For over 25 years, Traug Keller has been a steady force in the radio industry. 10 of his years were spent as the President of ABC Radio Networks where he led all aspects of network programming, affiliate relations, engineering, finance, research, IT, international programming, and marketing. The last 16 have been dedicated to ESPN where he’s served as Senior Vice President of ESPN Audio, managing all of the network’s business matters including talent, staffing, national programming content, scheduling, and event production. He added oversight of the ESPN Talent Office in 2016.
With Keller in charge, ESPN Radio has been the country’s largest sports radio network with programming carried by more than 500 stations, including 375 who operate as full time affiliates. Content is also delivered thru ESPN apps, SiriusXM, Apple Music, TuneIn, Slacker Radio, and ESPNRadio.com, which has been the most listened to live stream of any terrestrial broadcaster in the world, reaching more than 700,000 unique listeners per month. Altogether, ESPN’s audio division produces over 9,000 hours of talk and event content annually, reaching nearly 24 million listeners per week.
But on February 6th, Traug Keller will wake up without a commute to ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, CT. That will be the first day when he no longer bears the responsibility of managing ESPN’s audio business.
“It will take some getting used to, but I always earmarked 60 as the end of a corporate run,” Keller told Barrett Sports Media. “My favorite team growing up was the NY Knicks, especially the 1972-1973 team with Willis Reed, Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere. When Bradley and DeBusschere retired, I remember my dad saying to me ‘That’s great. They’re leaving while they still have something left.’ That always stuck with me. I wanted to be able to leave while I still had game.”
The decision to leave one of the most important positions in sports audio didn’t happen overnight. Keller started thinking about it within the past year, and when he initially told his bosses what he was considering, they had the reaction many industry folks did when we broke the news two weeks ago that Keller would be signing off.
“Are you nuts? That’s what they asked me,” said Keller. “When you’ve logged the corporate miles that I have, you start to realize there’s an end date. I loved ESPN. I couldn’t have worked for a better company with better people. The relationships I’ve made both internally and externally have been special and I’ll carry those with me forever. But there are still things I want to do in my life without being involved in the corporate world on a daily basis. It just felt like the right time to step away.”
But after twenty five years of working for a company, and having a large role in the growth of one of America’s most well known brands, it’d be understandable if one were to step away, miss the challenge, and seek to return. For Keller though, that’s not even a consideration.
“Oh god no,” Keller passionately voiced when asked if he’d consider reversing course. “I’m not Mike Francesa. This is it. As I told Jeff Smulyan, this is kind of like being alive at your own wake. Everyone has reached out and offered kind words, and they’re greatly appreciated, but I’m looking forward to watching the business grow from afar.”
Leaving a key position of this magnitude without a lot of lead time appeared curious at first. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to it. Anyone who knows Traug, appreciates how much he loves the audio business, how loyal he’s been to the company, and how talented of an executive he is. Keller though said it really was cut and dry. There was no internal pressure to move on nor was he looking for a different challenge inside the company. It was simply a matter of feeling like the time had arrived to move on.
The one wrinkle thrown into the situation was America Media. Having recently agreed to become the company’s COO, Keller said he initially planned to take a break from working, but the situation was one that he felt a personal connection to.
“It’s a calling. This came along and appealed to me. It was a chance to join a great team in the noble cause of expanding dialogue around faith and culture, returning to my Jesuit roots. I’ve been a longtime reader of America Magazine, and I’m excited about working with them.”
Though he’ll soon turn in his ESPN badge, and take on a new professional challenge, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pick his brain on a few industry items before he heads out the door. I was particularly interested in hearing his final assessment of ESPN Audio.
In the sports radio business, it’s common for industry people to have mixed opinions about talent. Everyone wants a station or network programmed to their personal tastes, which isn’t realistic. Knowing though that opinions are divided on ESPN Radio’s shows, I wanted to get Traug’s thoughts on the current lineup. As expected, he was steadfast in his belief that the network features great personalities and programs, and expects that they’ll continue to be an asset to local stations moving forward.
