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Traug Keller Is Exiting The Game While Still On Top of It

“I loved ESPN. I couldn’t have worked for a better company with better people, but it felt like the right time to step away.”

Jason Barrett

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

Barrett Blogs

BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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Barrett Blogs

Mina Kimes, Bruce Gilbert, Mitch Rosen, and Stacey Kauffman Join the 2023 BSM Summit

“By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference.”

Jason Barrett

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The 2023 BSM Summit is returning to Los Angeles on March 21-22, 2023, live from the Founders Club at the Galen Center at the campus of the University of Southern California. Information on tickets and hotel rooms can be found at BSMSummit.com.

We’ve previously announced sixteen participants for our upcoming show, and I’m excited today to confirm the additions of four more more smart, successful professionals to be part of the event. Before I do that, I’d like to thank The Volume for signing on as our Badge sponsor, the Motor Racing Network for securing the gift bag sponsorship, and Bonneville International for coming on board as a Session sponsor. We do have some opportunities available but things are moving fast this year, so if you’re interested in being involved, email Stephanie Eads at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com.

Now let’s talk about a few of the speaker additions for the show.

First, I am thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Mina Kimes to the Summit for her first appearance. Mina and I had the pleasure recently of connecting on a podcast (go listen to it) and I’ve been a fan of her work for years. Her intellect, wit, football acumen, and likeability have served her well on television, podcasts, and in print. She’s excelled as an analyst on NFL Live and Rams preseason football games, as a former host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and her appearances on Around The Horn and previously on Highly Questionable and the Dan Le Batard Show were always entertaining. I’m looking forward to having Mina join FS1’s Joy Taylor and ESPN LA 710 PD Amanda Brown for an insightful conversation about the industry.

Next is another newcomer. I’m looking forward to having Audacy San Francisco and Sacramento Regional Vice President Stacey Kauffman in the building for our 2023 show. In addition to overseeing a number of music brands, Stacey also oversees a dominant news/talk outlet, and two sports radio brands. Among them are my former station 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, and ESPN 1320 in Sacramento. I’m looking forward to having her participate in our GM panel with Good Karma’s Sam Pines, iHeart’s Don Martin, and led by Bonneville’s Executive Vice President Scott Sutherland.

From there, it’s time to welcome back two of the sharpest sports radio minds in the business. Bruce Gilbert is the SVP of Sports for Westwood One and Cumulus Media. He’s seen and done it all on the local and national level and anytime he’s in the room to share his programming knowledge with attendees, everyone leaves the room smarter. I’m anticipating another great conversation on the state of sports radio, which FOX Sports Radio VP of programming Scott Shapiro will be a part of.

Another student of the game and one of the top programmers in the format today is 670 The Score in Chicago PD, Mitch Rosen. The former Mark Chernoff Award recipient and recently appointed VP of the BetQL Network juggles managing a top 3 market sports brand while being charged with moving an emerging sports betting network forward. Count on Mr. Rosen to offer his insights and opinions during another of our branding and programming discussions.

By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference. My focus now is on finalizing our business and digital sessions, research, tech and sports betting panels, securing our locations and sponsorships for the After Party and Kickoff Party, plus working out the details for a few high-profile executive appearances and a couple of surprises.

For those looking to attend and save a few dollars on tickets, we’ll be holding a special Black Friday Sale this Friday November 25th. Just log on to BSMSummit.com that day to save $50 on individual tickets. In addition, thanks to the generosity of voice talent extraordinaire Steve Kamer, we’ll be giving away 10 tickets leading up to the conference. Stay tuned for details on the giveaway in the months ahead.

Still to come is an announcement about our special ticket rate for college students looking to attend the show and learn. We also do an annual contest for college kids to attend the event for free which I’m hoping to have ready in the next few weeks. It’s also likely we’ll give away a few tickets to industry professionals leading up to Christmas, so keep an eye out.

If you work in the sports media industry and value making connections, celebrating those who create an impact, and learning about the business from folks who have experienced success, failure, and everything in between, the Summit is worth your time. I’m excited to have Mina, Bruce, Mitch and Stacey join us for the show, and look forward to spending a few days with the industry’s best and brightest this March! Hope to see you there.

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Barrett Media is Making Changes To Better Serve Our Sports and News Media Readers

“We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future.”

