There are more changes ahead for ESPN Radio. That side of the company has been in a lot of flux recently, including ending morning show Keyshawn, JWill & Max and afternoon show Fitz & Harry while laying off Keyshawn Johnson, Max Kellerman, and Jason Fitz. The latest development is more behind-the-scenes than on air, at least in the short term, but it’s an important one. John Ourand of Sports Business Journal broke the news Monday that ESPN has hired Good Karma Brands (which owns 12 radio stations across the U.S., including eight ESPN Radio affiliates) to run operations and sales for both ESPN Radio and the company’s podcasts, with that deal taking effect as of July 28:
This deal shows that ESPN will stay committed to radio and podcasting through its Good Karma relationship, [Good Karma founder and CEO Craig] Karmazin said.
Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive editor and head of event and studio production, put forth the same theme in a statement emailed to Sports Business Journal: “This latest iteration of our long-standing partnership with Good Karma Brands reinforces our commitment and ability to further grow the business.”
…“This is the culmination of what we’ve been working towards for the last 20-plus years,” Karmazin said. “For us over the last 20 years, we’ve been focused on the medium and focused on the ESPN brand. Now for us to be able to run the sales operations of the entire network and the podcast business, it truly is like a culmination of everything we’ve been working towards in this partnership with them.”
ESPN will continue to be responsible for content, distribution, and marketing for ESPN Radio and podcasts, but Good Karma is taking on an even more important role with them than they had. Karmazin, the son of former Viacom and Sirius XM executive Mel Karmazin, started Good Karma in 1997 with three Wisconsin radio stations, then got into the ESPN Radio business in March 2003 with the purchase of 760 AM WEFL in West Palm Beach. ESPN Radio affiliates quickly became a more and more important part of the Good Karma portfolio, leading to an anecdote Ourand relates about Karmazin sitting with then-ESPN president George Bodenheimer at a 2007 NCAA Women’s Final Four game in Cleveland and saying his company should run all of ESPN Radio.
Good Karma has continued to expand their ESPN connections since then. That’s included buying Cleveland station WKNR in 2006 and shifting it to ESPN Radio affiliation in 2007, working with ESPN Events to launch the Boca Raton Bowl in 2013 (under a revenue-sharing agreement, which will also be a factor in this new deal) and launching more ESPN Radio affiliates, including buying Milwaukee’s WKTI in 2018 and flipping it to ESPN Radio affiliation and purchasing the ESPN Radio affiliates in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles from Disney in 2021. Karmazin tells Ourand he expects national ESPN Radio and podcasts to be about a third of the company’s revenue following this deal (with the other two-thirds local and digital), and he has quite an interesting quote on that:
“We probably went against what anyone would recommend, but we have just gone all-in with one brand — a brand that we don’t own. Typically you want to diversify, but here we are with 80%-90% of our company being built around the ESPN brand. …We just believe so strongly in it. And we believe we complement what the Walt Disney Co. and ESPN does so well because we’re going to treasure their brand in the same way they do.”
It’s notable that Good Karma has such strong belief in national radio in general and ESPN Radio in particular at a time when many don’t. ESPN Radio has lots of challenges ahead, including competing with local programming and finding notable national personalities (Pat McAfee might help, but it’s far from certain his show will wind up on radio). But Good Karma is certainly well aware of the state of ESPN Radio from the affiliates they own, and they’re aware of the balance needed in mixing national and local programming. And even with them only signing on for operations and sales and ESPN still handling content, distribution and marketing, Good Karma has a lot of incentive to make this work under that revenue-sharing deal. We’ll see how this works out for them.