“One of the best things we did was give the morning show time to bake,” said Keller. “Golic and Wingo were just up 5% in the ratings, which is a reminder that sometimes you have to nurture things. We have a rising star in Will Cain. Le Batard has his audience which is extremely loyal, especially younger fans who stream his content on demand. Jason Fitz is another talent who I believe has a high ceiling.”
But where might the network need to improve to remain viable and important to local stations as it has over the past few decades? Keller offered a few interesting takeaways.
“It’ll be other people’s decisions, but having multiple offerings in the same dayparts to suit different affiliates is one way to go,” Keller shared. “I think a robust push will need to continue being made to push digital. In that space, it’s all about content. We’ve been fortunate to have some of the best talent in the business under one roof. It’s not rocket science, you build it, promote it, have patience, and consistently execute. If you do those things, it’ll work out most of the time.”
Having had the opportunity recently to hear from people following the news of his forthcoming retirement from ESPN, and reflect on his professional journey, summing up his proudest accomplishments in one or two sentences isn’t easy. When you’ve operated a national network for as long as Keller has, it’s hard to single out one or two decisions, but a few important choices and relationships stand out.
“At the top of the list was moving the company from radio to audio,” Keller proudly acknowledges. “It was important for us to make sure our audio content was available everywhere and anywhere, and to get our people to buy into that mindset. We formed a great partnership with Sirius, started streaming and working with Apple and Spotify, and have been fortunate to have great support from local radio stations. Those are just some of the things that I’m proud to have been a part of.”
Great executives win more than they lose, and Keller has done a whole lot of winning, but in every business, even the best have one or two decisions that they wish they could reverse. I asked Traug, ‘if there was one move over the years that he wished he could do over, which would it be?’ He didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Losing Colin Cowherd. I’ve got no problem saying that,” said Keller. “He’s a great talent, and special person, and we should’ve done whatever we had to do to keep him. That’s the one decision I wish I could change.”
With his giant presence on the verge of fading away from ESPN’s offices, the challenge of moving the network forward will now belong to Dave Roberts, Tim McCarthy, Scott McCarthy, Amanda Gifford, and Justin Craig. All five are no stranger to audio. Dave and Amanda have important roles in TV but have previously programmed the radio network. Justin’s spent most of the past fifteen years either programming at the network or in Chicago and New York. Tim has managed 98.7 ESPN NY along with the network’s play by play operations, and Scott recently ran ESPN LA 710 (Tim will now assume oversight of the station) and has been an integral part of running the network business with Keller for the past twenty years.
The leadership team that’s been assembled to move the company forward is a big part of why Keller has confidence stepping away. He says they’re not only ready for greater responsibilities, but they’re all audio people at heart who affiliates have formed relationships with over the years. By having qualified leaders ready to drive the company’s growth, Keller is thankful that he didn’t have to delay his exit.
As he prepares for a world with much less fanfare and chaos, it’d be understandable if Keller has days in the future where he wakes up missing the daily grind. Radio has been a large part of his professional life, and once the business enters your bloodstream, even a transfusion can’t get rid of it.
But with so much uncertainty facing the industry, how does he feel about its future? Will radio remain vital? Does podcasting become the phenomenon that many expect it to? Is sports radio permanently branded as a niche format with little chance of escaping that perception?
“Podcasting is going to continue to grow, that I do believe,” stated Keller. “But nothing replaces live listening, especially when it relates to sports talk. This format has a special connection. Just look at the combined share between Mike Francesa and Michael Kay this fall. You couldn’t find a sports fan in New York that didn’t know those two shows. I’m bullish on this business, but we do have to keep preaching to advertisers how the connection between listener and host in this medium is superior to anything that can be offered elsewhere. Collectively in the radio business we need to explain and demonstrate that in a powerful way.”