Jason Barrett

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When I launched this website all I wanted to do was share news, insight and stories about broadcasters and brands. My love, passion and respect for this business is strong, and I know many of you reading this feel similar. I spent two great decades in radio watching how little attention was paid to those who played a big part in their audiences lives. The occasional clickbait story and contract drama would find their way into the newspapers but rarely did you learn about the twists and turns of a broadcaster’s career, their approach to content or the tactics and strategies needed to succeed in the industry. When personal reasons led me home to NY in 2015, I decided I was going to try my best to change that.

Since launching this brand, we’ve done a good job informing and entertaining media industry professionals, while also helping consulting clients and advertising partners improve their businesses. We’ve earned respect from the industry’s top stars, programming minds and mainstream media outlets, growing traffic from 50K per month to 500K and monthly social impressions from a few thousand to a few million. Along the way we’ve added conferences, rankings, podcasts, a member directory, and as I’ve said before, this is the best and most important work I’ve ever done, and I’m not interested in doing anything else.

If I’ve learned anything over seven years of operating a digital content company it’s that you need skill, strategy, passion, differentiating content, and good people to create impact. You also need luck, support, curiosity and an understanding of when to double down, cut bait or pivot. It’s why I added Stephanie Eads as our Director of Sales and hired additional editors, columnists and features reporters earlier this year. To run a brand like ours properly, time and investment are needed. We’ve consistently grown and continue to invest in our future, and it’s my hope that more groups will recognize the value we provide, and give greater consideration to marketing with us in the future.

But with growth comes challenges. Sometimes you can have the right idea but bad timing. I learned that when we launched Barrett News Media.

We introduced BNM in September 2020, two months before the election when emotions were high and COVID was a daily discussion. I wasn’t comfortable then of blending BNM and BSM content because I knew we’d built a trusted sports media resource, and I didn’t want to shrink one audience while trying to grow another. Given how personal the election and COVID became for folks, I knew the content mix would look and feel awkward on our site.

So we made the decision to start BNM with its own website. We ran the two brands independently and had the right plan of attack, but discovered that our timing wasn’t great.

The first nine months readership was light, which I expected since we were new and trying to build an audience from scratch. I believed in the long-term mission, which was why I stuck with it through all of the growing pains, but I also felt a responsibility to make sure our BNM writing team and the advertising partners we forged relationships with were being seen by as many people as possible. We continued with the original plan until May 2021 when after a number of back and forth debates, I finally agreed to merge the two sites. I figured if WFAN could thrive with Imus in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog in the afternoon, and the NY Times, LA Times, KOA, KMOX and numerous other newspaper and radio brands could find a way to blend sports and news/talk, then so could we.

And it worked.

We dove in and started to showcase both formats, building social channels and groups for each, growing newsletter databases, and with the addition of a few top notch writers, BNM began making bigger strides. Now featured under the BSM roof, the site looked bigger, the supply of daily content became massive, and our people were enjoying the increased attention.

Except now we had other issues. Too many stories meant many weren’t being read and more mistakes were slipping through the cracks. None of our crew strive to misspell a word or write a sloppy headline but when the staff and workload doubles and you’re trying to focus on two different formats, things can get missed. Hey, we’re all human.

Then a few other things happened that forced a larger discussion with my editors.

First, I thought about how much original material we were creating for BSM from our podcast network, Summit, Countdown to Coverage series, Meet the Market Managers, BSM Top 20, and began to ask myself ‘if we’re doing all of this for sports readers, what does that tell folks who read us for news?’ We then ran a survey to learn what people valued about our brand and though most of the feedback was excellent, I saw how strong the response was to our sports content, and how news had grown but felt second fiddle to those offering feedback.

Then, Andy Bloom wrote an interesting column explaining why radio hosts would be wise to stop talking about Donald Trump. It was the type of piece that should’ve been front and center on a news site all day but with 3 featured slots on the site and 7 original columns coming in that day, they couldn’t all be highlighted the way they sometimes should be. We’re actually going through that again today. That said, Andy’s column cut through. A few sports media folks didn’t like seeing it on the site, which wasn’t a surprise since Trump is a polarizing personality, but the content resonated well with the news/talk crowd.

National talk radio host Mike Gallagher was among the folks to see Andy’s piece, and he spent time on his show talking about the column. Mike’s segment was excellent, and when he referenced the article, he did the professional thing and credited our website – Barrett SPORTS Media. I was appreciative of Mike spending time on his program discussing our content but it was a reminder that we had news living under a sports roof and it deserved better than that.

