Traug Keller

As the head of ESPN Radio, Senior VP Traug Keller oversees more than 9,000 hours of talk and event content annually, reaching 24 million listeners per week on more than 500 stations, including ESPN O&O stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and more than 375 full-time affiliates.

And that’s not all: His purview includes ESPN Local, the ESPN Talent Office and ESPN Audio, overseeing talent, staffing, national programming content, scheduling and event production. The latter, Audio, not only comprises ESPN Radio, but also ESPN Deportes Radio, and ESPN Audio On Demand. That latter platform includes ESPN podcasts—which the company has been integrally involved with since 2005.

Talk about traction: ESPN podcasts reached five million listeners in December to rank as the fourth-largest podcast producer in America, according to Podtrac. Keller says, “The most important factor throughout the audio evolution – from AM to FM to streaming to satellite and now to podcasting – is establishing a relationship between the host and the listener. There is something about audio that is very different from TV with pictures, pages in a magazine or images on a computer screen. There’s an intimacy with the consumer.”

He speaks with Inside Radio about ESPN’s broad embrace of the platform, who the unique podcasting audience is, and how the medium is ideal for identifying new niche “tentpoles” for the network. An edited transcript follows.

ESPN Audio is in a unique position, having sniffed out podcasting as a viable platform more than a decade ago. And now you have some 5 million listeners. What was it about the medium that you recognized was worth the investment?

We weren’t doing anything any more complicated than following the mission statement of ESPN then—which was to find sports fans anywhere, anyplace and anyhow they may be interested. We made the decision that we’re in the audio business, so we’re always going to be where there is any listening opportunity. There was AM/FM, then satellite and streaming and the next thing that came along was podcasting. So audio on-demand fit the natural order of our strategy as a new way people are listening. We’re platform agnostic, device agnostic… and this was just another place to be.

What makes podcasting different? How is it unique from other platforms?

I think it puts an exclamation point on the media world, where the consumer and the listener is in charge. One of the beauties of podcasting is that you can listen to what you want to when you want to listen. No longer are you at the beck and call of a program director. You are the owner, where you curate what you want to listen to when you want to. Not being beholden to a standard clock has allowed podcasting to flourish as a storytelling medium.

Please elaborate on original podcast “tentpoles.” This is something that you identified in a recent ESPN article you penned about how podcasting allows the net to expand beyond typical programming, thanks in part to targeting niche interests.

Podcasting allows you to dive deeper. If you are a hoop junkie, now you can be all hoop all the time with “The Lowe Post.” Or if you are a fantasy addict and you are all in with Matthew Berry. We’ve got an incredible storytelling unit with our “30 for 30.” It all seems to lend itself to take our best brands and bring it to podcasting. So we are fulfilling those different needs, the sports passion, the storytelling.

In the world of podcasting, are you working with tried and true talent or grooming new talent or a combination of both?

I think it’s a combination of both. Katie Nolan is one of the newer entrants in the podcasting world, and Marty Smith is becoming more and more popular. These are people that are younger and their audiences skew younger, which makes them perfect for podcasting.

Do you believe that there is a different audience for podcasting? Are there additional listeners tuning in?

I can’t definitely say there are new listeners, but I would say the audience is certainly expanding. As I said, we are adding audience from AM/FM to satellite to streaming and now to podcasting. Every time you add on another way of listening, you’re increasing the overall base, which is the idea. There’s no question that the podcast listener definitely skews younger than we’ve seen in sports talk radio, so that’s a plus, because now we are getting those folks in at an earlier age and hopefully having them develop an affinity for our brand through podcasting. That is certainly important to us.

And how do you promote podcasts? Are you organically utilizing other ESPN platforms or reaching outside?

That’s something we are not as smart as we should have been in the past. We’re starting to get much better. Whether it’s ESPN TV studio shows or play-by-play integration, we’re now including full screen graphics for our podcasts. We’re also using all social media assets where appropriate to promote podcasts.

And we’ve also just started to cross promote with other podcasts. For example, we’re working with [the top 10 national podcast platform] “howstuffworks,” doing barter, where we’ll promote yours and you promote ours. That’s certainly something you’d never see that in traditional radio, right?

Advertising is, of course, the million dollar mystery in podcasting. Sponsorship endorsements certainly seem to be effective, while national brands are beginning to discover that aligning with hosts and topics is very advantageous. 

The arrows are there. There is good demand and good growth associated with podcasting advertising. It is absolutely hot right now. Two agencies—Ad Results Media and Veritone—are driving a ton of advertising for the platform, and we’re seeing clients like GEICO and Zip Recruiter and Delta coming on board. These are agencies focused on the podcasting space and bringing results to clients by matching the appropriate advertiser with the appropriate podcast. That is the beauty of the media. Audio is a highly targeted medium; and we certainly are taking advantage of that. We have a fair amount of host-delivered endorsements, and the actual reads are creative and quite effective and are in high demand.

We’ve got to ask. What is your favorite podcast, Traug? And yes, you’re allowed to go outside of ESPN.

It’s very dangerous for me to pick one, but I’m going to do it anyway. I do tend to listen to (ESPN’s) “The Dan Le Batard Show” podcast on my way home. And outside of ESPN, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” history is a great podcast.

And finally, is there any one thing that you believe is necessary to make podcasting all the more ubiquitous?

I think the thing that looms the largest is that the industry needs to find unified and consistent measurement across the board. We are working with a few vendors and other big podcast players, so it is something that I expect to happen soon. Podcasting has already grown so much, and that will take it to the next level. There is no denying that people are listening to podcasts by the millions, it really has been fascinating to watch the growth and fun to be a part of it—so now we need to get that measurement piece done.