There is one item though that bugs Keller. It’s the way the radio industry is presented by other forms of media. Having seen firsthand how fruitful the radio business can be for a major company like ESPN, Traug points out that others should get a better read first on what’s really going on.
“This industry is not as sick as the media makes it out to be,” Keller reminded me. “The largest radio companies are suffering from debt, not cash flow. If you compare this business to print, radio’s actually pretty good. It’s held it’s own despite the onslaught of digital media. So much of the headlines revolve around some of the troubles that the big 3 have run into, but there are a lot of other radio companies that are growing. Good Karma for example has done a great job and continues to invest in audio. We’ve even turned over some of our digital selling to them because they understand it and have success with it. These type of stories aren’t always told, but they should be.”
As we wrapped up our call, I couldn’t help but put Keller on the spot one final time. He’s always been positive, supportive, and quick to give credit to everyone but himself, and he kept that streak in tact when I asked “so when the hall of fame comes calling, who introduces you?” In typical Traug fashion he replied “it’d be presumptuous of me to assume they will, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Traug Keller will exit ESPN Audio on February 5th with plenty of game left, leaving the network in position to remain successful for years to come. What he won’t have moving forward is the ability to put our annual lunch on ESPN’s dime. I guess that just means it’s time for Barrett Sports Media to pick up the next tab. Given what he’s done for this business, it’s the least we can do.
John Skipper To Speak At The 2022 BSM Summit
“In January 2021, Skipper’s plate became even more full when he reunited with Dan Le Batard to create Meadowlark Media. Since joining forces, the group has raised millions of dollars in funding, lured key talent to join the brand, and in April, Meadowlark closed a deal with DraftKings for a reported fifty million dollars over three years. Not too shabby for year #1.
Putting on a two-day industry conference comes with a fair share of challenges. Months are spent building sessions, selling sponsorships, and talking to so many people that by the time the event rolls around, all I can think about is reaching the finish line and avoiding major issues.
But then the event happens, and there are moments where I’m able to block out the noise for 30-40 minutes and just be present in conversation. It’s what I enjoy most. Being able to sit across from an industry leader who’s been successful in business, and pick their brain on the past, present and future of our industry is both personally and professionally fulfilling. Not only does it provide me with an education, but it helps everyone in attendance too. That’s my motivation for running this conference.
When we return to New York City on March 2-3, 2022, I’m thrilled to share that I’ll have a chance to do that once again with someone I’ve professionally respected and admired for a long time. It is an honor to announce that Meadowlark Media CEO John Skipper will join us for a special on stage conversation at the 2022 BSM Summit.
If you’ve worked in this industry or aspire to, then you’re likely aware of what John has accomplished. He’s seen the business from many different points of view and remains very much involved in helping shape its future. But before we discuss his present involvement, let’s revisit the past.
During his tenure with ESPN, John spent five years serving as company president where he secured a series of long-term, multiplatform agreements with key rightsholders such as the NBA, NFL, MLB, Major College Conferences, US Open Tennis, FIFA, the Masters Tournament and British Open, the College Football Playoff, and the Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls. He also oversaw the evolution of several brands including The Undefeated, Grantland, five thirty eight, and espnW among others.
Prior to becoming company president, John held the position as EVP of Content, which he earned after helping create and introduce one of the most successful magazine launches of the 1990’s with ESPN The Magazine. His understanding and belief in digital helped ESPN move ESPN. com forward in 2000, adding a paid section, ESPN Insider, and delivering a revamped site approach to generate more advertising. His foresight also spurred the launch of ESPN3, a television network producing more than 4,000 live events on the web and through mobile devices. If that wasn’t enough, John also supported the creation of the Watch ESPN app, played a key role in elevating the careers of many of the industry’s top sports media stars today, and oversaw the growth of ESPN Films, ESPN Radio, and many of ESPN’s key television programs.