I then read some of Pete Mundo, Doug Pucci and Rick Schultz’s columns and Jim Cryns’ features on Chris Ruddy, Phil Boyce, and David Santrella, and knew we were doing a lot of quality work but each time we produced stories, folks were reminded that it lived on a SPORTS site. I met a few folks who valued the site, recognized the increased focus we put on our news/talk coverage, and hoped we had plans to do more. Jim also received feedback along the lines of “good to see you guys finally in the news space, hope there’s more to come.”

Wanting to better understand our opportunities and challenges, I reviewed our workflow, looked at which content was hitting and missing the mark, thought about the increased relationships we’d worked hard to develop, and the short-term and long-term goals for BNM. I knew it was time to choose a path. Did I want to think short-term and keep everything under one roof to protect our current traffic and avoid disrupting people or was it smarter to look at the big picture and create a destination where news/talk media content could be prioritized rather than treated as BSM’s step-child?

Though I spent most of my career in sports media and established BSM first, it’s important to me to serve the news/talk media industry our very best. I want every news/talk executive, host, programmer, market manager, agent, producer, seller and advertiser to know this format matters to us. Hopefully you’ve seen that in the content we’ve created over the past two years. My goal is to deliver for news media professionals what we have for sports media folks and though that may be a tall order, we’re going to bust our asses to make it happen. To prove that this isn’t just lip service, here’s what we’re going to do.

Starting next Monday November 28th, we are relaunching BarrettNewsMedia.com. ALL new content produced by the BNM writing team will be available daily under that URL. For the first 70-days we will display news media columns from our BNM writers on both sites and support them with promotion across both of our brands social channels. The goal is to have the two sites running independent of each other by February 6, 2023.

Also starting on Monday November 28th, we will begin distributing the BNM Rundown newsletter 5 days per week. We’ve been sending out the Rundown every M-W-F since October 2021, but the time has come for us to send it out daily. With increased distribution comes two small adjustments. We will reduce our daily story count from 10 to 8 and make it a goal to deliver it to your inbox each day by 3pm ET. If you haven’t signed up to receive the Rundown, please do. You can click here to register. Be sure to scroll down past the 8@8 area.

Additionally, Barrett News Media is going to release its first edition of the BNM Top 20 of 2022. This will come out December 12-16 and 19-20. The category winners will be decided by more than 50 news/talk radio program directors and executives. Among the categories to be featured will be best Major/Mid Market Local morning, midday, and afternoon show, best Local News/Talk PD, best Local News/Talk Station, best National Talk Radio Show, and best Original Digital Show. The voting process with format decision makers begins today and will continue for two weeks. I’ve already got a number of people involved but if you work in an executive or programming role in the news/talk format and wish to be part of it, send an email to me at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.

We have one other big thing coming to Barrett News Media in 2023, which I will announce right after the BNM Top 20 on Wednesday December 21st. I’m sure news/talk professionals will like what we have planned but for now, it’ll have to be a month long tease. I promise though to pay it off.

Additionally, I’m always looking for industry folks who know and love the business and enjoy writing about it. If you’ve programmed, hosted, sold or reported in the news/talk world and have something to offer, email me. Also, if you’re a host, producer, programmer, executive, promotions or PR person and think something from your brand warrants coverage on our site, send it along. Most of what we write comes from listening to stations and digging across the web and social media. Receiving your press releases and getting a heads up on things you’re doing always helps.

If you’re a fan of BSM, this won’t affect you much. The only difference you’ll notice in the coming months is a gradual reduction of news media content on the BSM website and our social accounts sharing a little about both formats over the next two months until we’re officially split in February. We are also going to dabble a little more in marketing, research and tech content that serves both formats. If you’re a reader who enjoys both forms of our content, you’ll soon have BarrettSportsMedia.com for sports, and BarrettNewsMedia.com for news.

Our first two years in the news/talk space have been very productive but we’ve only scratched the surface. Starting November 28th, news takes center stage on BarrettNewsMedia.com and sports gets less crowded on BarrettSportsMedia.com. We had the right plan of attack in 2020, but poor timing. So we’re learning from the past and adjusting for the future. If we can count on you to remember two URL’s (add them to your bookmarks) and sign up for our newsletters, then you can count on us to continue delivering exceptional coverage of the industry you love. As always, thanks for the continued support. It makes everything we do worthwhile.

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