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Q&A w/ Traug Keller of ESPN Audio

Jason Barrett

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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

Sports Radio News

Jonathan Zaslow No Longer With WQAM

An attempt to reach out to Zaslow for comment went unanswered.

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WQAM midday host Jonathan Zaslow is no longer with WQAM in Miami.

The radio station has removed his show from the website and references to him and his normal 10a-2p ET midday timeslot program have been scrubbed from the station website.

Zaslow tweeted at 5:19p ET confirming the news.

Whether or not this has any effect on his involvement with the Miami Heat broadcasts is unknown as of now.

Barry Jackson, a veteran journalist with the Miami Herald, reports that 790 The Ticket morning hosts Brendan Tobin and Leroy Hoard will move to that 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. WQAM slot during the week of Oct. 3.

In more station movement, Joe Rose’s WQAM morning show with Zach Krantz now will be simulcast on The Ticket, replacing the Tobin/Hoard program. Audacy, which owns both WQAM and The Ticket, also simulcast Marc Hochman’s and Channing Crowder’s afternoon show.

Zaslow had been with 790 the Ticket since 2004. He was transitioned from Audacy-owned 790 to sister station AM 560 Sports WQAM last October. During his tenure he has worked with a number of established local voices including Joy Taylor, Amber Wilson, Brett Romberg, and Brendan Tobin amongst others.

WQAM has gone thru a number of changes, including a rebranding effort to call the station “560 The Joe”. That ended last year with the station returning to the AM 560 Sports WQAM brand listeners were more familiar with. What they have planned next in Zaslow’s timeslot is unclear but local listeners will likely get some answers next week.

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Sports Radio News

Vanessa Richardson Named Houston Rockets Sideline Reporter, Paul Gallant to Host Solo on ESPN 97.5

Vanessa Richardson will be on the sidelines for the Houston Rockets and Paul Gallant will host solo show on ESPN 97.5.

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Vanessa and Gallant

Changes are taking place in Houston sports media. First, the Houston Rockets will have a new television sideline reporter this season, and she’s a familiar name to Houston sports fans.

Vanessa Richardson, the now former co-host of ESPN 97.5’s Vanessa and Gallant, revealed that she will be on the sidelines for the NBA franchise covering the team for AT&T SportsNet Southwest.

She tweeted the news saying, “Elated to be the new Houston Rockets sideline reporter! I can’t wait to travel the country & share the stories of this dynamic team during 80+ games on AT&T SportsNet Southwest. I’ll continue to fill-in as a host/reporter for Astros broadcasts as well.”

Richardson’s co-host, Paul Gallant, tweeted that with Richardson leaving the show for the Rockets sideline gig, Vanessa and Gallant will become the Paul Gallant Show. The solo show led by Gallant begins Monday September 26th.

“We’re excited to have Paul host his own show”, said Todd Farquharson, General Manager of ESPN 97.5 & 92.5.  “He’s super creative, energetic, and likeable.  He’ll get the audience involved and have fun.”

Paul commented, “You know what I’ve always loved about sports talk radio?  That it’s interactive.  Whether through a phone call, text message, tweet or on Twitch, it’s the best place for sports fans to come together and celebrate…or vent.  And that’s what The Paul Gallant Show is going to be…Houston’s platform to talk about its teams. THE most interactive sports talk show in Houston.”

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Sports Radio News

Ken Carman: Al Michaels ‘Feels Untethered’ On Amazon Prime Video

“The thing that stuck out was Kirk Herbstreit ripping the elf,” said Carman. “Don’t be ripping Brownie the Elf, man.”

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The Cleveland Browns defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers during Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime Video. 92.3 The Fan morning host Ken Carman applauded Al Michaels for his performance during the presentation.

“Al Michaels feels untethered for the first time. He’s not network television anymore and he can say whatever he wants. We interviewed him on the pregame show and I was nervous,” Carman said.

“He’s a legend,” co-host Anthony Lima added.

During the final play of the game, the Steelers fumbled a lateral into the endzone which the Browns recovered to make the final score 29-17. Michaels said “that may be meaningful to some of you. And you know who I mean”, alluding to people who had placed wagers on the game.

Carman, who hosts two-hours of pre-game coverage on the Browns Radio Network, continued to discuss how nervous he was interviewing Michaels. He also discussed how impressive Amazon’s behind-the-scenes production was, pointing out the only football broadcast with more cameras is the Super Bowl. More than 400 people work behind the scenes for Amazon Prime Video.

“The thing that stuck out was Kirk Herbstreit ripping the elf,” said Carman. “Don’t be ripping Brownie the Elf, man.”

Carman later said people angry that Michaels misspoke by saying the Pro Football Hall of Fame is “down I-71” instead of I-77 were unreasonable, and joked “Al Michaels hasn’t been on a highway in 20 years”.

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