After exiting the worldwide leader, John signed on as the Executive Chairman of DAZN. In January 2021, Skipper’s plate became even more full when he reunited with Dan Le Batard to create Meadowlark Media. Since joining forces, the group has raised millions of dollars in funding, lured a number of key talent to become part of the brand, and established a strong presence in podcasting and on YouTube. In April, Meadowlark closed a deal with DraftKings for a reported fifty million dollars over three years. Not too shabby for year #1.
What I’ve appreciated about John is that he’s never been afraid to roll the dice and take risks. Some of his moves have worked out, others haven’t. The wins have been recognized across the industry, but so too have the losses. He’s had to lead a company thru high profile talent controversies, cord cutting challenges, understand the world of video, audio, print, digital, advertising, subscriptions, talent, and rights deals both domestic and internationally, all while keeping his finger on the pulse of the present state of the media business while turning an eye towards the future and knowing which areas the company should make significant investments in.
John has been thru all of it as a media executive, and he’s still doing it while building the Meadowlark brand. A recent story in Bloomberg captured some of his views on growing the Le Batard empire and navigating various parts of the industry. I highly recommend taking time to read it. You can do that by clicking here.
We have five and a half months until we’re inside the Anne Bernstein Theater in New York City, so who knows where the industry will shift during that time. One thing is for certain, John Skipper will be ready for whatever lands on his doorstep. I’m eager to spend time with him in New York treating industry professionals to his insights, opinions and leadership lessons. I’m confident those in attendance will gain value from hearing his perspectives on the industry.
I invite you to join us either in person or virtually for the 2022 BSM Summit. Tickets to the event can be purchased by clicking here. For information on sponsorship opportunities, email JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
2022 BSM Summit Adds Pablo Torre, Joe Fortenbaugh, Kazeem Famuyide & John Jastremski
“By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day Summit.”
The announcements continue for the 2022 BSM Summit. After recently sharing the news that former ESPN Radio executive Traug Keller would join us in the big apple to accept the Jeff Smulyan Award, and previously revealing the first fourteen participants scheduled to appear, it’s time to inform you of a few key talent who will participate in sessions at March’s show.
I’m thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Pablo Torre to the 2022 BSM Summit. Pablo’s been with the worldwide leader since 2012. During that time he’s served as a senior writer for ESPN.com, the host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and has appeared on shows such as Around The Horn, Highly Questionable, and The Dan Le Batard Show. He also previously co-hosted High Noon with Bomani Jones. Prior to joining ESPN he spent five years writing for Sports Illustrated. Having worked with a mixture of talent from various backgrounds, I’m looking forward to having him share his insight and opinions on the value of it at the show.
Pablo isn’t the only ESPN personality joining us in New York for the conference. I’m excited to welcome back a great friend and one of the smartest sports betting analysts on television, Joe Fortenbaugh. Joe is regularly featured on ESPN’s sports betting program Daily Wager. He also appears on other ESPN programs and segments on television, radio and digital platforms. Prior to joining the network he hosted 95.7 The Game’s morning show in San Francisco, and hosted “The Sharp 600″ sports betting podcast. He’ll moderate a conversation with sports betting executives at the show.
Given that this two-day sports media conference is taking place in the heart of New York City, it’d be silly to not include someone who’s passion, energy, sound, and content embody what New York is all about. The Ringer’s John Jastremski will make his BSM Summit debut in 2022. The ‘New York, New York’ host is known to many for his years of contributions on WFAN. It’ll be fun picking JJ’s brain on the differences between performing on a traditional platform and the digital stage.
Jastremski isn’t the only one with a connection to The Ringer who will participate at our 2022 event. My next guest is someone who I’ve followed on YouTube and Twitter for years, has infectious energy and likeability, and has taken his life experiences and sports passions and turned them into opportunities with MSG Network, SNY, The Ringer, Bleacher Report, WWE, The Source and various other outlets. Kazeem Famuyide will join us to shed light on his journey and offer his perspective on the value of traditional vs. non-traditional paths.
