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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.

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Jeff Catlin, John Mamola, Gordy Rush & Maggie Clifton Join The 2023 BSM Summit Lineup

Jason Barrett

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We’re less than two months away from the 2023 BSM Summit in Los Angeles. This year’s conference takes place on March 21-22, 2023 at the Founders Room inside of the Galen Center at USC. Many industry professionals are set to attend but sports media folks tend to be a last minute crowd whether it’s buying a ticket, reserving a room or committing to be a sponsor. Yes, tickets, rooms, and a select few sponsorships are still available, but the longer you wait, the more you risk not being in the room, featured as a partner, and paying higher prices for travel. To make sure you have a seat and a place to stay, log on to BSMSummit.com. For sponsorship inquiries, email Stephanie at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com.

I am really excited about this year’s Summit. The venue is tremendous, the agenda is coming together nicely, and there’s no doubt we’ll have great weather when we gather in LA. Some have asked me why I don’t reveal the full schedule of sessions months in advance, and it’s because I believe in swinging for the fences and trying to do big things. To do that, you’ve got to be willing to invest time and explore every opportunity that can be impactful. It’d be much easier to fill the schedule and be done with everything but if it’s going to take a little longer to deliver the best speakers, discussions and experiences for all in the room, then that’s what I’m going to do.

Those involved in the creation of this conference know that I set a very high standard for it. We’ve run some great events over the years, and it’s because we put everything we have into making sure each session is valuable to a different segment of the industry. My goal each year is to present an action packed agenda that helps people learn, gain access to information to improve themselves and/or their brands, and create a few connections and memorable moments to justify it being worth a few days away out of the office or studio. If we can do that, it makes the sacrifices worthwhile. If we can’t execute at a high level, then I’d probably pass on doing it.

Before I tell you about the four people we’re adding to our speaker lineup, I do want to remind you that we recently announced a contest for California college students. We’re giving away ten (10) FREE tickets to the show courtesy of Steve Kamer Voiceovers. If you know a student in California please let them know about this. If they’re not in California but want to attend the event, we’ve created a special college rate to make it affordable for young people. Everything is listed on BSMSummit.com.

Now, for the new additions to the lineup.

I’m excited to welcome Jeff Catlin of The Ticket in Dallas to the Summit. This will be Jeff’s first Summit visit, and I appreciate him making time to share his programming wisdom with the rest of the room. Jeff will be part of a programming panel that kicks off day #2. That panel will include Jimmy Powers of 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, Raj Sharan of Denver’s Sports Station 104.3 The Fan, and our next addition, John Mamola of WDAE. John has been at all of our events dating back to our first test event in Chicago. I’m looking forward to giving him an opportunity to offer his programming insights alongside this talented group.

Also joining the Summit lineup is Maggie Clifton, Blue Wire’s Senior Vice President of Business Development. Maggie has played a vital role in growing Blue Wire’s revenue, and I’m looking forward to having her join Barstool Sports’ SVP, Head of Sales Matt Berger, and Magellan AI’s Chief Revenue Officer John Goforth on a panel that focuses on digital monetization.

Guiding that conversation will be Guaranty Media’s Gordy Rush. The Baton Rouge Vice President and General Manager who doubles as LSU’s sideline reporter on football broadcasts is well versed in monetizing content, and understanding the opportunities and challenges broadcasters face. I’m confident those in the room charged with maximizing digital revenue for their brands will gain great value from these four professionals.

There’s much more in the works that I’m looking forward to announcing in the coming weeks. Whether you own a company, manage a cluster as a GM, lead a sales team, host or produce a podcast or radio/TV show, buy advertising, oversee a brand’s social media strategy or program a network or local outlet, there’s something for every sports media professional at the BSM Summit. I invite you to come see for yourself. To do so, visit BSMSummit.com.

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Jimmy Powers to Receive The Mark Chernoff Award at the 2023 BSM Summit

“Jimmy received the most votes from our industry panel to become our third recipient of the Mark Chernoff Award.”

Jason Barrett

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As a former programmer turned consultant, I pay more attention than most to those who lead brands, manage talent, and create consistent success. When you look across the country at the hundreds of stations delivering sports radio content, and analyze who operates at a high level, there’s maybe ten to twenty who are changing the game, and others who are rising and hoping to become a bigger part of the conversation.

What makes this annual award special in addition to having Mark Chernoff’s name on it, is that it’s voted on by eighteen industry heavyweights. These are folks tasked with overseeing radio companies, major networks, and having exceptional track records of broadcasting success. So when they vote and an individual earns an honor, it means a little more.

