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Q&A w/ Traug Keller of ESPN Audio

I’ve been wanting to do an in-depth Q&A with a member of ESPN Audio management for some time (if you read this column, you are more than familiar with my likes and dislikes on that network). Last week I sat down with Traug Keller, who oversees all aspects of the ESPN’s audio business including talent, staffing, national programming content, scheduling and event production. After a couple of emails with ESPN PR, conditions were agreed upon: I agreed to ESPN’s request that an ESPN PR staffer (Diane Lamb) sit in on the interview. ESPN agreed that the interview would be on the record at the start and anything off the record would happen only after SI.com’s questions were concluded. We met at a midtown Manhattan pastry shop. Over the course of a 45-minute interview, Keller answered all the questions I asked, which I respect, even when I felt he was selling me The Bristol soap. Our conversation is below.

SI.com: Let me read you a quote from someone: “If you’re not getting in trouble once in awhile you’re not pushing things enough.” Who said that about sports talk radio?

Keller: Let’s see. I said that at a conference sponsored by Sports Business Journal. That’s what happens when they let me off script.

Why do you believe that?

Don’t take the literal translation of that, but what I do believe is you have to push your opinion out there, even if it makes people uncomfortable, including your own bosses. It doesn’t mean you need to be nasty or you need to be degrading. But it does it mean you need to kind of talk the talk in what I believe is a very authentic medium.

How would you define the line between pushing the envelope and going past that line? Is there a line you have in your mind that ESPN Audio on-air employers cannot cross?

This should be all our lines: Whatever you do, don’t make anything personal. We can’t preach that enough. Do we always succeed? No. Do we constantly have to remind ourselves that it is a privilege to have the microphone? Yes. You can be critical but you cannot be personal. I know it happens, but at least we strive not to do that.

How would you define the overall content philosophy of ESPN Audio?

I fall back on—and it is not a fallback, it is what I believe—that we take what we cover seriously but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I do think it needs to be fun. If you look at the front page of today’s newspaper, whether it is ISIS or immigration or Homeland Security or gridlock, I do believe people come to sports talk radio as an escape. We need to keep the fun quotient. Not that today’s sports is not really helping us out, but we need to be relentless in trying to strive for that.

How many listeners does ESPN Audio have per week?

We are just over 20 million a week.

What is the male-female breakdown?

It is a pretty heavy male to female skew: 80-20 male.

How many stations is ESPN Audio affiliated with today?

More than 500 affiliates and there are three owned-and-operated stations.

Let me ask you about some specific ESPN Audio personalities. In New York City, the nation’s biggest media market, the WFAN’s morning team of Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton averaged a 7.9 share in for the last ratings period, nearly doubling the 4.0 for your national show featuring Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg.

In Philadelphia, Angelo Cataldi and his Morning Show have nearly double the local listeners of Mike and Mike among men 25-54. In Chicago, ESPN Radio gets beat in the morning. This is not to be pejorative about Greenberg and Golic who obviously have a national following, but why have you not been able to get traction in certain major cities with your morning programming?

Let’s take a step back. Sixty percent of the people who listen to sports radio in aggregate across the country listen to us. So we look at it in total. We also look at it in terms of our brand. We think Mike and Mike does a good job extending the brand of ESPN. We are not going to do what Boomer and Carton do on their show. It is just a different show.

How would you define the line between pushing the envelope and going past that line? Is there a line you have in your mind that ESPN Audio on-air employers cannot cross?

This should be all our lines: Whatever you do, don’t make anything personal. We can’t preach that enough. Do we always succeed? No. Do we constantly have to remind ourselves that it is a privilege to have the microphone? Yes. You can be critical but you cannot be personal. I know it happens, but at least we strive not to do that.

How would you define the overall content philosophy of ESPN Audio?

I fall back on—and it is not a fallback, it is what I believe—that we take what we cover seriously but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I do think it needs to be fun. If you look at the front page of today’s newspaper, whether it is ISIS or immigration or Homeland Security or gridlock, I do believe people come to sports talk radio as an escape. We need to keep the fun quotient. Not that today’s sports is not really helping us out, but we need to be relentless in trying to strive for that.

How many listeners does ESPN Audio have per week?

We are just over 20 million a week.

What is the male-female breakdown?

It is a pretty heavy male to female skew: 80-20 male.

How many stations is ESPN Audio affiliated with today?

More than 500 affiliates and there are three owned-and-operated stations.

Let me ask you about some specific ESPN Audio personalities. In New York City, the nation’s biggest media market, the WFAN’s morning team of Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton averaged a 7.9 share in for the last ratings period, nearly doubling the 4.0 for your national show featuring Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg.

In Philadelphia, Angelo Cataldi and his Morning Show have nearly double the local listeners of Mike and Mike among men 25-54. In Chicago, ESPN Radio gets beat in the morning. This is not to be pejorative about Greenberg and Golic who obviously have a national following, but why have you not been able to get traction in certain major cities with your morning programming?

Let’s take a step back. Sixty percent of the people who listen to sports radio in aggregate across the country listen to us. So we look at it in total. We also look at it in terms of our brand. We think Mike and Mike does a good job extending the brand of ESPN. We are not going to do what Boomer and Carton do on their show. It is just a different show.

Are you talking about doing local content or being more provocative?

Being more provocative. We can’t do that. I will tell you that a litmus test of mine for Mike and Mike and how it fits in with the brand is I wantMike and Mike to be able to be on with the moms driving the kids in the backseat to school. We get feedback on that, and it matters. It matters to our brand. Do we want to have the sports show of record where commissioners want to come to get their point of view across? Yes. All that stuff matters. It actually allows us to deliver an audience that advertisers feel very comfortable in and more and more today advertisers are trying to stay away from controversial talk.

We feel good about the brand we are putting forth. Now ratings are absolutely important. We added Cris Carter in the fall [to Mike and Mike] and it absolutely helped move the ratings. We’ve brought in [His and Hers co-hosts] Jemele Hill and Michael Smith from time to time and that has helped. We are doing things to constantly tweak the ratings. I’m not ceding it but I am telling you there is a larger picture.

How would you counter the perception that Mike and Mike is too vanilla for morning talk?

I think you can have that perception and in some ways we have had that perception. The changes you have seen in the fall are a reflection of that.

Mike and Mike’s content can sometimes come off as auxiliary PR or marketing for ESPN and a safe landing spot for guests as opposed to other sports shows where the hosts are more challenging of subjects. Fair or unfair statement?

I don’t agree with that. I think if you go back and listen to interviews, both Mike and Mike go about questioning differently, which is good, and you will see Golic get right in there. I would counter that tough questions are asked. Is it Outside The Lines? No. Is it meant to be an entertaining morning sports show? Yes. But I would say these guys are good questioners and astute there.

How personally disappointed were you with Bill Simmons that he took a public shot at Mike and Mike[Simmons was responding to Golic, who called him an attention-seeker.]​

Sometimes, like the sports we cover, we like to keep things in the locker room. That’s my answer.

What is a realistic timeframe for the full run of Mike and Mike? Fifteen years in an incredible run in sports talk radio on a national level. Is there a post Greenberg-Golic plan in place or is way too early to think about that?

I think it is too early. We have some exciting things that we are thinking about that will keep that show energized and dynamic for certain.

To read the rest of the article read Richard Deitsch’s column on SI by clicking here

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