By the time March’s conference rolls around, we’ll have somewhere between 50-60 people announced to participate at the two day event. I’ll be announcing the addition of a very special executive in mid-October, as well as a few high profile speakers and awards recipients in the weeks and months ahead. I’m appreciative of so many expressing interest in speaking at the conference, and as much as I’d like to include everyone on stage, I can’t. Keeping the Summit informative, fresh and focused on the right issues is important, and to do that, I’ve got to introduce different people, perspectives and subjects so our attendees gain value to further improve the industry.
A reminder, the 2022 BSM Summit is strictly for members of the sports media industry and college students aspiring to work in the business. It brings together people from more than thirty different media companies and focuses on issues of relevance and importance to media industry professionals. The show takes place March 2-3, 2022 in New York at the Anne Bernstein Theater on West 50th Street. Tickets and hotel rooms can be secured by visiting BSMSummit.com. For those unable to attend in person, the Summit will also be available to view online. Virtual tickets can be purchased by clicking here. Hope you’ll join us!
Traug Keller Named 2022 Recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award
“Former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award.”
Sometimes decisions are difficult. Other times they’re not. This was one of the easiest ones I’ve made since launching the BSM Summit in 2018.
If you haven’t attended the Summit before, one of the cool parts of the conference each year is that we take time to honor people who have left a permanent mark on the industry we love. Awards ceremonies are held both days to recognize difference makers who have made positive contributions to the sports radio business. At our 2022 BSM Summit, I am pleased to share that a great man will be celebrated for his life’s work.
It is my honor to announce that former SVP of ESPN Audio and President of ABC Networks Traug Keller has been chosen as our 2022 recipient of the Jeff Smulyan Award. Keller becomes the third industry executive to earn the honor. Kraig Kitchin and Dan Mason were the first two to be recognized at the 2019 and 2020 BSM Summit’s.
Upon learning that Traug had been selected as the next Jeff Smulyan Award winner, Emmis Communications CEO Jeff Smulyan said, “Traug Keller has left an indelible imprint on not only sports radio, but on all of broadcasting through his remarkable career. I’m proud to call him my friend, but I’m just one of the legions of people who have loved every minute of their time with him. He’s a broadcaster’s broadcaster, but more than that he’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
“I am humbled for sure but thrilled to be receiving an award with the name of my good friend on it, Jeff Smulyan,” added Traug Keller, now the EVP and COO of American Media. “Jeff did what all too few leaders in business do, he took risk and action against all kinds of headwinds and the rest of us in the great business of Sports Audio were the beneficiaries of it. Thanks to BSM for this great honor and I look forward to seeing a bunch of old friends in March!”
Anyone who has crossed paths with Traug over the past three decades knows how important he was to the success of ESPN Radio. He’s been a friend to many, a great partner to hundreds of radio affiliates, and a champion for talent. His support for BSM has also meant a lot.
Perhaps even more impressive was Traug’s ability to connect with his affiliates, clients and colleagues, offering steady leadership and on-air stability for ESPN Radio. No executive leaves with a perfect record, but Keller had a knack for landing on the right side of many decisions. None as impressive though as retiring from sports radio in February 2020, one month before the sports world came to a screeching halt and a global pandemic rocked the entire advertising industry. Talk about timing Traug, haha.
In all seriousness, having Traug and Jeff together on the same stage in front of the industry to give folks an opportunity to show their appreciation for their accomplishments is a real treat. So many enjoy professional success today due to bold and smart decisions made by each of these men, and I couldn’t be happier to spend time with both in New York City this March.
For tickets, hotel and additional details regarding the 2022 BSM Summit visit BSMSummit.com.
Sports Online2 days ago
Dan Dakich Joins Outkick, Rips ESPN, Matt Jones
Sports TV News3 days ago
Adele’s ‘Hello’ Used To Hype NBC’s Patriots-Bucs Sunday Night Game
Sports TV News1 day ago
Pablo Torre: Tony Kornheiser Refused To Participate In PTI Doc
Sports TV News2 days ago
Jay Williams Off ESPN’s NBA Countdown