If you’re in the business and follow sports radio, then you’re aware of Mark Chernoff’s accomplishments as a program director. He was one of the true architects and consistent winners, and his ability to excel as a sports radio manager has influenced and shaped many careers. Mark graciously agreed to be part of our awards ceremony a few years ago when I approached him with the idea in New York City. I’m thrilled to share that although he doesn’t attend many industry conferences on the west coast, he will be with us at the 2023 BSM Summit in Los Angeles for the ceremony.

Which brings me to this year’s winner.

It is my honor to congratulate the leader of 97.1 The Ticket in Detroit, Jimmy Powers. Jimmy received the most votes from our industry panel to become our third recipient of the Mark Chernoff Award. He follows Rick Radzik of 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston, and Mitch Rosen of 670 The Score in Chicago. Jimmy will be in attendance at the Summit to pick up the award, and will take part in a program director panel at the show. Further details on that to be shared next week.

“It’s such a great honor not only to be mentioned in the same breath with Mark Chernoff, but to receive the ‘Mark Chernoff Award’ is really, really cool” shared 97.1 The Ticket Program Director Jimmy Powers. “With so many great program directors across the country who are deserving of this award, I truly appreciate the recognition.”

Since late 2009, Powers has led the Detroit sports radio station to unmatched local success. Brought in to build upon what was created by the late great Tom Bigby, he’s helped The Ticket become one of the format’s best examples of success. The station has consistently dominated the Male 25-54 demo, while also becoming a ratings force with Persons 12+ and Adults 25-54.

“Jimmy has done an amazing job over the years running 97.1 the Ticket,” said legendary sports radio programmer Mark Chernoff. “He knows how to work with talent, and maintain balance while managing relationships with the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons, which is not an easy job. The ratings remain high, and the Ticket continues to be one of America’s top sports stations, which reflects the great work Jimmy has done as the station’s program director.”

In addition to delivering double digit shares, quarterly ratings wins, and presenting a star studded lineup and Michigan’s top sports franchises, The Ticket has taken home plenty of hardware too. The station has won the Marconi award for best sports station in 2016 and 2022. And now, they can add the 2023 Mark Chernoff Award to their trophy case.

“2022 was another big year for The Ticket, and many in Detroit deserve credit for the brand’s consistent success, but none more so than their exceptional brand leader, Jimmy Powers,” added BSM President Jason Barrett. “Jimmy has been a staple of consistency, guiding one of the crown jewels of sports radio, managing top personalities, important play by play partnerships, and helping the brand generate large revenues. I’m thrilled that our industry voters took notice of the fantastic work Jimmy has done and look forward to celebrating his career and accomplishments in Los Angeles this March.”

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California College Students Earn Chance to Win 10 Free Tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit Thanks to Steve Kamer Voiceovers

“In order to win tickets to attend the Summit, students must submit a 2-minute video by email explaining why they’d like to be in attendance and what they hope to learn at the event.”

Jason Barrett

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With a new year comes renewed energy and optimism for the sports media business. Yours truly is looking forward to showcasing the best our business has to offer when we gather the industry in Los Angeles, CA at the 2023 BSM Summit at the Founders Club at the University of Southern California on March 21-22, 2023. Our conference is returning to the west coast for the first time since 2019. We’ve announced some super talented speakers. We’ve got additional things in the works and I plan to make additional announcements in the next few weeks.

People often ask me what the biggest challenge is putting this event together. My answer is always the same, it’s getting people to leave the comfort of their office and spend two days in a room together learning and discussing ways to grow the business. We have great sponsorship support and exceptional people on stage and are fortunate to have a lot of folks already set to attend. Our venue this year has extra space though, so I’m hoping a few more of you make time to join us. If you haven’t bought a ticket or reserved your hotel room, visit BSMSummit.com to make sure you’re all set.

If there’s one thing our industry could get better at it’s opening our minds to new ideas and information. There’s more than one path to success. Just because you’re in good shape today doesn’t mean you will be tomorrow. Building brands, growing audiences, increasing revenue, and examining new opportunities is an ongoing process. There are many shifts along the way. We may not solve every business challenge during our two-days together but you’ll leave the room more connected and informed than when you entered it.

Each year I’ll get two or three emails from folks sharing that they learned more about the industry in two-days at the Summit than they have in ___ years inside of their building. That’s truly gratifying and what I strive to achieve when I put this event together. I remember when conferences like this didn’t exist for format folks and I take the risk and invest the time and resources to create it because I love the sports media industry and believe I can help it thrive. I see great value in gathering professionals to share ideas, information, and meet others who can help them grow their business, and if we do our part, I’m confident some will want to work with us too. That’s how we benefit over the long haul.

