Steve Goldstein: Why ESPN is all in on podcasts; We interview ESPN’s Traug Keller

Steve Goldstein’s Amplifi Media works with media companies and podcasters in developing audio content strategies. Goldsteing writes frequently at Blogstein, the Amplifi blog.

This week I am speaking about smart speakers and podcasts at the Barrett Sports Media Summit, a gathering of top managers in sports radio. Arguably, sports radio is ahead of the rest of commercial radio in harvesting content for podcasts.

No broadcaster has shown more leadership in the category than ESPN’s audio group. They have 11 time-shifted podcasts and 40 original podcasts with many topping the Apple Podcasts Sports and Recreation chart. I have long admired their vision, execution and leadership in digital audio. I sat down with Traug Keller who leads ESPN Audio and the ESPN Talent Office to talk about the increasing importance of podcasts in their media mix.

Steve: You guys got into this before people were talking about podcasts. What was the motivation?

Traug: We looked at our business and said, hey we’re in the audio business and we just want to be everywhere there is the potential for ears. And podcasting fit that “audio everywhere” strategy.

Our first podcast was published in 2005 and was called ESPN Radio Daily. It was a collection of the best content on ESPN radio each day.

To serve sports fans. Anytime. Anywhere.

Steve: I think back to being up at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT, there used to be this big sign on the wall. It was a multi-platform statement.

Traug: To serve sports fans. Anytime. Everywhere sports is watched, listened to and talked about. We have shortened it a bit; “To serve sports fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”

Steve: There are differences between a podcast and a broadcast, right?

Traug: They’re both made for the ear. But that’s where the similarities end. The listener is truly in control. And it allows us to be more personal with our fans. We give our talent the opportunity to express themselves in ways that they can’t do on broadcast. We can’t go as deep on a typical radio show, it is much wider.

You know, when we’re doing like the Lowe Post or Fantasy Focus we can drill down deeper and in a much tighter way. I’ve always thought that radio is the most personal medium. I think podcasting is really that on steroids.

Steve: When we talk about podcasts focusing on niches, Fantasy Focus Football had 21 million downloads last year. That’s a big niche.

Traug: There’s all kinds of niches in the world. Some bigger than others. Right, Fantasy is a big one.

Steve: But the niche approach is essentially different than the “broad” part of “broadcast.”

Traug: Absolutely. If we just talked fantasy on the morning show for 45 minutes or 50 minutes, we would lose a chunk of our audience. We have to be broader. That is broadcast. Podcasts tends to be narrower. The podcasts are targeted to people that are interested in that genre.

The ESPN podcast listener is on average 33, and 60% of our podcast listeners are 18 to 34.

Steve: What are some of the top podcasts at ESPN?

Traug: The Lebatard show is downloaded about 7 to 8 million times a month right now, which is up about 70% in 2018. We recently launched the “Lebatard and Friends” podcast network and that’s off to a really strong start. We just debuted “Stupodity” with Stugotz and it premiered at number one on the Apple charts.

30 for 30 is big. More than 19 million downloads and counting. It’s unique because it’s got more of a long tail than a lot of our other podcasts. 45% of total downloads come from the first week after an episode has been released. For most of the others, that number is probably as high as 90% of total downloads coming within the first week. Storytelling gives you a long runway.

Steve: Let’s talk about the difference between the podcast listener and the broadcast listener.

Traug: Podcast listeners skew significantly younger, certainly younger than ESPN Radio, in fact, younger than any other platform at ESPN. The ESPN podcast listener is on average 33, and 60% of our podcast listeners are 18 to 34. That’s 13 years younger than our radio listeners.

Steve: Radio people express concern that podcasts pull listeners away from the radio. What’s your experience here?

Traug: For us, this goes back to The Mike & Mike morning show. When we decided to put Mike and Mike simulcasts on ESPN TV News there was a lot of debate over cannibalization. What we felt was, the more platforms, the more places we put this, the better. Someone’s going to watch television that isn’t listening to them on the radio and realize the next time they’re in a car, they can put Mike and Mike on.

Traug Keller, ESPN Senior Vice President, leads ESPN Audio and the ESPN Talent Office.

The more we put our personalities on different platforms, it raises their overall profile. So yes, there’s some cannibalization, but there’s also growth that takes place because you’re expanding the circles.

Steve: Lets touch on how you use the various ESPN platforms to promote the podcasts.

Traug: We are lucky to be a part of ESPN. The machine is stunning. SportsCenter pushes our podcasts with graphics. The Jump, which is our NBA show has promoted both Zach Lowe and podcasts. The list literally goes on and on. If you look at the NFL, NBA or NHL homepages you see the podcasts. We take everything the mothership has to offer.

You’ll hear promotion for the podcasts elsewhere too. We promote podcasts on other podcasts outside of our circle of sports.

Steve: How do you use social media?

Traug: We use social media a lot. Steven A. Smith has millions of followers and Adam Schefter has 7 million following him on Twitter. We use those tools to promote our podcasts.

“Audio is a medium where you have to let it bake, and put it out there for a while”

Steve: More narrative podcasts coming?

Traug: A capital Y for yes.

Steve: And the money?

Traug: The loyalty of the listener to a podcast is remarkable. it’s a real value for advertisers. We’re letting advertisers in on a relationship that is unique, I think in all of media. You can walk into a potential advertiser with a fresh story for a podcast that you couldn’t necessarily have just with broadcast radio.

Steve: Trees don’t grow to the sky. What’s gone wrong?

Traug: We’ve probably dropped some 50 or more podcasts. Nobody’s got unlimited resources. We’re constantly trying and experimenting. We give stuff time because audio is a medium where you have to let it bake, and put it out there for a while. If it isn’t working, we will sunset it and go on to the next.

Steve: What’s on your podcast wishlist?

Traug: Better measurement remains an important thing that the industry has got to solve.

Steve: Jalen and Jacoby started as a podcast, went to broadcast, now back to podcast.

Traug: There’ve been a number of people that we’ve started on a podcast, they wound up getting a show and it’s a great incubator.

Steve: Final thoughts?

Traug: Podcasting at ESPN, saw a 16% increase year-over-year. We want to grow our audio business, and to do that, you better be paying attention to digital.

Steve: Traug, thanks for the time and thanks for the vision. See you at the Barrett Conference.

(Edited for clarity and space)

Steve Goldstein