market?
I’ll disagree with the premise he has been on radio a long time. He was at WFAN 20 some-odd years ago briefly. So I would say he has not been on radio.
So let’s 'X' out long history and simply say history.
O.K., so the way radio works is things have to bake. So Mike Lupica, whether you agree with him or disagree with him or like him or don’t like him, is a New York voice with a following. If you look at the one day part where he has been on for an extended period of time, it is Sunday mornings and in New York he is up 13 percent year over a year in that time slot. You have to let things bake in radio. Radio takes time. I can go through the litany of Rush Limbaugh in Sacramento. It took years. And that happens for a lot of great radio personalities. So it takes time. You can disagree and say maybe [Lupica] is not the guy. And that’s O.K.
Well, I’d suggest most New York sports talk listeners have already made that clear.
We know we have a guy who has a following in New York and he does book among the best guests that ESPN books, period.
O.K., so I can be educated on this. Do you put him on the air with the idea he is taking some audience away from Francesa?
We don’t think about Francesa. I mean, Mike Francesa is iconic in the New York market and he has a following and that is the way radio works. Going back to your question about why are we doing better than NBC Sports and others, we had that huge head start. Well, the converse is true locally. WFAN has had a really long head start and that makes a huge difference in radio. The medium works with familiarity over and over again. So I think as a first mover and iconic figure, he has the lead. So when we are thinking about what we are doing, we are not thinking about [Franceca] because we can’t be that.
So you are happy with The Mike Lupica Show nationally?
Yes, and in a very important market.
Another New York-based question: Do you hold out hope that ESPN can make significant inroads against WFAN?
I absolutely do. I am a competitive guy and I like to win. But I look at our business in balance and in balance at 60 percent and growing leaps and bounds digital, I like our general direction. Do we win every battle? No. At ESPN we like to win every battle but we take the long view.
Do you like Adnan Virk as a radio talent?
Love Adnan Virk. Very talented guy. Adnan is one of those guys, you hear the smile in his voice. He comes across in a warm way. Talented.
What areas are still largely untapped for ESPN Audio?
I’m going to put forward a notion to you that I don’t think is radical but real: I think that terrestrial radio is still vital. Ninety-plus percent of the U.S. is listening. But right now 25 percent of our listeners are only listening to us via the screen, not terrestrial radio at all.
That’s pretty remarkable.
There had been 10,000 program directors at 10,000 radio stations telling you what to listen to. But what is happening now is the fan or the listener is really becoming in charge. What we need to keep thinking about it is having as wide a net as possible but putting out as much diverse and different programming, even simultaneously. You may want Colin Cowherd or [ESPN Chicago's] Waddle and Silvy and it’s now your choice. On the ESPN Radio app you can listen to the network stream or a local show in Chicago or Cleveland, or a podcast of Matthew Berry or the audio version of PTI. Now the listener is in charge and that is a fundamental dynamic change that is going on.
Your app had gotten mixed reviews on my Twitter feed. Are you satisfied with the usability and where are you in the iteration of the app?
We are in the first half of the first inning. We have five million people who downloaded it and you are right: We have some people that love it and some people who don’t like it. That is another area where you will see us evolve in a positive direction.
Let me ask one last New York City-specific question. Would you ever consider hiring Chris Russo to go head-to-head with Francesa?
You know Russo appears on Michael Kay’s show from time to time.
I do. It’s like Fredo and Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II.
We have a good relationship with SiriusXM and Chris appears on Michael’s show and I think he will continue to appear. But as for your previous question, I don’t see that happening in the near term.
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. ESPN MLB analyst Curt Schilling wrote a compelling post in which he outed those who tweeted sexual threats against his 17-year-old daughter.
1a. ESPN has acquired the U.S. broadcast rights to cricket's Indian Premier League. The three-year deal worth $12.4 million runs through 2017.
2. NBC has added boxing referee Steve Smoger and boxing historian Steve Farhood for its upcoming Premier Boxing Champions Series.
3. SI.com’s Matt Dollinger covered the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and came away with 50 notes, quotes and anecdotes from this year’s event.
4a. ESPN Films has some pretty cool shorts airing this week. Here’s the schedule.
5. The NBC Sports Group will air 10 mid-week Premier League matches including first-place Chelsea at West Ham United on Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
5a. Please collect your winnings if you predicted a feud between Lakers guard Nick Young and SportsCenter host Robert Flores.