But as much as I focus on serving the professional crowd, I also think we have a responsibility to educate young people who are interested, passionate, and taking steps to be a part of our business in the future. The BSM website is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each month and it’s become a valuable resource for folks who enjoy sports radio and television. I think it’s vital to use our platform, influence and two-day event to connect generations and I’m happy to announce that we will once again welcome college students at this year’s Summit.

Most of us who’ve been in this line of work for two or three decades learned the business without podcasts, YouTube, social media, the web or conferences delivering two full days of sessions that taught you more about the business than what’s available inside of a class room. We learned by doing, and hoping we were right. Then we copied others who had success. Some of that still exists, and that’s not a bad thing. But where our business goes in the future is going to be drastically different.

I’d like to see the difference makers in our format remembered for years to come, and practices that have stood the test of time remain valued down the line. Change is inevitable in every business and I’m excited about the road that lies ahead especially some of the technological advancements that are now available or will soon become a bigger part of our industry. I think we can embrace the future while enjoying the present and celebrating the past. The best way to do that is by bringing together everyone who is and is hoping to be a part of the sports media universe.

So here’s two things we’re doing to make sure future broadcasters have an opportunity to learn with us.

First, I want to send a HUGE thank you to Steve Kamer Voiceovers. Thanks to Steve’s generosity, TEN (10) college students will be given FREE tickets to attend the 2023 BSM Summit in March. Steve is a USC graduate (Class of 1985) and he bought the ten tickets to help young people learn about the industry, save money and make valuable connections. When I first received his order, I thought he hit the wrong button. I reached out to tell him a mistake was made and I needed to refund him. That’s when he told me what he wanted to do for students who were pursuing their broadcasting dreams just as we both did years ago. A very classy gesture on his part.

As it pertains to the contest, here’s how it’s going to work.

To win tickets to attend the Summit, students must submit a 2-minute video by email to JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com explaining why they’d like to be in attendance and what they hope to learn at the event. Included in your email should be a list of steps that you’ve taken or are pursuing to explore opportunities in the media industry. If you want to pass along a resume and audio or video clips too to showcase your work and experience, that’s fine as well. BSM will accept submissions until February 17th. The winners will be announced on Friday February 24th.

Helping me select the winners will be an exceptional panel of media executives. Each of these folks below will choose one person to attend our L.A. event. The final two will be picked by Steve Kamer and myself.

  • Scott Shapiro – Senior Vice President, FOX Sports Radio
  • Justin Craig – Senior Program Director, ESPN Radio
  • Jeff Sottolano – Executive Vice President, Programming, Audacy
  • Bruce Gilbert – Senior Vice President of Sports, Cumulus Media & Westwood One
  • Amanda Gifford – Vice President, Content Strategy & Audio, ESPN
  • Jacob Ullman – Senior Vice President, Production and Talent Development, FOX Sports
  • Greg Strassell – Senior Vice President, Programming, Hubbard Radio
  • Scott Sutherland – Executive Vice President, Bonneville International

To qualify for the BSM Summit College Contest, students must be enrolled in college in the state of California, pursuing a degree that involves course work either in radio, television, print or the digital business. Those attending local trade schools with a focus on broadcasting are also welcome to participate. You must be able to take care of your own transportation and/or lodging.

This is a contest I enjoy running. We’ve had great participation during our prior two shows in New York City but haven’t done it before on the west coast. I’m hoping it’s helpful to California students and look forward to hearing from many of them during the next month.

For students who live out of state and wish to attend or those enrolled at local universities who enter the contest but aren’t lucky enough to win one of the ten free tickets from Steve Kamer Voiceovers, we are introducing a special two-day college ticket for just $124.99. You must provide proof that you’re currently in school to take advantage of the offer. This ticket gives you access to all of our sessions inside the Founders Club. College tickets will be limited to forty (40) seats so take advantage of the opportunity before it expires.

The 2023 BSM Summit will feature award ceremonies with Emmis Communication CEO Jeff Smulyan and legendary WFAN program director Mark Chernoff, sessions with influential on-air talent such as Colin Cowherd, Jim Rome, Joy Taylor, and Mina Kimes, big picture business conversations with executives from groups such as Audacy, iHeart, Bonneville, Good Karma Brands, Barstool, The Volume, Omaha Productions and more. For details on tickets and hotel rooms visit BSMsummit.com.

I look forward to seeing you in March in Los Angeles!

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