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× Nine Years of Sticky

Sports media giant builds content that attracts and keeps consumers

This is one in a series of case studies in a special section of the Oct. 7 issue of Radio World called “Radio 2010: Traditional Solutions Blend With the New,” in which radio managers discuss how they are preparing for the next decade of the millenium by improving their businesses in traditional and nontraditional ways.

ESPN Radio App In rising to the top of Ando Media’s “Most Listened to Audio Stream” rankings, was an overnight success nearly a decade in the making.

Ando recently estimated’s audio streams were reaching 420,000 unique listeners per month.

In the stickiness category — keeping a listener connected once they’ve tuned to a stream — might be up for the Golden Flypaper Award: Ando’s research shows the average session in’s audio stream lasts 2.5 hours.

ESPNRadio’s terrestrial radio reach, with five owned-and-operated stations and 750 affiliate nationwide, not to mention the brand strength of ESPN’s popular cable television channels, is certainly part of the reason for online streaming success. (ESPN is majority owned by ABC Inc., part of The Walt Disney Company. The Hearst Corp. holds a 20 percent interest.)

But there’s a technical story to be told as well.

“Our audio engineers have a lot of experience in this,” said Cory Smith, associate director of ESPN partnerships. “We were one of the first companies to stream radio, so we’ve had a lot of time to be able to evolve it, grow it, and improve it.”

He said ESPN Audio, as the online efforts are now called, has also worked with its O&O stations and other affiliates to evolve and grow their streaming as well.

Over its nine years of online streaming, has changed streaming providers several times, and with each new provider Smith said the sound quality has increased. He compares their early streams with a static-laden AM signal. From there, they progressed to a clearer FM quality signal, and today to’s HD Radio-quality audio.

And then there was buffering. “Back even two or three years ago, you’d listen and every five minutes or so there would be a re-buffering,” he said. “The technology that we use has decreased the amount of buffering that takes place, so the user experience is definitely a lot better.”

The bane of many Internet radio services, copyright royalty payments, is not on ESPN Audio’s radar screen. “We own all of our own content, so we’re fortunate enough we don’t have to overcome those costs,” said Smith.

He said the continuing idea is to look for every way to get its listeners to consume ESPN’s audio content. Where the audio streams and podcasts have allowed listeners to continue listening to ESPN as they leave their cars and sit at their desks at work, a new initiative is targeting other places listeners spend their day.

“We’re in development of an iPhone app that’s going to be launching this fall, so becoming more mobile for us is going to be big.” Smith said it not only will allow listeners to listen at work, “but while they’re at the game, while they’re on their phone or at the gym. So getting mobile is definitely going to be something that we’re looking to grow.”

And because sports fans are often fans of their local teams, and want their sports radio weighted with local sports information, ESPN Audio recently launched new technology that allows for dynamic, geo-targeted ad-insertion in both live audio streaming and downloadable audio. This provides for locally relevant content to be delivered in live streams and free ESPN podcasts, including more than 100 podcasts available each month through PodCenter.

Still, “As technology improves and users have access to more choices in what they listen to via satellite radio, HD Radio, podcasts, streaming radio, etc., while some radio stations may see this as a threat to radio, ESPN sees it as an opportunity to expand our reach.

“Our goal is to be everywhere that the sports fan is. It doesn’t matter which device our listeners use, we just want to make sure that we give them the option to listen to ESPN Radio, however is most convenient for them. With that variety in options, the #1 way in which we are making sure that people continue to listen to us, as they are offered more choices in audio, is by having quality content.”