The Jeff Smulyan Award is going to Traug Keller in 2022. The former ESPN Audio boss will receive the prize during the BSM Summit in a little over a week from now. The honor is a long time coming for Keller, and it means the sports radio industry will finally have a chance to give a collective thank you for his decades worth of leadership.
“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,” Jason Barrett said when announcing the award back in August.
For Traug, the honor isn’t just about industry recognition. There is something extra special about being recognized with an award named for Jeff Smulyan.
“Words don’t do it justice. Jeff is a great friend, and to be honored with an award with his name on it, and with all he has meant not just to the sports radio industry, but to broadcasting overall is just humbling,” Keller told me. “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. No way did we at ESPN Radio have the success we had without Jeff’s pioneering. So again, to receive an award with his name on it really is quite something!”
Keller served Disney faithfully for more than 25 years, leading both ABC Radio Networks and ESPN Audio during that time. He built relationships with talent and their representation that helped talk radio evolve. He built relationships with affiliates that helped them thrive. He is the blueprint for the kind of guy you honor at an event like the BSM Summit.
This is a career that’s not defined by a single success. When you lead two different networks for that long, and oversee multiple milestones in their growth, it is impossible for your colleagues to thank you for just one thing.
I didn’t ask Keller if there was a crowning achievement with ESPN Audio. I don’t think that would be fair. Hell, he would likely still be trying to decide if I left it open-ended like that.
Instead, I asked him if he had a success he didn’t see coming. His response, Mike & Mike. It wasn’t a shock that the show found success, but it was exciting to see the show surpass expectations over and over again.
“I remember we were down in Orlando having a meeting with the newly acquired owned stations. They had been slated to go in the Citadel sale by ABC Radio but we convinced then head of Disney Strategy planning Kevin Mayer that keeping those major markets in the fold would benefit ESPN Radio and ESPN overall. So, this Orlando meeting was our first overall get-together where we began to develop a long-term strategy to grow the business. We narrowed it down to a few key items, and one of them was to grow this morning show that showed some signs of working. We got the stations on board, convinced programming at ESPN to simulcast the show on ESPN News, and we focused all of the marketing on the show, and committed to affiliates to get the show out on the road more. That focus, back in and around 2004 coupled with the dynamic talent of Mike and Mike, grew into something much more than we had hoped for back then: a show that all of ESPN was proud of that was setting the sports agenda for the country every morning for the next decade and a half.”
While he is appreciative that the room will be filled with people that want to celebrate what he accomplished, Keller hopes attendees are there to think about the future too. I asked him if there is anything that keep him up at night when he thinks about the sports talk format. Is there something that needs to be addressed at the BSM Summit because too few programmers and executives realize it’s potential impact?
Forget hesitation or fears. Traug only has one question for attendees: do you know how lucky you are?
“I have faith that the industry will continue to develop the next generation of Mike and Mike’s or the Kay Show (I know I am home towning it!) or Colin or Dan or whomever. And as long as folks aren’t afraid about getting them up on all platforms, the industry will continue succeeding. Remember, you are in the audio business, and there has never been a better time to be in that business.”
Keller does have one concern heading into the event. He doesn’t want anyone in the room to feel like their presence isn’t valuable. Certainly, attendees that work at local stations will want to hear what national talent and leaders have to say, but he hopes the opposite is true too.
“Nobody gets better without listening!” he says. “Local programmers are on the front lines, and because of that, they have a better handle on the pulse of what is and isn’t working for sports fans. Ignore them at your own peril. An example would be ‘is there sports betting talk fatigue at the local level or is it something that leaves listeners clamoring for more? I have always found local programmers are on top of those kinds of things, and network programmers can learn from them.”
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.